What it was like to write with a typewriter


An early typewriter: broken fingernails and early arthritis of the hands, or a gleaming piece of SteamPunk?

The next time you are wafting your finger or thumb tips gently up and down on a gleaming glass screen, sharing by writing your innermost thoughts, articles, blogs, rants, gossip and more, think for a moment how incredibly lucky you are.

Not so long ago, “keying in” words, phrases and sentences was not about elegant tippy-tapping with centimetre-long acrylic nails.

It was about whacking the living daylights out of stiff, stubborn keys that often required super-human strength even to create a faint impression, via an ink-soggy ribbon, on the piece of paper (what’s that?) upon which you were trying to create a visible impression.

Meet an ancient artifact: the typewriter

Bearing in mind that mechanical typewriters and their QWERTY keyboards go back  as far as the 1860s, we’re looking at a pretty robust concept here considering that we’re still using the alpha-numeric typing arrangement that was devised back then.

Before electrical strength came along, using a manual typewriter would have caused WW3 to break out amongst today’s perfectly manicured female users, but ironically might have helped some men with fat digits who persistently hit the wrong little icons while texting and typing nowadays.

Why? Because you needed not insignificant physical strength to wallop those keys, as I suggested above. Woe was me. But as luck would have it, in the latter part of the 20th century electricity soon came galloping to the rescue.

Electric typewriters: noisy but scary

I remember getting my first IBM electric typewriter when I was in my first flush of (well, early working) youth back in the 1970s. This thing weighed about 15 kilos and vibrated like a pneumatic drill as soon as you plugged it in and switched it on. When you so much as thought about touching a key on the keyboard, it rattled off incomprehensible crap in the manner of an AK-47 on Speed.

“Sensitive key touch” was how IBM described its performance. Given that nearly all of us who previously had been using manual typewriters regarded “sensitive touch” as whacking the keys with slightly less force than you would use to shove a steak knife through an enemy’s skull, there was a certain frisson of misunderstanding here.

Eventually we arrived at a mutually compatible level of force and I, for one, rejoiced that maybe for once I might be able to grow my fingernails beyond somewhere just south of my elbows.

Hail the progressions from zilch to almost digital

From the early electric typewriters that made you think you were writing on top of a grumbling volcano, we worked through to some more appealing types. Enter the “daisy-wheel,” for example. This removed the awful electrified thumping of all umpty-dump keys hitting the platen like hailstones on a tin roof.

But although the daisy-wheel typewriters of the 1970s and early 1980s were quieter and softer on the fingertips, there were slow. Oh, so slow. Even with my awful typing speed I could outrun mine and have time to go and make myself a cup of coffee before it had caught up with me.

And if you made a mistake? There was a cute little white chalk tape you could engage that would give you the option of backspacing over a couple of dozen characters and obliterating them, so you could type the correct version over the top. And yee-hah … the machine had a cute little memory which meant it would backspace for about 20 earlier characters. More than that? Get out the Tipp-Ex and DIY.

Enter Alan Sugar – whoops, Lord Sugar – and hello, Amstrad PCWs


Simple bit effective … the Amstrad PCW that saved the nation’s fingernails and got us all started with desktop computing

With all the fuss that was going on in the 1980s about – shock, horror – computers a) coming out of air-conditioned buildings the size of a large junior school and b) being made available to users, not just geeks … the ever-clever Lord Sugar spotted his chance and developed a personal computer that was easy enough for the average person to understand and allowed such average people to benefit – at last – from some of the forward strides that computing had been enjoying elsewhere around that time.

The Amstrad PCW was cheap, easy to use, and set up the pattern for home (and SME) use of personal computing. At the time this machine came out in the mid-late 1980s I was busy writing a lot of scripts for corporate video and business theater. Because most directors wanted “side-by-side” scripts (vertically parallel columns with visual direction on the left and dialogue/narration on the right) – and because the Amstrad PCW didn’t allow this facility – the answer was simple: I went out and bought a second Amstrad.

I then worked the two parts of the script side-by-side on one keyboard and monitor each, using corresponding line numbers, and then put those through the printer one after another. Simples.

Ah, those pioneering days … and because finally keyboards functioned electronically, albeit a little on the ham-fisted side, no more broken nails, sprained fingers, aching wrists or complaining neighbors if I was working late at night.

The rest – yeah, yeah – is history

Well, here we are now when we can write a 10,000 word dissertation on a smartphone the size of a bar of chocolate, and not worry about printing out volumes because all we need is to tap the “send” button and it will waft its way to its destination in less time than it takes to put the kettle on for a cup of tea.

You may think I might feel some nostalgia for good old typewriters, but you would be wrong.

The banging, clacking, knuckle-numbing pain of at least 10 years working on mechanical and early electrical typewriters still rings loud in my ears. Given the high usage, I’m expecting early arthritis in my fingers as a result.

So for me, early typewriters belong in museums along with other, earlier instruments of torture.

And is the typewriter truly dead?

Sadly, no. According to Wikipedia, in developing countries where internet access is scarce or even non-existent, typewriters are still much in demand. Anything is favorable to hand writing, especially in countries where people aren’t particularly skilled in this and typewriters free everyone to produce readable, understandable and professional looking documents which – frankly – stopped being the case a couple of hundred years ago wherever you live.

How do you feel about early typewriters and the place they had in your life? (If you’re old enough to remember them?)

Please share!

photo credit: alexkerhead via photopin cc
photo credit: jmerelo via photopin cc