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Vintage writing tools
July 3, 2020
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by Ivan Raconteur

Recently, I was transported back in time to my first typewriter.

I suspect there are a lot of people today who have no idea what a typewriter is. The short answer is that a typewriter is a tool we used to produce documents back in the days when we still had rotary phones attached to our walls.

The thing that reminded me of those times is the fact the keyboard on my 2015 MacBook is beginning to fail.

As many other users have discovered, this is one of those developments that was worse than the design it replaced. Apple introduced a new “butterfly” keyboard that year, and they are not adequate.

Because my keyboard has been letting me down, I have to apply increasing amounts of pressure to get results. I mean I really have to hammer on it.

For those too young to have experienced the joy of working on a manual typewriter, I should explain that using a typewriter involves pressing a key, which raises a typebar, causing it to strike an inked ribbon, thus transferring a letter or symbol to the paper.

Each time a key is pressed, the carriage is advanced one space, and the ribbon is advanced slightly on its journey from the full spool to the empty spool.

To start a new line, the typist would utilize the carriage return lever.

Many of the things that are done with software today were once set manually on typewriters, using margin tabs, line selectors, and other components.

The thing that reminded me of using a typewriter this week was that if the ribbon would start to get worn out and not be as well-inked as it had been, it became necessary to apply more pressure on the keys to get clear impressions.

Newsrooms used to be loud places, with a bunch of journalists banging away on typewriters.

This continued even as computers began to appear on the scene.

People who learned their trade using manual typewriters tended to type with the same force when they transitioned to computer keyboards. Old habits are hard to change.

There are days I miss my first typewriter. It was a vintage Underwood that was manufactured during the Great Depression.

It was a “portable” that came in a case. That term is relative, especially by modern standards. The case looked more like luggage than an office machine.

I wish I would have kept it. A quick search online revealed that a similar model is available from a vintage shop for $672 – more than many laptop computers.

On the other hand, the old Underwoods were a lot more reliable. Decades later, they are still functioning, while my current laptop is giving me trouble after only five years.

Manual typewriters were not all romance, however. They demanded accuracy from their users. One quickly learned to get things right the first time if one did not want to spend a lot of time making corrections. The process for fixing errors was much more cumbersome and time consuming than it is when using a computer.

My second typewriter was smaller, lighter, and lacked some of the style of the original. My sister and I received it as a gift when we were in high school. I suppose it was easier to use, but it wasn’t the same.

It was not museum-worthy like my Underwood.

After that, I briefly transitioned to a “word processor,” which was essentially an electric typewriter with some rudimentary limited memory capacity.

Personal computers opened up a whole new world of creative composition options. I wouldn’t want to go back to the era of manual typewriters, but every so often I enjoy taking a stroll down memory lane and remembering what life was like during those simpler days.


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