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Belmont Club

The Last Dinosaur

January 10th, 2013 - 12:48 pm

It was a newfangled, high-tech device in 1891 when Sherlock Holmes encountered it. A device which an educated, but penurious woman could support herself with, in much in the same way that a web designer using a computer could today.

Sherlock Holmes welcomed her with the easy courtesy for which he was remarkable, and, having closed the door and bowed her into an armchair, he looked her over in the minute and yet abstracted fashion which was peculiar to him.

“Do you not find,” he said, “that with your short sight it is a little trying to do so much typewriting?”

“I did at first,” she answered, “but now I know where the letters are without looking.” Then, suddenly realising the full purport of his words, she gave a violent start and looked up, with fear and astonishment upon her broad, good-humoured face. “You’ve heard about me, Mr. Holmes,” she cried, “else how could you know all that?”

Remember the typewriter?  Long before there were keyboards and computers, there were typewriters. You can still find them in junk shops, basements and museums. But a working specimen is about as rare now as a man without a cell phone.

Below is a short gallery of all the typewriters I have remember having extensively used. None of them alas, date back to 1891. But who cares, they are all from the same undifferentiated prehistory. They are from left to right, top to bottom, an Underwood, Olympia, Remington Noiseless, IBM Selectric and the Smith Corona portable electric.

Writing, the Cave Man Way

A word of explanation.

Typewriters were mechanical devices that contained stamped metal letters on typebars, which were mechanical arms propelled from a base by a series of levers. You struck a key and it hammered a typebar against a piece of paper pinned against a platen. By an arrangement of linkages an inked fabric called a typewriter ribbon was simultaneously raised. The typebar transferred the ink to the paper and if you did enough of this, the manuscript was “typed” — that is symbols were printed on paper.

The implements used in this stone-age process were marvels of mechanical engineering for their time. Speaking only for myself, the Underwood was the most strongly framed typewriter I ever saw. The mechanism was in a rectangle of 1/4″ inch steel. By contrast, the far more modern Olympia had a lighter touch — it was the standard typewriter at my high school — but it was thinly built by comparison. The Remington Noiseless is so called because it has four characters as opposed two per typebar and therefore had a shorter stroke. This made it “quiet”.  But was extraordinarily heavy to strike. You basically needed a set of steel fingers to get anything out of that beast.

The Smith Corona, with its electromechanically propelled keys and power carriage return was about 3x faster to use than any mechanical. But it was so light in comparison to its carriage that the whole contraption shuddered from the recoil of the carriage return (that’s where the modern word comes from). You had to reposition the Smith Corona portable every 5 or so minute to keep it from inching off the desk.

The Cadillac of typewriters, to juxtapose two obsolete metaphors, was the IBM Selectric. It had a “golf ball” style element which you could change. There was even a Script typeface that could simulate handwriting. Since there was no carriage it was recoilless. It was, as is so often the case in technology, the final flowering of a line that is about to die.

Every time you wonder why the dinosaurs disappeared only after reaching their apotheosis, think of the Selectric. It was the flagship of American civilization; the living proof that everything gee whiz and modern came from the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. It was America at its most invincible. There was even a smell about it, something it shared with the first computers which you can never find in the Taiwan made articles of today. Quality through and through; unbelievably advanced, inimitable. The Twilight Zone and the Outer Limits on your very on desk. Who would have guessed that in a few short years the computer would replace it all.

The typewriter was supported by a number of allied products which have also since vanished. The typewriter ribbon has already been mentioned. In standard form it came in a long fabric ribbon of Black and Red loaded on a stamped metal spindle. Red and black let clerks prepare billing statements and emphasize indicate the amounts owed in red ink. But those outside of Billing mostly bought double black ribbons so when the top part of the ribbon got frayed, you turned the whole thing around and remounted it so the bottom was on top.

There was also something called Carbon Paper. Carbon paper was the mechanical way of making copies. One normally used up to 5 sheets of onion skin paper (very thin paper) interlarded with carbon paper, which had blacking on the one side. Thus the impression of the typebar was transmitted through multiple layers each producing (via the carbon paper) up to five copies. The bottom carbon was often almost illegible and unreadably fuzzy. But that was the best technology could do at the time.

As you might imagine, correcting typing errors were a nightmare, especially where carbon copies were concerned. The normal process was to use a hard eraser and an eraser shield. The eraser shield was a thin piece of aluminum that you put in front of each layer of carbon paper (after letting the platen run to allow access) so that you could erase the mistake on each layer without smudging the one underneath.

A room full of typewriters going full blast was like a battery of machine guns and occasionally a stoppage would be indicated by a silence. That was some guy fixing an error. Then after a time a triumphant thwack would announce the right character being retyped through the layers of carbon, like John Basilone clearing a jam, and the staccato would begin again. Brum, brum, brum.

In later years something called White Out became common. It was a kind of chemical paste which was painted over an error and eliminated the need for erasers and eraser shields. But you had to be careful to let the White Out dry first before replacing the layers of carbons, otherwise typing over would just turn it to goo under the typeface blow.

Some writers never escaped its spell. Ray Bradbury for instance wrote “I don’t have a computer. A computer’s a typewriter. I already have a typewriter.” That is so wrong that one doesn’t even know where to begin. Bradbury was smarter than that. He was clinging to the typewriter for some other reason and I think I know why.

It is because the computer is “wrong” in it own peculiar way. The typewriter came with accessories beyond the eraser, White Out or carbon paper that mechanically accompanied it. Culturally it also came with a whole way of life; with things now vanished or politically incorrect.  Cigarettes and whiskey, fedoras, overcoats, wheelguns in leather holsters, phones with separate earpieces and blondes waiting to see you in the reception area outside.

The computer by contrast comes with a whole new world in the box. You may not see it, but its there. Google, the NSA, system logs, ISP data retention, Facebook friends. The whole nine yards. Poor Ray probably thought he could keep that new universe at bay by sticking to his Underwood.  Maybe he managed to do it. But those of us who’ve made it this far are doomed to be sucked into it. As I’ve said elsewhere:

Roses are red
Violets are blue.
All our base
Are belong to you.

One gets the feeling that many writers kept with the typewriter long after the word processor had arrived because they didn’t want to sever the last remaining link to a vanishing world. They wanted to look up and see, if only in their imagination, a time they felt more comfortable with. But the typewriters are gone now. And the last of the dinosaurs is dead.


The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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