Ode to manual typewriters

Ode to manual typewriters

Summary: Manual typewriters are back, and they're all the retro rage. This article contains stories from leading technology journalists about their relationship with manual typewriters.

TOPICS: Browser

CBS News recently ran a story about a resurgence in manual typewriters. Apparently, they're a thing -- who knew? My recollection of manual typewriters is as something hated and to be avoided, but for many people, they've become touchstones of the physical world, a place where words actually appear on paper.

The CBS News story caught the fancy of the editors, writers, and analysts in the Internet press community who make up the Internet Press Guild, a non-profit organization promoting excellence in journalism about the Internet. Many of us, especially since we're long-time writers, have strong, interesting, and even poignant memories of how manual typewriters touched our lives and our careers as technology writers.

First, here's the CBS News piece. Then, I'll bring you eleven stories -- in their own words -- from some of America's leading technology journalists. If you're curious about how some of us got our start in writing and journalism, these stories will give you a very personal insight into the people who bring you your technology news and analysis.

What's interesting is that this unassuming technology seems to have touched so many of us. For example, as I was putting this story together, our own ZDNet Senior Editor David Grober told me, "I have a Remington portable somewhere ...wrote hundreds of school papers on that."

He's certainly not alone. Let's tell some stories, shall we?

My manual typewriter story

I have a funny manual typewriter story. I almost didn’t graduate high school because I failed typing.

My public high school had a very strange graduating requirement: you had to pass a semester of typing. No exceptions. For students who were taking full year programs in typing, there were electric typewriters. For the rest of us slobs, there were manual typewriters only.

This was junior year, and by this time, I had already learned to program FORTRAN at NJIT (and had recorded college credit while still a junior in high school), and was planning to skip my senior year, having been accepted into engineering school in Massachusetts. I hated (HATED!) the manual typewriters, so I just skipped out on class and played in the computer room, on the PDP-8e instead. I figured using ASR-33s was typing, anyway.

The school didn’t feel that way and gave me my only secondary school failing grade. If I hadn’t already gone on to college, I never would have been allowed to graduate high school. Heh, thousands of articles and a bunch of books later, and I failed typing in high school!

The rest of the story: when I graduated engineering school with honors, my high school suddenly felt they wanted credit for another successful college graduate, so I was retroactively given a diploma. I still don’t know which high school graduating class I’m officially recorded in.

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Wayne Rash, Bureau Chief at eWEEK's Washington Bureau

I didn't take typing class to be better at computers, since when I was in high school there weren't any computers. I took typing because I found out that's where all the cute girls were. It did wonders for my social life. Only later did I figure out that it would do wonders for my term papers in college, and eventually for my daily writing.

So I got to thinking about the days when I wrote news and other things with a manual typewriter. The last time I actually did it for a job was when I was News Director for WVIR-TV back in the 70’s. I’ve used manual typewriters on an occasional basis since then, usually when reporting from some place without much in the way of electricity, and not much in the way of Internet. The last time I filed anything that I can recall was for my column in ByteWeek when I was in a castle near Prague. I wrote the story at night and I could fax it in the morning.

But I remember that my writing was more deliberate, and sometimes I think it was better. Perhaps that’s because I had to type more slowly and I had to give more thought to each word. After all, it’s hard to go back and fix spelling or to delete repeated words on a manual.

I do remember a period of time when I was doing some non-working typing on an IBM Selectric. In those days, I was still writing in WordStar. You can imagine the frustration of looking for the Control key so that I could move the non-existent cursor around.

So today I checked out manual typewriters. Did you know you can still buy a brand new manual typewriter on Amazon? I never would have guessed. So now I’m wondering if I should splurge on one to give myself for my birthday. So all you manual typewriter users, let me know what you think.

Follow Wayne: @wrash, +Wayne Rash

Esther Schindler, Editor-in-Chief at Input Creates Output

I took programming because it was part of the Math and Science Honors Program and I liked programming. But I *also* liked being one of only a few girls in the class. I never lacked for a date.

Early 70s in Queens, NY: I think typing was a required class for every 7th-grader. None of the guys seemed to mind. Though my mom encouraged me in typing because, she said, "If you know secretarial skills you will never starve." She was right, too; I supported myself in college (and after I dropped out) as a Kelly Girl. Typing 60wpm was a useful skill.

I have learned to write on a computer, but I write best by hand. I, too, was happy to dump the typewriter for a PC. While I type very fast (last time I took a test, in one of those Mavis Beacon typing games a long time ago, I clocked at 85wpm), I am amazingly inaccurate. Thank &deity for spell check.

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Rob Pegoraro, D.C.-based personal-tech blogger

The first keyboard I ever typed on belonged to a manual typewriter my dad owned, sometime in... well, the pre-home-computing era in our house, when I had some extra gifted/talented writing class over the summer after maybe the 8th grade. I think it was a Smith-Corona, and I used it often enough that summer to get reasonably proficient in using Wite-Out to fix my typos and have a vague memory of how having to retype an entire essay led to a lot of minor improvements. We "upgraded" to a PCjr -- no joke! -- not long after.

Despite barely touching a typewriter in the years since, I kept enviously noting the antiques on sale at the local flea market and finally bought a '40s-vintage Royal Companion from an Etsy-dealing friend in April 2010. I've used it enough times to verify that it works, sort of; the red and black ribbons don't stay apart, and of course it jams if I go too fast.

Its main service has been to serve as a conversation piece in our living room and to yield the close-up photo of its @/¢ key that adorns my blog and my business cards. But I also reserve the right to bang out a blog post on this thing that I will then scan and upload.

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Tom Geller, Lynda.com presenter, Drupal expert, and author

Since everyone else is chiming in, here's my personal typing trivia:

I learned to type when I was 8. Unfortunately, I never learned to touch-type on a standard keyboard as a result.

So when I 25, I switched to Dvorak. Yes, I'm one of those. I probably type over 80wpm on it, but still can't touch-type on a QWERTY keyboard. I really should practice that.

My dad was an English teacher, poet, and cheapskate. He bought his typewriter from the school's typing program for ten bucks. It had no letters on the key caps.

I still own a couple of manual typewriters, including a fairly nice portable. On April Fool's Day I intend to set up in the college library's cafe with it, possibly while dressed in a 1940's suit with a card that says "Press" in the hatband.

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Mac McCarthy, Editorial Director at Zenergo

I still have my Selectric, from about 1982. It hasn't been powered on in, oh, 25 years or more. My last manual typewriter, an Underwood I think, was in the 70s. Correcting Selectrics were cool.

Now that I think about it, my first portable was a manual typewriter -- Swiss-made by Hermes. In its case, it was about the size of a notebook computer but a little thicker -- and about the same weight. My boss lost it while on a trip; I've never forgiven him.

I spent some years in LA trying to become a screenwriter. My one finished script I had retyped by a typing service -- remember those? -- so it would be perfect. I was a fast typist -- 110wpm on an electric -- but after several years as a Kelly Girl on pre-PC word processors, my speed had gone up, but my accuracy had gone to hell, so my non-WP typewriter couldn't fix my mistypes. Paid a couple hundred bucks for that shortcoming (which is coming back to haunt me on this primitive smartphone, let me tell you!).

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Phil Shapiro, Community Voices blogger, PCWorld magazine

Last year I brought a manual typewriter to the public library where I work in Takoma Park, Maryland, to let the middle school students try it out. They were totally intrigued. I let them type to their hearts content on an outdoor patio adjacent to the library.

It's key that they know what prior technology looked like and felt like -- so they can better appreciate how far we've come in the past 50 years. I hope they appreciate that anyone who types 70 words-per-minute on a manual typewriter is exerting far more physical effort than someone typing at 70 words-per-minute on a computer keyboard.

Interestingly, the youth looked upon the manual typewriter as if it had dropped down to Earth from another planet. A very fun "lookee here!" moment at the public library.

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Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, ZDNet Networking and Linux and Open Source blogger

I don't use a manual typewriter, and I wouldn't unless I had no choice what-so-ever. But, as it happens I still have my last manual typewriter. A portable Olympia from the 1970s and it's still getting used. My wife, who does book arts, uses it for some of her creations.

Meanwhile, in backwoods West Virginia, typing classes in high school were only for girls. I was already typing by the time I hit high school though. My hand-writing was, and still is, awful. So, starting around 6th-7th grade I taught myself to type using my aunt's old typing books from the early 50s and an even older Underwood manual. I already knew I had stories I wanted to tell and to tell them I'd need to learn to type.

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Alfred Poor, author of "HDTV Almanac" and publisher at Desktop Wings, Inc.

My first typewriter was an ancient Underwood that one of my older brothers sold to me when I was maybe 9 or so. "Pawned off on me" is probably more accurate. When my best friend came for sleepovers on the weekend, we’d type up "newspapers" on Sunday morning with jokes and news about our families, and sell them to my family at breakfast for a nickel a copy or something like that. Little did anyone know that I’d eventually make some real money writing and publishing.

I lugged that Underwood and its cast iron frame around for years, including boarding school (out of storage in September, back to storage in June). It did not make the trip to college; I probably sold it to some unsuspecting underclassman at school.

In college, I bought my first and only portable typewriter: an electric Olivetti. It was a bit flimsy in spots, but I loved it and it was very hi-tech at the time.

Many years later, I hired a high school kid to type the drafts of my dissertation on a rented computer; I wrote out the drafts long-hand on pads. I then managed to acquire an Apple ][ and purchased a Starwriter daisywheel printer just in time to enter the final draft of the dissertation. Timing -- as they say -- is everything. I never looked back. I’m not sure that I’ve ever written anything for publication longhand since, and I’m sure I could not have made a living by writing without word processing.

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Patrick Corrigan, Senior Analyst at Storage Strategies NOW

Word processing changed my life.

I'm left handed, and it is painful for me to write by hand for any length of time. Also, because I write with the heal of my hand above the pen, the page is always smudged and smeared by the time I reach the bottom. My typing is worse -- in so many cases, by the time I got to the bottom of the page I would discover an uncorrectable mistake above.

Word processing gives me the freedom to make mistakes. It also allows me to write in stream-of-consciousness mode, writing down ideas as they come to me and organizing them later. Without word processing I would never have become a writer.

I picked up a decent portable electric (I don't remember the brand, probably Smith Corona) at a garage sale about twenty years ago for $15. I thought it would be good for filling in forms. It sat unused for another ten years, so I sold it at a garage sale for $10.

BTW, our typing teacher was formerly the drama coach. He was a great director. His plays would run for multiple nights to sellout crowds, Hollywood studios would lend him props, and his program actually generated income for the school. But he wouldn't properly kiss the *#&@ of the administration, so they made him the typing teacher instead.

Follow Patrick: @phcorrigan, +Patrick Corrigan

What about you? Do you have a manual typewriter story? If so, TalkBack below.

Topic: Browser


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • RE: Ode to manual typewriters

    I was born essentially when typewriters were dying from mainstream usage. My father had one, but by the time I was old enough to go to school everybody was on computers, including him. I learned to type on a computer from the beginning.

    Kinda surprised they're having a bit of a Renaissance. But I guess nostalgia will bring old things back sometimes, and it can be useful to remember things.
    • Most typewriters (and dot-matrix printers) are niche products used

      when you need to fill in a form you don't have an electronic template for, or when you need to do a multipart form (yeah, they still have those).
      • RE: Ode to manual typewriters

        @baggins_z Yeah, I've seen them once or twice with carbon copy paper, but even that has become less common as you can just print the same thing twice usually.

        The one thing that's curiously still fairly common is fax machines. I can't figure for the life of me why they're still around in decent numbers.
      • RE: Ode to manual typewriters

        @CobraA1 My guess is that the fax machine is still common because the law hasn't caught up with the technology and accepted purely electronic documents yet. The only thing I've needed a fax for in a long time now is sending legal documents, proofs, etc.
    • RE: Ode to manual typewriters

      @CobraA1 Our payroll is still done using sealed NCR (no carbon required) envelopes, which means they are printed using a dot matrix printer.

      Likewise, in the slaughterhouses we service, dot matrix is still heavily used, because the law requires each weighing to be recorded, a page printer is unacceptable, each line has to be printed as an animal is weighed. This is moving over to "alibi memory", which records the weighing in a non-manipulable form, but most still use the printer as well.

      My previous employer still used typewriters a lot for filling in forms etc.

      When I was in college, I learnt to type on old Imperial manual typewriters and I had to use IBM Selectric for a while as well, probably one of the reasons why I bemoan the death of "real" keyboards, with nearly everybody only selling cruddy membrane and chicklet keyboards these days. I'm happy to spend real money on a decent keyboard, but my employer isn't, they don't see a difference between an $8 Cherry "notebook" style keyboard and a $200 keyboard with microswitches and real keypresses.

      Also, for writing, you don't have the distraction of Twitter or the internet buzzing away in the background.
  • RE: Ode to manual typewriters

    I asked my parents for a typewriter when I graduated high school and they gave me a TV instead. That was in the early 80's. I guess I didn't really need either, but I still have the TV and it still works... It doesn't even have a clicker! :)
  • RE: Ode to manual typewriters

    I was on the cusp. Just as I learned to use a slide rule before I got my first calculator and learned to sail before I piloted my first power boat, I learned to key/type on a manual typewriter my senior year in HS, 1980, just shortly after I began playing with PC's in 1977. I was lucky enough to have an electric typewriter when I went off to college, and definitely enjoyed the lack of force required to make the keys dance. I had a room mate my sophomore year who had a PC in our room, but didn't get my own until 1985.

    And while I was very surprised to hear in 2011 that the last typewriter factory in the world had just closed (I guess I thought SOMEONE would still be using them), I can't say I'm going to miss USING manual typewriters any more than I missed using a sliderule when I got my first calculator in 1977 or using my film camera (which I used from 1973 - 2003). I'm very glad I got a chance to learn on and use these older technologies. They did aid my understanding. But as a writer, photographer, videographer and graphic artist, digital media creation and editing is just SO much easier and more flexible. I'll be happy to add a typewriter to my museum collection some day, but to actually use one on a daily basis ... my fingers are enjoying the rest. :)
  • When Manual Typewriters were the only game in town, You had to use them.

    I have several computers today with spell check on all the programs I use that need it. I did a lot of things on the portable for High School. While in School, I took the full year typing class that had Manual Typewriters with no letters or numbers on the keys, and when you took a test, you better know where all the keys are since you had no way of finding out during the test.<br><br>Personally typing is the one class from High School that I still use each and every day. I can't imagine not being able to touch type since I have been doing it almost all my life. Today, there is no doubt that every high school student will by typing on a computer keyboard most of their days there.<br><br>I for one would not want to go back to the Typewriter era, but it is nostalgic to think about from time time to time. I just wish that I had a spell checker on my typewriter besides myself. I guess typewriters are about as archaic to the modern generation as buggy whips were to our generation.
  • RE: Ode to manual typewriters

    I grew up at exactly the right time, apparently. I was given my first 'real' PC (a 286) in fifth grade, but I formally learned to type in high school in the very last class that used manual typewriters (that typing room finally switched to Selectrics the following year.) Before the computer, I owned a fairly nice electric typewriter with some primitive word-processing features (a Brother daisy wheel model, I believe.)<br><br>I don't remember what make the machines at school were, but I'm fairly sure the typewriter I used to play around on in my mother's business office was a Smith-Corona. Despite all the early experience with keyboards and passing the class, I never have quite managed the art of touch-typing--I type fairly fast and with reasonable accuracy, but don't ask me to do it without looking at the keyboard!<br><br>My husband also learned to type on a manual typewriter. Both our PC's are in the living room, and we've had people comment before that they can hear us both clearly over the phone or internet pounding away at our keyboards--old habits die hard, and we both still strike the keys more forcefully than we really need to now.<br><br>ETA: My 13-year-old-daughter has had a real (used) computer since she was about 4, and she can type just about as fast using two fingers as I can with all ten!<br><br>Related trivia: I recall reading years ago that when professional typists switched from manual typewriters to electrics, they gained an average of five pounds.
  • RE: Ode to manual typewriters

    I took typing to fill up my schedule. I was the only boy with 27 girls. I only got teased a short time, this was 1963 when boys took shop. I found it helped me a lot in the military. I was the division clerk when others were outside in some nasty weather. When I went to college, I bought a Royal from a pawn shop. I still have it to this day. I took Electrical Engineering and had access to a computer terminal. I found that touch typing helped a lot since I could think about the program instead of where were the keys in 1969. Over the years, it's the most useful class I took in high school along with, I hate to admit, English. And, you developed strong hands and fingers on a manual.
  • I still fix the damn things.

    The new manual typewriters I've seen are tinny things stamped out of tinny parts. If you want to actually enjoy your typing, look around thrift stores, garage sales & pawn shops for an older, solid model.
  • RE: Ode to manual typewriters

    I learned to type on a machine very much like the one in the picture at the head of this article. For many years I used my brother's manual portable typewriter. I HATE THEM with a purple passion, and would print by hand before I would consider ever using one again. That said, I wrote final reports on one, with end of page footnotes, and never got less than a C (which was because it was two days late). I spent 4 years in the Air Force, and never admitted to being able to type as that would have routed me directly into a clerk typist specialty code. It has been very helpful in my 40 years in computers. When I took typing in my Sophamore year, the typing teacher was also my English teacher, so all reports, and essays had to be typed, and she graded off for typing errors. If I had to define my concept of Hell, it would be spending eternity pounding away on an old manual typewriter. If I never see one again, it will be one day too soon.
  • dropped out of typing

    I can't touch type, but I can bang things out fast and pretty accurately.

    We had an old typewriter in the attic I played with, don't recall the brand but it was high quality. My dad got a used IBM selectric in the mid 70's from his office. I used that for papers in high school and college.

    In 10th grade we had to fill a "home economics" elective, of which typing was an option. I signed up for it, but by about 2 weeks into it the teacher told me I was holding up the rest of the class and at that rate I'd never finish the course with a passing grade.

    I switched to a cooking class, which was more like "slackin' and eatin' 101." First time I ever ate eggs over easy, otherwise totally unmemorable.
  • RE: Ode to manual typewriters

    Mine is a distinctly different memory of typewriters in that I earned my living by repairing typewriters. Learned to type in high school,circa 1952. After some Navy time I became an Insturmentman, which included repairing typewriters. I progressed to repairing the IBM Selectric and all of its upgraded models until the computers kinda took over and the repair business just died away, circa 1990. I still open my old tool case and look at the old tools, that, while in perfect condition, have no job to do. Kinda sad!
  • RE: Ode to manual typewriters

    Proud member of the Typosphere!


    Something I wrote back in Arpil 2011.
  • manual typewriters and sliderules

    typing was an optional class in 8th grade. I was one of the few boys who jumped at the chance. I got a portable manual at graduation and it got me through college - After graduation I woefully gave it away to someone needing it more, and still miss it. I taught myself slide rule basics in high school. As for the slide rule - my college freshman class was the last taught. Students had to have a calculator the next term. Every once in a while I still pull my log-log-deci-trig rule out of its leather case. I can't do a lot more than multiply & divide anymore. But I've found I have far fewer problems recognizing good numbers from bad numbers than those folk who have never had to track the decimal point in their heads.
    Jim Johnson
  • A Penny For Your Thought

    I just had my father's old Underwood 100% manual typewriter restored. I'm putting it on a stand in my living room with a dish full of pennies next to it. A small card will ask guests to take a penny, and type out a sentence, paragraph or page about what they are thinking... (A penny for their thought). Once each page is complete, I'm going to put it into a binder, to keep as a treasure of friends, musings, wisdom and advice. Try to get something like THAT out of a blog!
    John Westra
  • RE: Ode to manual typewriters

    I have always hated writing longhand, and even though it wasn't required, when I was able to take a typing course in high school, I jumped at the opportunity. It was one of the best things I ever did for my education.<br><br>It's not too hard to spot someone who learned on a typewriter, rather than a computer, because they tend to underline where italics are required, use the space bar to center text, multiple tabs to push text to the right, and have no concept of a hanging indent. <br><br>Why not have the best of both worlds: <a href="http://www.usbtypewriter.com/" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://www.usbtypewriter.com/</a><br><br>I have an old Olympia ~1970 sitting in my garage, if anybody is interested...
  • Typing class was required

    Started 8th Grade Junior High (no middle school then) typing class, and a few days later broke my right hand in a bike accident. Told my typing teacher it looked like my typing career was stillborn. But no, she was relentless. She custom designed daily exercises for my left hand -- you can type a lot of words with that hand, many more with the right. Anyway, I stayed in the class and learned to type. By the time I finished seminary I was really good. Went from an ancient second hand manual to ultimately an IBM selectric. I loved the "golf ball" heads you could pop in and out to change fonts. I still have my Royal Quiet Deluxe sitting on the top of a safe behind me. It works, only thing broken is the plastic on the knob, the rest is as good as new. Most of my college and graduate work went from my fingers to paper, then to the professor's mail boxes.

    I used it as part of a display at a conference I exhibited in, and I found a Middle Schooler had picked it up and was turning it over and around as if searching for something. When I walked up he asked, "Where do you plug it in?" I think he wanted to "fire it up" to see how it worked. My Grand Children love to type on it.

    And oh yes, I just came across my Esterbrook fountain pen. I'm going to see if I can get it working -- I need to find ink for it. I hope the bladder still works. When I went to elementary school, they still had ink wells in the desks -- though they had pretty much stopped using them.
  • RE: Ode to manual typewriters

    funny, no swearing, no hate remarks. Only warming remarks about the past. Mechanical typewrithers must be doing something to mankind....