Ode to manual typewriters

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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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.

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

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