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Typewriter Tributes

The Comeback of the Manual Typewriter


Lawrence P. McGuire

Charles Babbage's mind child has lost its glow.

The computer, his "analytical engine," that modern convenience, has turned inconvenient. E-mail allows rapid miscommunication between relatives who no longer speak to one another. These fatal distractions of the workplace have corrupted the American office bee's sense of fun. Employees now consider photocopying their bare butts old fogyish, and hip wage-earners forsake the copy room for the workstation. They spend business hours on the Internet--browsing, shopping, and losing at solitaire.

But these petty pickles sour when compared to computer crime. Viruses infect networks more often than convenience store botulism wieners upset customers' tum-tums. Babes in cyberspace suffer identity theft as frequently as Captain Kirk in classic episodes of Star Trek. In elementary schools, future ancestors of 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL pilfer from mesmerized classes the basics of spelling, grammar, and finger painting. However, closer inspection shows young humanity surrendering these skills.

Students parrot the refrain: "Why memorize spelling words? Why go over the hills of nouns and through the woods of verbs to grammar's house? The computer knows."

What tool can stop this cultural decline?

America's salvation depends on the comeback of the manual typewriter.

Consequently, the nation could return to a Luddite's paradise. In this utopia, the only virus protection you need is a glass of orange juice, cool and sweet. You own one software program, carried between your ears. To upgrade word processing, you read The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the Oxford English Dictionary, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler, or A Dictionary of Scatological Limericks by I.M. Rude.

Society might resist such a great leap backward (followed by two baby steps forward), know-it-alls warn. Naysayers forever party poop. They never act. That would make them do-it-alls, and those people are a different kind of annoyance.

The average talking encyclopedia underestimates the average American's love of "cool." Sleek, of high quality, and no longer made, twentieth century manual typewriters deserve the label "vintage cool." This increases their desirability. Don't believe me? Check the typewriter listings on eBay.

No two vintage writing machines, even machines produced by the same company and bearing the same model number, ever typed alike. Individuality reigned. A Corona was not an Oliver was not a Royal. So (in your mind, at least), you and your typewriter of choice shared a dominant trait: stylish, like an Olivetti; reliable, like an Underwood; rugged, like an Alpina; precise, like an Olympia; precise and neutral to office politics, like the Swiss-built Hermes. Computer manufacturers (excluding Apple) fail to replicate that distinctiveness.

More than individuality, yesteryear's typewriters embody reliability. Legendary machines, like the Olympia SG series, have lasted writers for millions of words. A return to such icons of durability obsoletes planned obsolescence. Why build products to fail within twenty four months anyway? I'm sure an obscure economic principle reasons it well. But this is a vitriolic essay. Reason and logic have no place here. Furthermore, I believe a company best serves its reputation when it stands behind its products instead of its lawyers.

Besides individuality and durability, manual typewriters offer another advantage: they never crash. Please note, I did not say rust, fall apart, lock up, or go to seed. Time ravages all. But if an Olympia SM 9 fails to work, it hasn't crashed. It done broke. "Crash," as applied to computers, connotes a catastrophic loss of information. You know the kind I'm talking about--missing financial records, school records, immunization records, mayonnaise-eating records. A Hermes 3000 never loses your recipe for minced pickled monkey prunes; you do.

Of course, the manual typewriter's comeback, like the return of an overweight heavyweight to the boxing ring, inspires ridicule, laughter, and--most importantly--a change in attitude. White-collar employees and teachers now work without a Net. Old phrases take on new meanings. "Logging on" requires a lumberjack's red checked shirt and an actual log. "Web browsing" demands staring at spider silk in that dusty corner of the garage. No one plays solitaire at work--unless he brings cards from home.

But all is not sacrifice. Manual typewriters strengthen typists. (Remember Paul Sheldon's exercise routine in the film Misery?) Driving your fingers into a Torpedo's keys, day after day, hardens your soft cookie hooks into the iron digits of a kung fu master. Opening a door soon becomes difficult, and then you have the added problem of what to do with that collection of twisted off door knobs. As hand strength improves, so too the upper body. Office model manual typewriters weigh between 35 to 55 pounds. Lugging these pieces of industrial gym equipment between floors guarantees to triple the size of pectoral muscles in every employee below the rank of manager. An absence of monitors, flat panel or otherwise, results in fewer cases of severe eyestrain darkening health insurance claims. However, insurance rates might bulge from an increase in reported hernias.

Moreover, energy-conscious times call for power-saving measures. Imagine resurrecting Adler, Royal, and Smith-Corona masterpieces out of undeserved landfill graves. These workhorses, once restored, suck no juice from the grid. Power saved is money earned, money to spend on this country's most pressing problem: how to design a soda machine that won't eat your dollar.

In addition to conserving electricity, manual typewriters firm flabby spelling and grammar skills. (Alas, they do nothing to improve finger painting.) Composing on a manual fosters precise language. Who could envision Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, or Mickey Spillane knocking out terse tales of broads, bad guys, and bullets on a frail computer keyboard? For example, here is a line word processed: "If you don't get that whatchamacallit out of my thingamajig, I'm gonna have to, you know." Here is that same line hammered into paper on an Olivetti Lettera 25: "Get that heater out of my snout, or I'm gonna fold you like an origami weasel!"

See the difference?

Computers, certainly, reduce the physical labor of editing. You can shape a document quickly on screen, with a backspace here, and a mouse click there. But this editing tool also makes it easier for unseen strangers to know your business. Spy ware, on the other hand, poses no threat to a manual typewriter. To crack open a computer a crook needs the right keystrokes. To crack open an Underwood No.5 that same crook needs the right battle ax (Even with that, his wrists are going to be really, really, really sore.). If a thief pirates your Smith-Corona Corsair, he swipes a machine--a valued machine, a beloved machine, but a machine nonetheless. If he grabs your laptop, as recent news stories detail, he has a gateway (or a Dell or a Compaq) into your life.

Unlike multitasking computers, manual typewriters perform only one job, and they execute that task reliably and well. They let people put thoughts on paper, without need of electrical power, complicated programs, or silicon chips. (Yes, I know, pens and pencils do the same thing. But they lack that cool click-clack of hammering keys, baby.) They devour no batteries. Except requiring a ribbon, they are complete in themselves.

Who can say this about that debt monster the computer? Its additional fees for Internet, for virus protection, for software updates turn consumers into the consumed.

Now is the time for all good typists to liberate themselves from Babbage's demon child. What's the easiest way to find a stylish, durable classic writing machine?

Browse the Web.

Do it at work. There it cost you nothing to window shop.

Start your search right after you finish that losing hand of solitaire.

Lawrence P. McGuire is a former U.S. Army journalist. In the tradition of Larry McMurtry, he would like to thank his Olivetti Lettera 25 for keeping pace with his thoughts during the writing of this essay.

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