Stylus and wax tablet, quill and ink, fountain pen, typewriter, word processor, computer. Down through the ages man has used a variety of devices to etch, scratch, scribble, sculpt, and laser the written word onto a readable surface for the enjoyment and edification of others. And of the different writing methods available it is doubtful that any can match the aesthetic and weighty tradition of the old-time manual typewriter.
Ever since Mark Twain submitted a typescript of Life on the Mississippi, man and machine have been unshakeable collaborators in the proposition: somebody's gotta write it, and somebody's gotta read it. Toward that end, more often than not, the tool of choice for the past century has been the manual typewriter.
Bearing all this in mind, I set out one fine summer's day to locate the manual typewriter of my dreams -- one I could bond with for generating the tidal wave of paperwork to come. I am a Latin and Humanities instructor, teaching an average of six classes each semester. In my work the obligation of transmitting ideas and assignments via words on paper looms large. So why not accomplish it all while having the most fun possible!
At the American Typewriter Company, William Lewis showed me what he had available. I surveyed a room filled with machines, and strolled over to a 1940's Corona Sterling. Spooling in a sheet of paper, I tapped out the word t-o-e-l-e-s-s -- for what reason, I'll never know. William arched a quizzical eyebrow. "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog would've been better," he said, and began to hum the theme from Jaws . The phone rang and he went to answer it. I was spared further indignities, and settled in to give the Corona a proper examination.
It had a dark, industrial-texture finish and easy to read keys with white letters. It formed a nicely-spaced jet black pica type, and its sound was pleasing to the ear; the typing was effortless to the touch. But the most immediate fascination this little portable held for me was that it was manufactured in the same era that I was born.
Needless to say, I plunked down my hard-earned cash and took it home that very day. I intended to use it at my desk at school. So I purchased a square typing table, fitted it flush with my desk, and the Corona was duly installed. Over the next ten months I would learn of this little Corona's many blessings. I promptly christened it "Sterling," after the model name embossed on the paper guide behind the platen. Even though it was destined to roll out reams of work in the months to come, it was by no means the first typewriter I had ever owned.
While in high school I had used the family Smith-Corona Skyriter for the occasional school assignment and to compose poems and short stories. It typed small and -- compared to other portables -- was light as a feather. The VariTyper I used in college was everything the Skyriter was not: huge, heavy, electric -- a cold-type composition machine really -- it used interchangeable crescent-shaped typefonts which made a resounding clank like a ball-peen hammer striking an anvil. Various IBM Selectrics got me though the next three decades of teaching, but I never felt affinity for or attachment to any of these machines. I never sensed that they were a real part of me, or what I was doing.
Then around 1995 my son Kevin, a graduate instructor at the University of Florida, developed an interest in manual typewriters as used by important twentieth century authors. He pursued this subject passionately up to the time of his death in 2005. I recall long conversations fueled by Starbucks Coffee and lasting deep into the night, always about prominent writers and the machines they loved to use in their work. Ernest Hemingway, for instance, had favored the Royal Quiet Deluxe, so we would talk endlessly about the relative merits of that machine. Kevin had several of these in his collection, and gave me a nice-looking one for Father's Day. I proudly displayed it, and even used it occasionally, but was never overly fond of its elite type.
Until the purchase of the Corona Sterling, I had had never experienced typewriter aesthetic and utility coming together in the same machine. As it turned out I didn't have long to wait.
The Sterling was in my classroom. Ready to go. The start of school was one week away. I began to work regular morning hours in the classroom, facing those typing chores that herald the start of school for another year and getting organized in general.
Now you must realize that there are no other manual typewriters at my school. Scratch the surface hard enough and you'll find two IBM Wheelwriters in the Guidance Center -- for quick addressing chores mostly. But other manual typewriters -- not a one! You would think that my little Corona was being sentenced to a life of solitude.Not so. Little Corona, as it turned out, made friends very quickly.
My classroom door left open, the rhythmic tick-tacking of work-in-progress poured out into the corridor. A number of colleagues and students stopped by, confirming my belief that the sound of a manual typewriter at work sets up an aura that is hard to resist. " I haven't heard that sound in years." "Cool. Is that a typewriter?" Comments such as these were commonplace. "But wouldn't a computer be quicker?" To that one, I always say that of course it would be, but a typewriter is more fun -- and besdes, it does something that a computer could never do. I then remove the sheet of paper from the carriage, turn it over and allow the student to feel the sculpted hills and valleys of its underside. "It always makes a good impression," I proclaim with a triumphant smile.
So here we are, my little Corona and I; reams of paper and thousands of words later. The end of the school term is in sight. Summer is not faraway. There have been other vintage typewriter collectibles along the way, to be sure. But it's the Corona Sterling that has proven to be my true workhorse and faithful collaborator.
And I'm looking forward to other things, too. A 1939 Remington 5 is on its way from Oregon, right now. And I have the distinct impression that my next writing adventure is just one sheet of paper away. Somehow, I think that Kevin, who in a sense started all of this for me, would feel that way, too.