The Classic Typewriter Page

Typewriter Tributes


Machine In Between

by

Jeff Ward


Can you can talk someone who doesn’t love manual typewriters into loving them? It may be that people are smitten at their first sight of a typewriter or are forever immune. The immune people are mysterious to me, maybe because they don’t feel the need to type essays in defense of their eccentric position.

Typewriter people do talk up typewriters, though not always with the goal of winning converts. Sometimes they've been challenged about typewriting. I’ve gotten that. People worry that my typescripts are stranded offline and uneditable. I tell them to think of it as very legible and fast -- thought speed -- handwriting. Handwriting can’t be corrected by backspace or e-mailed either, but that doesn’t alarm anyone. Say it’s high-tech handwriting, not low-tech computing, and people will back off about it.

So I don’t mean to defend manual typewriters (and really, people don’t worry much about my writing habits; they have their own problems), I just love them and want to describe why.

Articles about the typewriter resurgence often feature quotes to the effect that the machine’s limitations are its virtues. The typewriter forces you to think ahead, to plan the upcoming sentence in advance. And it lacks an Internet connection to tempt distractible writers.

I worry that this talk of force and privation is going to discourage potential converts. A typewriter’s limitations are not what draws me to it. You can plan your sentences on a typewriter, or make them up as you go along. Strikethroughs are easy, retyping is fine, and the machine exerts no more disciplinary “force” than a ballpoint pen does. At any rate, force wouldn’t be a plus for me, as I usually react to it with panic and flailing violence.

And the lack of Internet isn’t key for me either. I would use my typewriters if they had fast DSL connections. They’d still have their main selling points: fun and fascination.

I would use them if they did nothing but make meaningless marks onto paper with a satisfying “thwack,” followed by a chiming bell. “I get pleasure out of it,” says the pugnacious Harlan Ellison about typing on his Olympia SG3. This toylike aspect, the fun of using the machine itself, is indistinguishable from its utility as a writer's tool.

Say you decide to start a sentence -- you’re not quite sure where you’re going yet, but what the hell -- with the word “A.” Smack! The machine exuberantly agrees with you. You keep going, and the constant percussive encouragement will see you through the writing of that speculative sentence. It draws writing out of you, in some cases bringing on full-blown graphomania.

And what a boon to a writer, to inject an element of fun into an act that can be a pleasure but is often, let’s face it, oral surgery.

So much for fun. On to fascination!

“The typewriter is holy. ” -- Allen Ginsberg

Even the sight of a manual typewriter on a desktop can be transporting. It is one of those numinous objects that seems to be poised halfway between physical and virtual reality, between the everyday world and the eidetic dimension of the written word. This halfwayness is key, and lack of a power cord is crucial. A word-processing setup, even an electric typewriter is past the halfway point, already too much a part of the abstract realm to be truly inviting. A mechanical device that needs a human brain and body to function is what does the trick for me.

With a big, powerful desk model especially, like Ellison's SG3, the machine does a lot of the physical work for you, greatly amplifying the efforts of your fingers. It is easy from that point to get the idea that the typewriter is doing something beyond the physical work, that it is somehow abetting the creative work. I would bet that few writers think of their typewriters as wholly inanimate. They might not give themselves over completely to delusions but do feel in some way that they have a tacit cowriter. I.B. Singer always knew he had a viable story idea when his Underwood portable would let him type it without breaking down. This kind of experience accounts for the ambiguousness you can detect in the name that many people around the world use for a typewriter, “writing machine.”

Because the mechanical nature of the writing machine is crucial, I’m partial to my Underwood and L.C. Smith standards, great iron whirligigs with all the gears showing. My daily confidant and shrink, though, is Mr. Smith, a 1954 Smith-Corona Silent-Super, which is so super I don’t care if it’s not silent. I also have an Olympia SG1, fastest machine on the lot, that belonged to a “JAX” in the Social Security Administration; a swimming pool-blue SM7 that’s going to draw a fine novel out of someone with very strong pinkies; a Splendid 33 in black, a sensational typer with none of the drawbacks associated with travel machines; a Royal KMM with busted Magic Margin that looks down balefully from atop a bookshelf; and a streamlined Remington Model 5 that types a little out of alignment but looks like a prop from “Swing Time.”

They are all just machines. I'm completely aware of that. It's important not to indulge any anthropomorphic ideas, because they will soon get stronger than your rational mind. And as Mr. Smith points out, that way lies madness.

 


Main Menu