Computers are great, but typewriters were expressive and fun

Sept. 20, 2018 | G. Michael Dobbs

What is it about a typewriter? Is my instant interest in this piece of technology simply nostalgic for an earlier part of my career?

I don’t know, but I do know  “The Typewriter Trail” at the Springfield Museums brought back a flood of memories about how life used to be paced.

I was an idiot in high school – there are people who could provide evidence I’m still an idiot – and didn’t take typing. So as a young guy who knew then he wanted to write, I neglected to take typing classes.

Not a single guidance counselor ever pushed me in that direction.

I developed a hunt and peck version which has served me since that time, I’m embarrassed to say.

My first real experience with a typewriter was at the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram in May of 1972 when I served an internship there. There were manual typewriters on the desks that had a large roll of cheap paper behind them. It almost looked like paper towels.

You sat at whatever desk to which you were directed and fed the paper into the machine. When completed you ripped the paper and gave it to Editor Mike Burke for his revisions.

The typewriter I used in college was a Smith Corona manual. I never owned an electric typewriter.

I liked the visceral quality of writing on a typewriter. Depending upon the machine you could bang away. Your thoughts essentially came at the speed of your ability to put them on the paper.

If you made a mistake – a big one – there would be a removal of the paper and the insertion of a new one usually accompanied with a ceremonial crumpling and toss into the trash.

Minor mistakes required the selection of several different fixes. There was the typewriter eraser, a circle of hard abrasive rubber with a brush to remove the offending particles. Then there was Wite-Out, a paint that you carefully applied with a tiny brush over the mistake. You could then type over once it dried. The other choice was a strip of white paper with an adhesive you cut to size and then placed over the mistake.

It was a bit of a process any way you chose. Now if I had learned to type there would probably had been less need for such decisions.

Paper was also a consideration. If you were typing a letter for posting via airmail, many people used onionskin, a very thin, almost translucent paper than weighed less.

I realize I may have explain “air mail” to some people.

Ribbons were also an on-going concern. The ribbon contained the ink and I was always worried if it needed to be changed and if I had a spare one. I remember that some ribbons allowed you to use one area and then you could switch to another. Some had an area of black ink and an area of red ink for those you needed red ink.

There was many times you beat on the keys harder to squeeze our the last amount of ink contained in the ribbon.

I used a typewriter at The Valley Advocate, The Westfield News, the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram – when I was a staffer –  WREB and at Wistariahurst Museum. By that last job I had managed to buy an Apple computer and my typewriter became a dust collector.

Is it easier to write on a computer – known originally as a word processor – than a typewriter? Yes. Is it as much fun? No.

The typewriter has considerable charm. The impressions it makes on paper are unique to each machine – it’s like fingerprints. The noise of the keys is like a sort of music. I loved the bell at the end of the line you were typing and the noise of returning the carriage for a new line.

For a writer it was you partner in the creative process.

I saw a computer keyboard advertised that replicated the typewriter experience. The keys were metal and it made the correct noises electronically.

Naturally I wanted it but the price tag was several hundred dollars and unless I hit Powerball it made no sense to pay for such a novelty.

I hope you take the time to travel the Typewriter Trail at the museums.

By the way I still have the indestructible Royal I used from 1982-1987 at WREB.

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