Despite vague memories of playing with my Grandparents’ Silver Reed, my interest in the old-fashioned typewriter really began with Tom Hanks. We all know him as Woody in Toy Story or the platoon leader in Saving Private Ryan (or that unlucky neighbour in The Burbs?). But, when I heard he had published a collection of short stories, this new foray into fiction got my attention. Before reading Uncommon Type, I watched CBS Sunday Morning’s trip with Tom Hanks to an old typewriter shop in New York. Who knew such a place still existed? Anyway, it turned out that Hanks owned a collection of around 200 typewriters. In between explaining their easter-egg appearances throughout the book, his enthusiasm for these forgotten machines struck me.
Not long after that, I was back home for the spring vacation. Deciding, one afternoon, to go to a local antique centre, I remembered that I had once seen a typewriter there. That must have been months ago. The chances were slim. Yet, when I entered the shop, I found the very same machine. As it was working perfectly, thirty pounds seemed like a good deal. That was my first typewriter. Since I could not take that ‘portable’ machine on the plane, once back in St Andrews, I won an auction on eBay for a Smith Corona Seventy-One. A year or so later, my brother went to my grandparents’ house to help clear out their attic. After he returned, I found a black case laying on my bedroom floor. Inside was an old Silver Reed–the same one that I had used fifteen years earlier.
With all that said, the question you might ask is ‘why typewriters?’. After all, there are reasons why typewriters have not been in manufacture for decades. There is nothing they can do that the most basic laptop, even the most rudimentary word processer, cannot. It takes up considerably more room – looking at the machines, I wonder if ‘portable’ meant the same thing back then as it does now. They are also noisy and totally unsuitable for use in libraries or study spaces. More than that, coursework is required to be word processed, with the document submitted online. However, like the great Tom Hanks, I believe there is still a case to be made for using the manual typewriter in modern times. To quote Arnold Schwarzenegger in the awful Terminator Genisys, they are “old but not obsolete”.
To answer the question, ‘why typewriters’, I will start with the first thing which drew me to them–the sheer novelty of these retro writing machines. There is something enjoyable about the nexus of simplicity and complexity. Simple because they are built to serve only one purpose– that is to write. Not to send emails, play games, or browse the internet. Complex because of all their mechanical intricacies, with every little lever affecting a different and visible part of the contraption. For me, this is where the novelty comes from. With a laptop, I press a soft-touch button, and something happens on the screen – for all I know it may as well be witchcraft. But with the typewriter, to print capital letters, the SHIFT function literally raises the paper, so it is struck by the top of the keys rather than the lower-case bottom. When you want to write in red, with a two-tone ribbon, you hear the clicks and crunches as it lifts levers and strains springs to bring the ribbon higher each time the keys are depressed.
What results from all this is a rhythm to writing. The slamming of the keys, the ping of the bell, and the ‘thunk’ of the carriage return. As Tom Hanks explained in his Vanity Fair Theatre of Typing, there is a percussive quality to hammering away on a typewriter. The operator feels like they are doing something, that they are working. It is this soundtrack that keeps you in the zone of productivity and compels you until you hit the final bell at the bottom of the page. I also think that this helps to focus on the writing more quickly by drowning out everything else – in a short time, you become lost in the words.
To be continued…