Longing for the Bleeding Edge of (60 Year Old) Technology

I will not become a person who has lost the ability to create the art of the past. — Harlan Ellison, Guttenberg in a Flying Saucer

Quite recently I read a story in which Issac Asimov, in 1979, decided to start using a computer for writing. In it he tells of the time he had an article due, one for which he had already written ten drafts. All ten of them on his typewriter. The article, which spanned 100 double-spaced pages (so about 25,000 words in length), was due in a couple of days. Already tired of the article, and knowing that if he took on the task of writing yet another draft he would miss his deadline, he decided to call a professional typewriting service to send someone over and write the final draft for him. As he describes it, what they sent over a girl who, for all her well meaning, typed at a pace to miss the deadline by a long-shot. In fact, so frustrated was he that he felt she would likely soon be one of two dead bodies: her, since he would kill her, and his, since he would commit suicide afterward. By the end of the day, he was out $49 and she had typed 11 pages (approximately 6 1/2 words per minute.) Knowing full well what this meant, he sat himself down and started writing. Twenty four and a half hours later, the article was written. Soon he decided to buy himself a computer, to see whether he could avoid this kind of hassle again. After some searching and work, he found the computer and fell in love. (He may have still used a typewriter afterward, but I’m not sure.)

Understandably, I can imagine you’d be surprised that I should use that story as a backdrop to announce that I’ve decided to get a typewriter for working. A manual typewriter, at that. Though I love computers, I’m in a place now where I believe using one of these ubiquitous symbols of the industrial era, these flagship products from the Century of War and Optimism, would be highly beneficial for my development as a writer.

I know what you’re probably thinking. “Why would you want to get a typewriter?!” I’ve had people tell me there are programs for the computer that will make the “clack clack” sound effect, and won’t let me delete with backspace, and will do everything to act like a typewriter. I’ve also had people warn me that my wrists and fingers will hurt and I’ll soon be running back to computers anyway. And of course, I’ve had people look at me as if I’d just decided to get a tattoo on my forehead that read “Luddite,” to which they, in their most kind tone dismissively respond, “that’s all you.” Yep. All me.

The method by which this acquisition shall be made, however, is not yet certain. See, I’ve considered buying a typewriter from one of the local antiques stores, but they just don’t seem to have one. (I’ve even put my name on various “want” lists, but have yet to receive a call.) That failing, I decided to check out refurb shops. The closest I’ve found up to now is Dick’s Typewriter and Business Machines in St. Pete [Edit: Which looks to have closed down], though I’ve had many a wonderful conversation with Jake over at Blue Moon Camera and Machine in Portland, Oregon. I’ve also considered buying from Mr. Typewriter, but everything there will run me at least $225, at least for what I want. Yet, I’ve also been eying a lot of the offerings over at eBay. I’ve even joined a freecycle network to see if I can snag one for free. (The crux of these last two, of course, is that they would need to be taken to one of the two local repair shops. And by “local” I mean “within an hour’s driving distance.” Between the drive and the cost of repair and the driving distance/time I might as well just get them from a refurb shop.) In short, I’ve tried just about every recommended method mentioned in an excellent set of articles on buying typewriters by Strikethru on how to find a manual typewriter. The way it seems now, it looks like I’ll be getting one from eBay, then getting it fixed here, but only because shipping from Oregon is so darn expensive ($50!).

Contrary to what you may believe, manual typewriters aren’t particularly easy to find, at least not around these parts. In eBay I’ve found a couple of Florida sellers, but by far most have been from the northern states, and then mostly in the northeast. Talking with Nils Geylen about this, it seems that this region is in the minority, and that most people have at least quasi-ready access to cheap manual typewriters. I guess people get rid of all their heavy stuff before the head down to God’s waiting room.

Oh, before I forget, I thought you might want to know what I’m looking for, in case you happen to have and are willing to part with one of these: Olympia SM-4, Smith-Corona Silent Portable (either the 1940’s or 1950’s style), or Royal Quiet DeLuxe. Mind you, I certainly wouldn’t mind getting a nice Remington Model 5 with glass keys, or the ultra beautiful Underwood Finger Flite (although these are more a case of form over function).

Mostly, I’m choosing these because I’m looking for something I can both work on and admire due to its aesthetic qualities. I mean, sure, I can work with a blue Smith-Corona Super G, but that and other beasts like it are nothing short of ugly and a half. They remind me of the horrid monster I learned to type on during middle school, a beast I would not dare bring into my home.

Putting it another way, both form and function are important.

Understandably, you could argue that I get both form and function from my MacBook. You would be right. Still, there’s something about writing in a typewriter that will never be duplicated a computer, a certain quality which speaks to the writer in a way the computer never can. Where in one you have a multi-tasking, multi-lingual mechanism able to do a hundred things better than anything before it, in the other you have a machine built for one purpose: to write. Maybe that’s what makes the difference. There are other qualities, but these are better described by others. The fact that typing on a typewriter doesn’t feel like you’re wigging your fingers over a bunch of Chiclettes probably has something to do with it, too. (Don’t get me wrong, I love my Apple keyboard, but It’s not always satisfying.)

That reasoning, of course, can be easily countered. The following, however, can’t. See, I’m amazed by the typewriter’s insta-print technology, where as soon as you hit a key it is printed on the page, with the machine repositioning the paper precisely at the spot necessary to print another character with the minimum amount of space wasted and placed for maximum readability. Also, the security features in typewriters render them immune from hackers, at least those not in my house. Sure, you can’t send email with them, but you can use them to initiate the sending of a message through the Sentient Neurological Automated Information Line (S.N.A.I.L.) Mail, a vast, dedicated network of systems which are virtually immune to power outages. And, of course, my inner-Luddite was demanding appeasement.

Enough explanations? Good.

Rather than go on, I think I’ll stop here. (Don’t you just hate that kind of ending?) The point here is that I’m getting a typewriter because I feel the need to. I’ve wanted one for months, and seeing my friend Jack with an old Smith-Corona just shot me out of a cannon over the edge. Yet when I’ll get one, I don’t know, but stay tuned for pictures of the thing (or things) when it (or they) comes (or come) in. And by the way, as uncertain as that sentence was, it perfectly describes my feelings about buying a typewriter, especially on eBay.

So if Asimov thought computers were so wonderful, and if I think computers are so wonderful, why do I choose to go back to the bleeding edge of tech over half a century ago? Because I can. And that makes all the difference.

17 thoughts on “Longing for the Bleeding Edge of (60 Year Old) Technology

  1. Have you ever given WriteRoom a try? It is one of my favorite pieces of software. By blocking our everything in the background and replacing it with a green-on-black pure writing environment, I think ideal mesh of old-school concentration and new-school methods is reached.

    You can focus on your words, but still have the ability to go back and fix stuff. As a plus, it also has built-in revision control and autosave.


  2. Actually, I’ve used WriteRoom, and its big brother, Scrivener. (In fact, I use Scrivener to work on multi-stage projects like comic books.) While a big part of it has to do with the fact that it’s just me and the words, an even bigger part has to do with the hardware involved. Then there’s the creativity component: what a Mac does for creativity when compared to a Windows machine, a typewriter does when compared to a computer. And while that may not make much sense, I am sure that others can paint a much, much, much, much better picture than me.

  3. I love the sound of typewriters, I used to have one that I played with as a kid.

    I’m going to go as far as to call you a sentimental romantic. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I believe we all hold true to parts of the past because we still believe that there is some magic to it. It’s like why I still buy paperback books when I could easily and quite comfortably read the electronic versions.

    I think at the end of it, seeing that you gave Asimov as an example, maybe the magic in words that he came up with was born simple because there is magic in that past. We take technology for granted so much that we forget the simplicity the past can hold. That’s the magic and from there, a world of wonder.

  4. Nice post! I’m gonna become a loyal visitor to your page 🙂 Here in India there are a lot of small offices who still use typewriters.

  5. @Edrei: Sentimental romantic it is. Just not hopeless.

    @Raji: Loyal visitors are always rewarded. Disloyal visitors are severely punished! So welcome to the winning team. OR ELSE! On another note, if I had to use a typewriter for all my work, I’d… pretty much hate it. I think a big part of my romanticism, as Edrei puts it, is that I have the OPTION to punish myself, instead of being continually punished by The Man.

  6. Well, I’ve been tracking your progress, obviously, and I can honestly say that if you never get a typewriter, this way you will no doubt become a virtual expert in them. You could even write a book – although you may have to use a pc for that.

    Seriously though, those are some beautiful machines and I sincerely hope you find what you’re looking for. Seeing the condition these examples are in, they way they look, the models, it wouldn’t be too mad to pay a couple bucks more.

    Good luck.

  7. William Gibson wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter. Douglas Adams wrote Hitchhiker’s Guide on a typewriter. And Neal Stephenson writes everything longhand.

    I think different methods of composition tap into different parts of your brain. So, you can compose something on a typewriter that would never manifest itself using a computer. The same goes for writing in longhand.

  8. I certainly can understand your need for a typewriter. Then again i come from a generation that constantly relives the retro thing.

    However I submit to you some parallels. The choice to use outdated technology is actually something thrown upon kids through their education.

    When creating a courseline, math teachers face a tough decision. Calculator or no calculator. Does it make sense to minimize use on tools that this children must depend on in the real world in hopes they master the basics?

    When given a financial calculator, does anyone choose to use an abacus? I know the answer for me is easy, but i cant help but wonder if i have yet to meet the student that would prefer the abacus or slide ruler if you will. Is there a situation where we will always pick the older more satisfying technology?

    My estimation? If its not work related and for hobby purposes, older is better.

    then again, i just haven rambled on your site for a while and perhaps all this was.Yet as i ramble i cant help but wonder why i cant have typwriter like buttons built into a computer…

  9. @Nils: Bought one last night, a Smith Corona Sterling. I might also be picking up an Olympa SM-3, if I can get over the rather large blemishes on the front side of the thing:

    @Dave: You hit the nail on the head.

    @Junior: Your generation only consistently relives past trends because it is the first generation to be continually exposed to the trends of their parents’ generation through ultra pervasive methods like media.

  10. @Monda: First of all, I love your blog. I’ve actually been a subscriber for a little while now. (You actually made me want a pink typewriter.) Second, thanks for the heads up. I just received the Smith-Corona and have had a blast with it. I can certainly see myself spending many hours in front of that, writing, listening to the music of the machine as the words flow from my mind, through my fingers, and are transmitted onto the paper via the machine.

  11. hi i have got a typewriter for sale its a remington standard 12 made in 1925 its in good condition and works perfectly so if you are interested reply by email

  12. I enjoyed your post, particularly as it expresses what I’ve been feeling myself lately about getting back to using a typewriter. Growing up in the 1950s-60s, I regularly used a typewriter for schoolwork and letter writing. I made the transition to a DECmate word processor and then to an Apple IIe while working in Somalia during the 1980s. But, as electricity was always irregular in Mogadishu, I still kept an Olivetti portable as a backup. The Olivetti got used regularly.

    When I started on computers, most of my time was spent doing word processing or creating spreadsheets. With the coming of broadband however, the 24/7 availability of the web, email and instant messaging became a constant distraction to writing. I feel that going back to a typewriter, at least for preparing an initial draft, would help reduce these internet distractions. There’s also a pleasant satisfaction in watching a typewriter work to produce a written page as you tap on the keys. Typewriters remain not only highly functional but often showed the best of 20th century industrial design. Truth be told, however, I just like the older technologies as they seem to have more personality. Give me a fountain pen over a ballpoint any day!

    Thanks for the enjoyable post.

  13. I have used several typewriters in my 29 years as a fiction writer and journalist and they have not lost their appeal with me. No knock on computers in this age of such. But some past items never loose their appeal. Among authors, they still work.

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