Sunday 26 February 2023

Reverting to type

Ah, the typewriter!  Like the Mouli Grater and the accordion, the typewriter is one of those random modern day objects whose combination of aesthetic and purpose just gives me a warm, tingly feeling.  I love the way it looks and sounds, I love its symbolism; it’s imbued with personal memories too.  It came to mind the other day when I stumbled across some wonderful old typewriter adverts from Olivetti – but more on those later.

While we're at it, though, feast your eyes on a Mouli Grater and an accordion...


But back to the typewriter.  My mum had a lovely manual one (I think it may have been a Hermes, or was it an Olympia?) from as far back as I can remember.
  It had a hard, grey, curved carrying case, and all the usual features that give this relatively simple machine such character.  The little bell that warns you when you’re getting close to the right hand edge of your page, the long carriage return lever with its smooth, satisfying action, and those marvellous typebars hammering their characters onto the paper like multiple, cascading fingers.

I got to know that typewriter well as a child, not just through the clicking and clacking and tinging of my mum’s activities (she used to offer home typing services to students and academics) but from my own endeavours at making story books.   Learning to replace the ribbon tape properly seemed so sophisticated, and I particularly liked the fancy double one which had both black and red ink options.  Unlike my mum, who magically knew where everything was without looking, I ‘hunted and pecked’ at the letters, my little fingers not always having the strength needed to imprint them hard enough.  Or I’d accidentally press a couple of the keys at the same time, tangling the long typebars at the centre of it all, which I’d then have to delicately prise apart.

I had to learn to touch-type the proper way years later, in the ‘80s, after I applied for a job only to find out at the interview stage that a pending offer depended on that particular ability.  I didn’t even own a typewriter but I really wanted the job so I borrowed one – by this time at least a less clunky electric one – coupled with a Pitman’s Teach Yourself Typing book, set it up on the little table in the kitchen of our rather shabby rented flat and set about learning the magical craft of using all the fingers on both hands correctly.  It’s remarkable really, isn’t it, how your brain develops this automatic ‘muscle memory’, yet if you were to ask me to consciously tell you the full keyboard layout I’d struggle.  Anyway, I managed it, I passed a 40wpm typing test and got the job, and the ability to touch-type at speed has never left me.

 Of course we had no idea that just about everyone, regardless of typing skills or lessons, was going to be using a keyboard pretty frequently in the coming years.  How do you type?  Do you have to look at the letters or have you developed your own perfectly good muscle memory technique without using all your fingers?  And did you ever choose to tap away at a typewriter for a fanzine or other pursuit, long before the days of keyboards and screens?

There’s a part of me that would still quite like to own a vintage manual machine.  I want to hear that bell again and slowly wind the paper onto the platen, then see a few imperfections in the results, a slightly wonky line or a tippexed-over mistake.  And of course that familiar font!  But using it regularly would probably frustrate the hell out of me, never mind bruise my fingers, and it would no doubt end up dusty and neglected in a cupboard - alongside a Mouli grater and an accordion.

Anyway, here are some of those gorgeous graphic adverts for the typewriter by Olivetti, from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.


Then there's this great album cover graphic too:

Billy Bragg: William Bloke

Some random facts about the typewriter:

The original version of a machine that impressed letters onto paper was created in 1575 by an Italian printmaker, Francesco Rampazetto.  But the first to be officially known as a ‘typewriter’ was patented in 1868 by American inventor Christopher Latham Sholes.  By 1873 he had produced 50 of these machines but was unable to sell them; it was only when the gun manufacturer, Remington, bought the rights in 1874 that it started to take off.  The first author to submit a typed manuscript to a publisher was Mark Twain. And the longest word that can be typed using left hand letters only is 'stewardesses' (you never know when that'll come in handy).

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