Appreciation for a forgotten typewriter

Journalist and writer Rick Poynor confronts his old, abandoned typewriter and appreciates it:
Examining my Olympia again, I'm struck by how powerfully its form and image embody and express the idea of writing, as does almost any typewriter. Like the telephone at an earlier phase in its development when it still had a distinct earpiece and mouthpiece at either end of a handle, the fully evolved typewriter is a 20th-century industrial archetype. It feels inevitable, almost elemental, like one of those object types, such as a chair or a fork, that simply had to exist in this universe of forms. Even now (but for how much longer?) a typewriter is the icon to show if you want to convey the idea of a dedicated literary life. The title page of The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction -- just out -- shows a portable typewriter on a desk with other writing paraphernalia. Turn the page and the caption reads "The essential equipment of a cult author, as collected by William Burroughs." Burroughs receives the longest entry in the book. The ultimate cult author -- the ultimate writing machine.
In Memoriam: My Manual Typewriter (via Beyond the Beyond)



  1. I’ll be interested to see, as the current crop dies off and is replaced by people who’ve never used them, whether the typewriter is actually an inevitable Form of writingness, or whether it just has an impressive patina of nostalgia clinging to it.

  2. Gaaah! Typewriter fetishism is nothing but nostalgia. There is nothing particularly “inevitable” about the form. To me, it speaks of an industrial-age mania for machining anything that could be machined and forcing human form and activity into a factory mold.

    Yes, it’s handy for certain tasks. Most notably typing. But “writing” on a computer is so much more natural and fluid… much more like what I can do with a pencil and paper. I can hit the backspace key (the greatest invention since the semi-colon). I can copy/paste. I can save something in draft format. All kinds of helpful things.

    I grew up writing on the typewriter, and it forces a level of commitment that may be helpful for folks at both ends of the OCD curve… but, in general, it was a hellish way to have to write. Until correction tape came along, stopping to use white out consumed hours of time that could have been otherwise been spent writing.

    No, no, no. It was important, yes. But the allure of the typewriter is more about a vision than a reality.

  3. I have a 1940’s Underwood on display in my studio-I love it when I have to explain to kids what it is…they usually ask “But where is the screen?”

  4. I love my type-writer; it feels far more natural to me than a computer for writing. Its singular purpose design is absolute and free of distraction. When I sit in front of it and ready myself, my intent and action are clear: I am writing. I love the clarity of the white page and the immediacy of ink on paper. Even as my page fills with fumbled sentences and crossed-out words, I find it to be a relieving and even cathartic process. My type-writer enhances me as a writer and makes my process all the more natural.

    Computers however, feel more like typing on the telephone. They are the do-anything machine with no single purpose. When I sit in front of my computer it may be to respond to letters, have a conversation, shop for some books, comment on some article, play a game, or hack some scripts to manage my backup system. Writing is only one of many things I can do at any moment and is often the last thing I end up doing. All too often when I try to use my computer to write I find my paragraphs are broken up by emails and my sentences punctuated by on-going conversations. As a device it allows me to manipulate text in a highly efficient manner; but the trade off is the psychological dissonance between intent and act by way of a multi-purpose device. It’s simply too distracting and I end up switching it off in favour of my type-writer when I want to do any serious writing.

    (I eventually use a computer in the end either way to OCR my final manuscripts and play with moving things around at that point).

  5. Ditto what J King said.

    I do a lot of writing on the fly, between classes, and I love the fact that I can pop my typewriter out and have that assignment done, now, without having to go hunt up a computer lab and transfer my file from my laptop to a flash drive and log on and sign in to the network and select a printer and get in queue and swipe my card only to find out after it’s printed that the margins are crapped up by a different configuration on the different version of Word and start the whole process over–

    the typewritten product is just THERE, now, on the printed page. And no distractions. And it feels good to bang on the keys and make a room-filling clacky noise!

  6. I like typewriters.

    They are the right tool for many jobs.

    I used to envy two expensive tools in engineering companies: IBM Selectric typewriters and Tektronix oscilloscopes. If you had those, you were a “real” company.

  7. I’m 37. I didn’t own a reasonable PC and printer until I was in college (all those Tandy Color Computers and Commodores don’t count.) I have used and owned manual typewriters. I learned to touch type in school on a manual typewriter. I know typewriters.

    I have no nostalgia whatsoever for the obsolete monstrosities.

  8. The last typewritten page I wrote was in my Freshman year at college. I had ALWAYS hated typewriters because my fingers would always, for some reason, go between the keys and some skin would be left behind. I was positively EXULTANT at my first PC.

  9. I recently went back to use a typewriter, I found an old Selectric II on Craigslist for $50 and after getting it serviced and the clutch replaced it is now used on a daily basis.

    The cool thing about it it is that it has a history, it seems to have lived with the CBC until around 1999 when the guy I bought it from got it.

    I also ended up buying a 1920s Corona portable typewriter (that still works) and a 1970ish Olympia (which I can easily carry around).

    Much like others I appreciate the “clarity” that comes with typing onto paper. When I do write anything on the computer I do a rough draft, print it, manually edit it, then hunt and peck to find the right parts to make the changes, edit it and then print it one more time for another proof.

    On the typewriter, I hammer out the first draft, then do a manual edit, then transcribe the whole thing into Word which results basically in another edit stage and then I am done.

    I do like the end result much better, and even the first drafts are filed away nicely, you get an instant backup barring your place burning down :)

    Plus, the tactile feel of the Selectric is not rivaled by any computer keyboard. I wish I could get one of those old IBM keyboards hooked up to my Mac.

  10. I bought myself two beautiful antique Royal typewriters this past year (one regular, one italic); there is just something so beautiful about them and the results you get from them. It makes all my insides smile just thinking about it. :)

  11. There are many decent computer keyboards; I’m using a PD-KB400B right now. The SE0500 is similar though a bit larger.

  12. I find it interesting that (with a few exceptions) most people seem to agree that typewriter fetishism is just nostalgia, and yet almost identical arguments to the current debate about e-books but in favor of typewriters were common in the early 1980s — you couldn’t open an issue of the New Yorker without encountering an article about how typewriters were so wonderful and computers were soulness, etc.

  13. I’m 45, and therefore came of age in the great era of the electric typewriter (although I did my papers in high school on a manual typewriter that my mom had used in college). When I started my first grown-up job as a file clerk, the office manager proudly noted that every member of the support staff at a large law firm had been provided with an IBM Selectric III, with auto-correct and the capacity to recall an entire line of text.

    In college, I was the only guy on the dorm floor who had an electric typewriter (A Smith-Corona with cartridge ribbons) and so I would type other people’s papers for a dollar a page.

    It looks to me like the comments are split between the Rationalists (“Thank god typewriters are dead! I would shoot myself if I had to justify my own margins”) and the Romantics (“No computer keyboard ever made has matched the tactile sensation of a manual upright. When we type on a typewriter, we recapitulate the civilizing act of verbal accretion performed by every scribe since the invention of cuneiform”).

    I straddle both sides of the debate. In some ways, I think that purely electronic word processing causes us not to recognize the true cost of communication by making print too easy to produce. In other ways, I think that manual typing imposes a physical burden that intrudes on and censors our silent self-dictation.

    I will say this – manual typing forced me to be creative in order to preserve my fundamental laziness. If I had to substitute corrected text and I knew I had to leave space for a footnote, I would mull over my choice of words so as not to force any change in my page count while still preserving the meaning of my sentence.

    There are a number of typing skills that I’m glad I know, despite these skills being as useless as Easter Island stone carving. I’m glad I know how to make carbon copies, kern superscript and subscript insertions, estimate footnote placement, reverse ribbons, produce section symbols, conserve left- and right-justified indentations on long quotations, and center text. I may never have been a good typist, but now my competition is really thinning out.

  14. In 1988, I worked as business manager for a group of radiologists. The only thing they had were manual typewriters. I would stand next to medical transcriptionist and grit my teeth as she typed out a standard, “No abnormalities seen.” time after time.

    So I bought some IBM clones. No one would lay a finger on them, so one Monday all of the typists came to work and there was an instructor for each of them. When the typists complained, I explained that the previous Friday, I had thrown all of the typewriters, ribbons, correcting fluid in the garbage which was picked up on Saturday.

    I, also, explained that I had, also, thrown out the manual adding machines and the ribbons for them. That I had purchased Japanese adding machines and that I could purchase 9 of them a year. I invited them to throw out the machine when the ribbons were used up as it was cheaper to buy new than the huge bill we were paying to have 1940s adding machines to be “rebuilt” each year.

    I, also, told them that I had purchased a Japanese copy machine and that I would fire anyone who used the IBM copy machine at $0.10 per page and an IBM contract for support that would allow me to throw out the Japanese machine 6 times when the toner ran out and STILL save money.

  15. you are forgetting that its because of the typewriter we ALL TYPE A LITTLE SLOWER. Since typewriters frequently got JAMMED while someone typed quickly, they decided to space out frequently used letter combinations. Now you are used to the horrid qwerty and couple this with the ever increasing demand for computers in our life, you end up with the typewrite being the NUMBER 1 CAUSE of slower typing and difficult hunt and pecking for others.

  16. I’m not sure why the showy pop psychology catchphrase “fetishism” needs to be invoked in this case. I have reasonably large collection of manual typewriters, yet I have neither a sexual paraphilia for my machines nor a sense that they embody supernatural forces or religious ideals.

    There’s this odd cultural imperative on the net for people to react to any posting about typewriters with either wildly exaggerated outrage (Fetishism! Monstrosities! Obsolete! Pure nostalgia!) or an overbearing new age-y idolatry, and it’s hard to fathom.

    I understand the romance, as you don’t become a good writer without a certain heightened interest in impractical pursuits, practices, and situations. I do question the outrage, though. If you think typewriters are a silly and sentimental affectation, just sit smugly at your computer and bask in your sense of great moral superiority. Where’s the need to continually demonstrate your higher moral ground? If you’re right, you’ll soon have all the time in the world to wallow in your righteousness as the last typewriters fail, one by one. Writing won’t die out, writers will find a way, and the world will continue to turn.

    For some of us, though, there’s a pleasure in using highly-evolved tools to do a job, and make no mistake, most of the typewriters still in use are the pinnacle of a hundred years of mechanical engineering, industrial design, and ergonomics. I use computers all the time, particularly for editing my work, and happily celebrate their best qualities, but there are times when you just want to sit and think and write, without looking at a busy screen filled with distractions, feature-creep, and bloat.

    On a typewriter, there’s no talking paperclip, no bouncy icons, and no little red underlines trying to tell you that a glitchy software algorithm thinks your grammar is wrong. It’s just a calm, simple environment in which to work, and one which gives you a nice piece of paper that you can read over, mark up with a red pen, and examine in depth before you type up your second draft (in my case, it’s typed on a computer).

    Where’s the outrage coming from? It’s almost like people are incensed at the thought that they be forced to do the extra work that writers have always done, throughout the history of modern writing.

    “What? You mean I have to type it again? But…but…but typing is hard!

    Of course, virtually every typescript until the word processing “revolution” was examined, edited, and retyped, which is why you’ll find far fewer typos, malapropisms, and grammatical errors in books that pre-date the purely digital writing environment.

    The real romantics here are the ones who think writing should be this breezy, instantaneous artform that’s just not worth a little diligence. Is a typewriter essential to the process? No, but it’s sure as heck not a hinderance to the people who don’t mind putting in the time and energy to get a manuscript right before sending it off. If you’re banging out boilerplate, RFPs, emails, and business blather, a computer’s just fine, and will always be, but not everyone wants to write that way.

    Why does that bother people so much?

  17. My parents owned a typewriter repair shop in Berkeley forever. I worked there as a kid and so I have a complicated relationship with typewriters.

    One thing that was obvious even to my 15-year-old self was that manual typewriters were engineered to last where-as newer electronic typewriters were engineered like computers: obsolete and irreparable within a few years.

    The market for electronic and electro-mechanical typewriters has evaporated, but there is still a small market for refurbished manual typewriters.

    • They work without electricity.
    • They are impact printers ( they can cut carbons and type on index cards )
    • The ribbons last a long time and can be re-inked.
    • The mechanism is visible and obvious ( you can make minor repairs yourself )

    Customers would routinely bring in some neglected, abused Underwood or Hermes manual typewriter and our technicians would clean, adjust and repair them until they were almost like new.

    Today, I have a small Underwood standard portable typewriter, circa 1920, in an honored place in my living room – a gift from my parents.

    It doesn’t auto-correct and it doesn’t spell check but its probably the most beautiful machine I own and it will certainly outlive me.


    One last note to steam-punk enthusiasts: IT IS A SIN to cut the key tops off a manual typewriter to make jewelry and air-ship pirate costumes. Please fabricate your own from scratch.

  18. Seanpatgallagher, I salute you. You are absolutely right about the sinfulness of cutting key tops off of manual typewriters. Those who do so fall into the same class of coarse artisans as the dreadful people who hollow out old books to make novelty boxes, or the ignorant medieval peasants who took dressed stones from the Acropolis or the Roman aqueducts to extend their garden walls. Sure, you could make a bracelet out of those key tops, but only at the expense of destroying an inherently more valuable object. It’s like cutting up an expensive painting in order to make a collage.

  19. I miss the tactile experience of typing on a typewriter. I miss the clackety-clack. I miss the smell of the ink ribbon. I miss the sound of the return carriage bell.

    But I DO so love backspace, copy/paste, insert, variable type, size, and colors for fonts …

    Ah, well.

  20. Just to say that I detest computers and when I write, I use one of my 17 Selectrics. Yes, I am an odd-ball I guess but my Selectrics are going to last longer than any computer and are far easier on the hands than a danged computer. Some of us just like a machine that is a friend, unlike a computer.

    Thanks for reading this.

  21. I love my little pink Toshiba laptop, but I’ve found it impossible to use when writing. Why, you ask? Because I am *here*, at this blog, instead of writing. For me, the computer is a vast whirling dirvish of distraction, from checking email to reading articles to fiddling with GIMP to puttering on eBay.

    For my sadly highly distractable mind, it’s like constantly noticing the SQUIRREL!!! in the background.

    I use my Alphasmart Neo when writing away from home, and have just rediscovered the satisfaction of writing with a typewriter. Obviously, I edit on a PC, but getting that first draft out means no distractions. The clicking and clacking of the typewriter gives me a sense of rythmn, and the white page is easy to navigate (easier, unfortunately, than the Neo’s tiny screen). There’s also a sense that when I am set up with a typewriter I am there to *write*. It’s an equipement made for that sole purpose. It’s rather refreshing for a channel changing, link clicking, program pondering distraction engine like myself.

  22. One observation: it’s probably better to own a 40-year-old typewriter than a 4-year-old computer!

    That said, a group of people, most strangers to one another and most half the age of the machines they type on, will be getting together in Philadelphia on Sat., 18 December for the first Philadelphia Type-IN, –“A Pleasant Afternoon of Manual Typewriting.”

    For the sketchy details, check

    –Michael McGettigan

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