LIFE photo gallery: In Praise of the Typewriter

Typewriter Burroughs
5Typewww When I took typing class in 9th grade, I was by far the fastest in the class. (That's because I spent nearly all my non-school time hammering on my Apple ][e.) I still received a "D" in the class though. Why? I glanced at the keys while typing. At one point, the teacher placed a cardboard shield over the keys so I couldn't see them. That didn't end well. I also recall that the typing classroom had a mix of old manuals and a few IBM Selectrics, the battleship of electric typewriters. So we had to switch seats each class to give everyone a chance with the elegant typeball technology. Relive the clickety-clacking history at LIFE's typewriter photo gallery. Above, William S. Burroughs. At left, the fifth typewriter invention patented in the US. "In Praise of the Typewriter"

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  1. For me typing was 8th grade. I was also the fastest, but that was largely because of my experience playing Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards on a Leading Edge Model D. The D I received in the class was because computer use had “taught” me non-standard fingering for the non-letter keys.

  2. I came up typing BASIC programs into my Peanut, but AOL chatrooms were the best typing class I ever had.

  3. I did a term of typing at secondary school (middle or high school for those in the US). It seemed to be one of those things they put in to fill the time table up. It was a good idea in principle.

    In practice it was pretty much a waste of time. They had us using manual typewriters which looked like they’d been made sometime before electricity was common place. You had to hit the keys pretty hard to make type actually appear on the paper. There was a more travel on the keys than seemed sensible. There were gaps between each key large enough to for a finger to go into when you missed a key.

    I could already type pretty well on a computer keyboard by that time but typing on those typewriters was entirely different to using a computer keyboard. Hence the lessons did nothing at all to improve my typing skills. If it had occurred to them to teach the typing class using the school computers, that might have been worthwhile.

  4. The one thing I want to praise most about typewriters is the fact I no longer have to use them. I keep our old mechanical typewriter around (it’s sitting one metre to my right), but actually having to use the thing is a real pain, as is having to read long typewritten texts. It’s one of those “love them in theory“ things for me.

  5. We sent our kids to an after school typing class back when computers were still “What’s that?” No way did we foresee the keyboards coming. Just a chance good decision.
    I had horrible handwriting and learned on an old Underwood. In high school all my papers were typed.

  6. Because my mother had typed college papers for my older brothers, she made sure I took typing in Junior High. She helped me pick out my first typewriter (and made me pay for it) too. Sadly, she died when I was in High School, so she never even had a chance to type my college papers. As a computer professional for nearly 30 years – hardly a day goes by without my thanking her for making me take that typing class.

  7. One of the biggest problems in programming is that few people know how to type: ie. know how to use the interface to the machine that they spend most of their lives in front of. Because everyone is a two-fingered typist it is too much bother to put comments in code or have variable names longer than 1 character. Fantastic efforts are put into features in languages that will (maybe) save a few seconds here and there in putting together the program. The hope is that these seconds will someday add up to something noticeable. But learn to type? Never!! If you can type you can get out of the office, on average, about an hour earlier than the people who can’t and your work will be an order of magnitude better.

    – This post typed in 90 seconds

    1. Yeah, but people who get paid by the hour do not benefit from working faster. There are plenty of employers who want to get their 38.5 hours/week worth. So there’s little incentive on getting really faster, that’s why people use the mouse to drag down the scrollbar, don’t use the shell’s history, etc.

      Also, lots of the fast, whiz-bang programmers I’ve seen did not care for documenting.

  8. “typing” was the only class i failed in high-school…

    oddly, i still can’t draw a diagram of a keyboard, but i can touch-type if i don’t ‘think’ of a word’s spelling.
    yay for dyslexia

    fabulous photos though…
    now i know what Paddy Chayefsky looks like, and a young Joan Crawford too!
    – i never believed that Rin Tin Tin could type. i stand corrected.

  9. i come to praise the typewriter as a fine percussive musical instrument.

    In evidence of this, listen to Brian Eno’s “China, My China”:

    The typewriter solo starts at the 1:44 mark, and it’s the best typewriter solo of the 1970s, imho.

  10. Self taught on a selectric. I still look at the keyboard because I learned by hunt and peck.

  11. I still bash the keyboard really hard, and am mocked for it, because I had a rusty old underwood as a child that I used to hammer out stories on.

  12. My mom had (still has) a massive old Royal and the Teach-Yourself-To-Type books. I knew I was going to be a writer, so I taught myself in 7th and 8th grade so I could type up all my brilliant adolescent stories.
    In high school, while the other kids were struggling to learn, I started selling my skillz to write up term papers and high schooler resumes. In college, being able to touch type made my life much easier than the kids that didn’t know how. Post-college, I went through a long period of temping and my 90+ WPM always helped land the better jobs.
    After college, my first investment was a Smith Corona manual, even though I knew I’d buy a Mac before long. I banged out two novels on that thing and still have it in the basement, ready to serve me if when the zombie-apocalypse happens.

    Does anyone know if the people who used those manuals ever suffered from repetitive motion syndrome? I suspect not because of the amount of finger muscle power you had to use to push those keys down, but can someone confirm?

  13. I had the same issue with looking at keyboards at one time. Now I’ve improved, it just has to be somewhere in my peripheral vision, don’t need to look directly at it. Couldn’t type well with it totally out of sight though.

    Computer keyboard – typewriter keyboard, same thing, if you can type on one, you can on the other. Seems like they would both use the same muscles in your hands, just extending your fingers farther with the latter.

    I’ve got a 1927 Remington and I love using it now and then.

  14. Our school had a typing teacher who was a former professional wrestler. He walked like a robotic fire plug and had a penchant for an economy of conversation. On the first day of class, he walked in and effortlessly picked up two very heavy, anvil-like manual typewriters, one in each hand. “Folks, these are typewriters, he said, “you are here to do two things: type and breathe. Breathing is optional.” He pointed to an assignment he’d written on the blackboard (which as I recall was green) and said, “here’s your lesson for today. Take and type.” Even though he was nearing the end of his tenure, no one, not even the tough guys who normally tormented teachers, uttered a peep in his class. Everyone still remembered a few years earlier when a prankster had taken his typewriter apart and told him it didn’t seem to be working. To which he said, “if you don’t like your typewriter, I guess you should just take and throw it out the window.” Of course, the kid did. As he leaned out the window looking at the parts splattered three floors below, our teacher grabbed him by the ankles and hung him out the window and breathlessly asked him if he wanted to go down after it. Today, of course, he’d still be in prison. It wasn’t until late in the term that we learned he was phoning it it. A friend had chugged a few quarts of beer for lunch (we had the class right afterwards). Our lesson was to type certain sentences twenty-five times. I was incredulous as I glanced over and saw he was typing (insert teacher’s name) sucks a certain party of a donkey’s anatomy. I begged him not to turn it it. He did, and typed another kid’s name at the top. The kid got a C. Those were the days.

  15. I love the typewriter, I love keyboards. I’m not a secretary but I am able to type on and on without looking at key board.

    And I love black and white pictures, I think they tell a thousand stories more than black and white pictures.

    Great picture!

  16. There are some of us out there who still use typewriters, not occasionally but every day. Computers they are not, but machines that serve the purpose of putting words on paper VERY WELL. Better than any word processor I’ve ever used.

  17. That typewriter ol’ Edgar has is a Hermes Baby (there’s a few versions), it’s/was the smallest portable available. Mine has a Hebrew keyboard with a reverse operating carriage. Amazing machine.

  18. I just bought a very nice, recently refurbished Selectric II. Oddly, I can still type with it just fine, thankyouverymuch.

    I have fond memories of typing class in 6th grade, with blank keycap manual typewriters and a keyboard chart on the wall in front of us. So fond, in fact, that I’m going to buy my 9yo daughter a keyboard with blank keycaps for her birthday.

    Me: “I just bought a typewriter”
    Daughter: “That’s OLD FASHIONED”
    “Yea, I guess so. Want to see it?”
    “Sure”

    “Hey, Dad. Typewriters are cool.”

  19. Early this year, I bought a typewriter (an Empire-Corona, the UK version of the Skyriter), because I’m sick of slipping into the luge-track of unconsciousness that an internet-connected, multifunction device encourages — when I really meant to be writing. Plus, I find writing on the typewriter a completely different, enjoyable experience.

    I’ve also been learning shorthand because it’s just so damned useful. A consumer culture of planned obsolescence has drummed into us the notion that “newer” always equals “better”, but that’s not always so. Some of yesterday’s tools provide distinct advantages — autonomous abilities not the least of them.

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