Old Typewriter

September 12, 2011 by  
Filed under News

Old Typewriter

I learned to type on an old typewriter.

I watched my mother, a former legal secretary, typing at warp speed. I was about 8 years old, and it fascinated me. She got me a book from the library, “Learn to Touch Type.” And I did, self taught on a Royal, or maybe it was a Remington. “Watch the quick brown fox . . . ” I’ve been typing ever since.

The rhythm of fingers on keys, the heft of the manual carriage return, the bell dinging at the end of the line — these things are comforting and beautiful. Old typewriters are steam punk marvels of office machinery.

Royal Manual Typewriter

I went off to college at Berkeley and typed on semi-antiquated (even then) Royal 440′s at the Daily Californian. (If I got the model wrong, somebody let me know.) We typed our stories one paragraph to a half-page sized sheet of newsprint. That way the editor could easily reorganize the story by shuffling the sheets. I never did that half-sheet thing at other newspapers (computers quickly replaced typewriters), so I don’t know if that was common back in the day.

My IBM Selectric

OK, “Mad Men” fans. The IBM Selectric is about as old as the Draper kids. Meaning, about as old as I am. Look it up on Wikipedia if you want to know old that is. (Selectric, that is, because Newdorf isn’t listed.) When I went to journalism school, I bought an IBM Self Correcting Selectric III with lift-off correcting tape. Now that was space aged. Hit the correction key and it would back up, one character at a time, typing over your mistake. White Out was a thing of the past.

Remember the Tandy TRS 80 (affectionately known as the “Trash 80″)? A kind of lap top of its day, we filed stories from the field on the Trash 80, sticking the pay phone handset into the 1kb/hour modem. Now explain to your kids what a pay phone was. Mercifully, the TRS 80 phased out quickly. Hello-sweetheart-get-me-rewrite was definitely faster.

The Selectric stayed with me, though, and, when I was done with newspapering, the trusty putty-grey beast went with me to law school. I typed the California bar exam on that machine. It sits in the attic now. When I’m no longer around to protect it, my kids will put it out on the corner.

Unless nostalgia saves it. There is some of that for these beautiful machines. Street poets will compose a poem on the spot, banged out on a manual typewriter, for a buck or two. It may not be any good, but you can tell it was handmade. One-of-a-kind, too, unless the bard used carbon paper.

A freshly minted Cal Tech engineer told me recently about the “old fashioned keyboard” he had seen. Yeah, kid. We called them typewriters.

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3 Responses to “Old Typewriter”
  1. Dan says:

    That thing with the half-sheets: Yes, that was definitely the way stories were written and edited. But the reason, from what I saw hustling stories to the city desk a graph at a time, was not ease of reorganization. It was speed. The rewrite guys — and they were all guys in the newsrooms where I started — wrote a graph at a time to expedite the process of getting the story in on a tight deadline. Each half-sheet had about four carbon sheets, and those would be distributed to the key editors around the desk. Those “dupes” (for duplicates) allowed the editor to keep track of how the story was taking shape graph by graph. I don’t think you’ll find any of that stuff on Wikipedia.

  2. Thanks, Dan. Yes, I remember feeding you the story half-sheet by half-sheet on deadline. I also remember you shuffling the pages on more than one occasion when I had “buried the lede.”

  3. Renie says:

    My only question is, do those things do spell check???

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