The progress of the written word

When I, (very occasionally), think about it, the memory of once using a typewriter really horrifies me! Do you recall

When I, (very occasionally), think about it, the memory of once using a typewriter really horrifies me!

Do you recall getting to the bottom of a sheet of typing and then making a mistake about three words from the end, with no white-out in the house, and having to start the whole sheet all over again? Or the way the long arms with the individual letters on the ends, (I have no idea what they were called), would suddenly jam together, the faster you were at typing, the more of them would jam? Then there was the filthy job of having to change the ribbon once it was worn out.

The amazing thing about those old, used ribbons was the way they weren’t able to transfer anything to the paper any more, because they were worn out, but they could blacken your fingers in about five seconds! Typewriters were invariably heavy too; even the so-called portables were about the same weight as a volume of Encyclopaedia Britannica!

I remember what a great joy it was when the electric models came into being, machines that could return you to the beginning of the next line without you having to perform a sort of flying tackle with your left hand, on the protruding lever on the top. They were quite a bit quieter than the old mechanical things too, so you could even finish a day’s work without staggering home completely exhausted from both the weight and the noise.

I guess the next big leap forward came with the electronic machines, especially those really elegant ones made by IBM that had a whole font of type on a small ball about the same size as a golf ball, and you could have any number of balls, each one with a different font on it. This was getting very close to professional printing, rather than mere typing! It always deeply impressed me how fast that little ball could travel, spinning round to line up the column in which the letter you had selected was, then rolling up or down to line up with the actual chosen letter’s row, before nodding forward to plant a kiss on the sheet of paper. And it went through this whole sequence five or six times a second, its speed governed only by the skill of the typist!

Now progress was advancing at an ever increasing rate, with various systems coming in and out of use almost as quickly as the fashion industry. Some required special paper because tremendous heat was involved, and the message was more or less burnt into the surface, but that message was liable to fade after quite a short time, so not a lot of good for archival material like company records!

And it was at about this time that the wonderful, (or dreadful, depending on your point of view), computer came into general use, and this was and is the greatest revolution of all giving the writer total power over what he/she was producing; spelling and mistakes could now be easily corrected, at any time to suit the writer. Thousands of fonts are now available, the work can be produced in pretty well any colour, and it doesn’t even need to be printed, but can be sent directly from one computer to another by email.

Many younger readers, seeing this article, will have no idea about the earlier machines I have described, just as they don’t recognise old telephones or fountain pens, or many more of the required office equipment with which we used to work. And I think that is wonderful; I just love my computer and all it can do for me, not just for writing but for a myriad of other things too. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, not many of us today could really manage without their computer to help them. This is why I said, at the start of this article how the thought of the old ways horrify me!

Do you miss the old ways or are you happy with new technology?

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  1. One of the most useful things I learnt at school was touch typing – on a range of old, black, heavily built typewriters. Then I discovered a word processing program called Zardax on Apple IIE computers and I never looked back. I love writing and adapted to modern technology like a duck to water.
    One thing I am really interested in is how early man developed written codes for language. Time permitting, I’ll do some research in that area.

  2. Julian de Meyrick  

    Some fond memories:

    My girlfriend touch-typing my undergrad assignments. I dictated it and she never made a mistake, even leaving the right amount of space for diagrams and, at the foot of the page, for footnotes.

    The first, simple electric typewriters: they were the opposite of the golf ball where the ball moved across the paper. The originals moved the paper past the keys in a carriage which flew back and forth like in a manual typewriter. The carriage was heavy, protruded beyond the edge of the typewriter and being electrically powered, could leave a hell of a bruise on a person walking by if you moved the typewriter to the edge of the desk and pressed Return at the right time.

    Typists whose fingers were so strong from manually typing through three layers of paper and two layers of carbon paper (I wonder how many emailers are aware of the origin of “cc”) that their fingers smashed the first of the electronic keyboards.

    The only thing worse than finding an error at the bottom of a page was finding an error at the bottom of the first page of a 10 page document which threw out the pagination for the rest of the document when you corrected it, so you had to redo the entire document.

  3. Russell Grenning  

    I am reminded Brian of a possibly apocryphal story I was told when I began my journalism career in the last 1960s about the legendary Sir Frank Pack who, at that time, owned The Daily Telegraph in Sydney.

    It seems that the then Australian Journalists’ Association (AJA)was concerned about the imbalance between the number of typewriters in the newsroom and the number of reporters on the newspaper. Let’s say, for the sake of the story, that there were 15 more reporters than typewriters. Clearly, this was a problem and they approached Sir Frank with the argument that at critical deadline times some reporters were unable to get their stories typed. He was sympathetic to the argument that there should be an equal number of reporters to typewriters and the AJA delegation went away happy.

    The next day Sir Frank sacked 15 reporters.

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