Thursday, 31 October 2013

Typewriter Nostalgia

I'm (re)reading (on my Kindle) another old Dalgleish-mystery by P.D. James: Unnatural Causes. I've not finished the book yet, but was again struck during the reading by how much technology has changed since the mid 1960s. However this story might end, it is clearly set in a different time than the 21st century…

[the] portable typewriter was ready for them at the Inn, placed squat and shining on the edge of a small oak table in the saloon bar. The attentions of the finger print men and the typewriter experts seemed to have given it an added lustre. It looked at once ordinary and menacing, innocent and dangerous. It was, perhaps, the most intimate object that [X] had owned.  --- They knew at once why it was there. They were required to type two passages of prose;

James, P.D.  Unnatural Causes, Kindle Edition.


Typewriter exhibited at our hospital's museum a couple of years ago

Ah, the good old days for detectives when they might be able to tell from a typed sheet of paper not only which typewriter was used to write it on, but even who the typist was, based on the force of their individual keystroke…

(In the quotes below I replaced actual names of characters in the book with letters A-G.)

[A] took some time to settle herself but once started the strong fingers, bony as a man’s, danced above the keys to produce, in an incredibly short time, two accurate copies elegantly set out and perfectly typed.

[B] used all five fingers correctly although her speed was only moderate and, unlike [A], she kept her eyes firmly on the keys.

[C] staring at the machine as if she hadn’t seen one before, protested shortly that she couldn’t type --- Eventually she was persuaded to make a start and after thirty minutes’ effort, produced an appallingly typed two pages  ---

[D]  when he could bring himself to touch the typewriter, was surprisingly quick and accurate ---

[E] was almost as expert as [A] and rattled away in sullen silence.

[F] said briefly that she couldn’t type but had no objection to trying. She refused Courtney’s help, spent about five minutes examining the keyboard and the carriage and settled down to the laborious task of copying the passage, word by word.  ---

[G] was hopeless, but even Courtney couldn’t believe that the man was faking.

To my amusement, when googling my choice of title for this blog post, that led me on to the two videos below. The first one is very short. Watch it! And if you doubt its ‘authenticity’, go on to the next one! Smile

If anyone is wondering what about typewriters evokes nostalgia in me, the answer is that most of my working life I worked as a secretary. When I went to secretary school at age 20, we still only had one electric typwriter in the classroom (and took turns using that). However, I knew how to type properly long before that. I was only 13 when I first learned, using my dad’s old typewriter at home, and a correspondence course book of my mum’s, with a cardboard shield over the keyboard to prevent me from looking at the keys.

I would not really want to go back, though!


  1. Oh my gosh, he hooks up typewriters to computer monitors. What does he call them, USB Typewriters? I guess it would work just like a computer, except you could feel the clack of the keys. I still have my mom's old electric typewriter and cannot get rid of it because she loved it SO much!

  2. daddy had a really really old typewriter, one of the first ever made. wish i had kept it. this is really very interesting about the usb typewriter. but it is much harder to type on a typewriter than on this keyboard. so why would i want to. the short video makes a lot of sense, i had never really thought about it, but the batteries even on what we used 10 years ago are hard to find, they change with everything they invent.. so Ipad, laptop,PC would be useless 50 years from now without the battery. this is mind boggling...

  3. I would love to gop back - especially with all the advantages of a conmputer. I have difficulty hitting the right keys on a cimouter keybioard but they are far enough aoart on a typewriter keyboqrd for it to be easy. I Want One!!! (I have not corrected the speelingg purposely to show you what hard work it is getting a sentrnce correct - Normally I have tyo go bacvk and correct each wrongb word).

  4. When I was 17, I managed to secure for myself the conctract of an apprenticeship at my town's library. The apprenticeship was to start in September, and in March, my future boss asked me to do a typewriting course so that I would know how to type by the time I'd start at the library.
    I went to typewriting classes once a week, where our teacher looked exactly like Queen Silvia of Sweden, and learned typing on huge mechanical typewriters (that was in 1986). Our teacher had a special method to make us aquire a rhythm in typing: she played march music on an oldfashioned record player and made us type to that!
    I was quick to learn and enjoyed it, and it has served me very well in every job I have since had. Not sure though whether my fingers are still strong enough to hit the keys on a mechanical typewriter.

  5. Very interesting post and videos.
    We did Office Procedures at school with the use of a typewriter, and if it were not for those classes, I think I would have been a lot slower at getting the hang of a computer keyboard.
    I like the USB Typewriter just for fun though!!

  6. I too learned to touch type but rheumatism and the need to hit short cut keys and work a mouse or graphics pad have meant I no longer can. I could also use a Morse key but like my typing it was a bit slow to be regarded as a skill.
    I love computers and never want to go back to clunky mechanical machines, tipex, cleaning and ribbon changing..It was as quick to write longhand for me and gave me thinking time.

  7. There is a little software (free) that makes your computer sound like an old typewriter (if you like that):
    I sometimes use it for my writing sessions or in summer on the balcony, just to make my curious neighbours wonder

    I learned to type on a very old typewriter too, back in the 70ies. That made my fingers strong with muscles ...
    Later I wrote everything on my green "Olympia Traveller de Luxe" - incredibly enough: I even traveled with it!

    Nice post, evoking memories, thank you!

  8. I never learned to touch-type properly even though I've typed since I was around 10 on an old Remington and then an Underwood. I can recall the typing pools when I started work and the constant clackety clack that emanated from them. They used to be ruled over by ladies with various degrees of ferocity. They were as feared by the staff who used the typing pool as by the staff who worked in them. Now, it seems that everyone does their own typing in the form of e-mails and occasional letters.


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