Press-Republican

July 21, 2013

Younger generation rediscovering typewriters

GORDIE LITTLE, Small Talk
Press-Republican

---- — Hunt and peck. It applies if you have to search the keyboard for a letter or number before typing. 

I suppose it was the way Englishman Henry Mill typed after he invented what could have been the first typewriter in 1714. It wasn’t until the “modern” configuration came about in the mid-19th century that Christopher Sholes introduced the so-called “QWERTY” layout. 

The phrase “hunt and peck” didn’t appear in print until early in the 20th century.

I learned touch-typing in Moira High School. My teacher was a stickler for perfection and taught from a hard-covered red instruction book, wider than it was tall. I have seen copies in museums.

I practiced diligently. I had already been typing on my dad’s 1920s portable since early childhood. I seem to recall getting a 98 on the typing final. I think I cheated while attempting to erase a mistake. I was found out and severely punished with a two-point deduction. 

It wasn’t long before my fat fingers failed to fly over the keys in the prescribed manner, and I gradually adopted the “Little method,” which involves far fewer fingers — a total of eight. Hey, it works.

Why am I writing about this? Two reasons: first, I cannot lay my hands on that beautifully restored old portable from the 1920s that I had stored in my garage; second, the typewriter is making a massive (well, moderate) comeback. 

When computers gained widespread popularity in the late ‘80s, typewriter use declined quickly. I was able to purchase refurbished IBM 286 computers from Clarkson for $50 apiece, and they revolutionized the speed with which I could type the news for radio, with far fewer mistakes.

Now, young people are discovering the “novelty” of typewriters and are scarfing them up in record numbers. They say they like the visual effect of hearing that loud click and snap as the key is struck. They revel in the fact that they can see the letter, symbol or number instantly imprinted on the paper. They are happy to have no “delete.”

They are less distracted than with their other modern devices and must actually think about what they want to write before typing it.

High schools and colleges are jumping back onto the bandwagon, arguing the advantages of the typewriter. Repair shops are cropping up across the nation and those that opened in the ‘20s and barely scraped by in the ‘90s are now thriving.

Sales on the Internet have burgeoned once again. I don’t see new ones being produced, but lots of old ones are coming out of mothballs to be refurbished and sold. Typewriters are basically simple machines and rather easy to maintain. Repair people have stocks of old ones strictly for parts. When a roller gets flattened over time, a like-new one can be snapped into place almost instantly. Jammed keys can be straightened or replaced. New ribbons are readily found.

Carbon-paper sales are bigger than ever, since many law offices say they have forms that can be filled out only on typewriters and it’s easy to make instant copies. 

Then, there’s one of my all-time favorite songs entitled simply, “The Typewriter,” finished by Leroy Anderson in October of 1950 and recorded for Decca Records in September of 1953. I have a copy here on an old 78 rpm disc. It’s short — just 1 minute and 45 seconds long. You can hear the original and many wannabees done by other groups on YouTube. Watching the guy with a typewriter pecking away on stage front and hearing the bell as it sounds the end of each row is great fun. Anderson’s original is far faster than the others, and I’m almost certain the man who “played the typewriter” didn’t actually make real words. 

So, if you also have an ancient typewriter like mine or even a more “modern” Selectric, drag it out and start pounding the keys. Perhaps we should alert the medical community about a whole new rash of carpal tunnel complaints.

Have a great day, go type a masterpiece and please, drive carefully.

Gordie Little was for many years a well-known radio personality in the North Country and now hosts the “Our Little Corner” television program for Home Town Cable. Anyone with comments for him may send them to the newspaper or email him at gordandk@aol.com.