I’ve been wondering lately, “What happened to my mother’s old typewriter?” Darn I wish I knew! No doubt she gave it to a friend or a family member. I sure would love to have it now! To put it in the corner of my den (if i had one) in homage to an era long-gone and to the instrument where-all-this-began.
By ‘all this,’ I mean my inclination to want to write. Back then it was “typing”. Whether it be a letter, a list, school work or banging out useless nonsense I was a typin’ fool! How many times I must have typed The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. From the time I was a young boy, eleven or twelve years old — maybe earlier, I would spend hours in front of that Smith Corona Super-Silent. Looking at the photo above floods my mind with memories.
This clever contraption the typewriter has a storied history dating back to at least the early 1800s when many of the machines were first designed to enable the blind to write. Mark Twain in his autobiography claimed he was the first important writer to present a publisher with a typewritten manuscript. It was his 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. You may have heard of it. To say the least the typewriter and how we write the written word would see a lot of changes and innovations over the coming years.
My mother’s typewriter, made of textured steel was heavy and rugged — built like a tank — but unlike the bigger office models it was smaller and portable. It was a top-quality machine. After many years of use nothing ever broke or wore out on it, it was as good as the day it was first purchased. When not using it we kept it slipped into it’s locked-down position and secured inside it’s carry case, tucked away in a beautiful mahogany desk. That desk, another 1950’s ‘antique,’ had three leather in-laid sections on top, another piece of my past that would be wonderful to behold. A special lower drawer on it’s left side (or was it the right) was made expressly for storing the Smith Corona and included a sliding fold-up shelf for sitting the typewriter on.
I’ve always thought the typewriter (at least the manual, pre-electric kind) a fascinating piece of machinery. Interesting how everything worked in sync, the keys attached to levers, the type bars and the hard-rubber platen. With a quick but firm stroke to a key the energy transferred through a series of linkages to create the inked impression on paper that advanced the platen one precise space at a time. It all worked seamlessly amidst a jumble of tiny springs, gears, screws and miscellaneous parts hidden beneath the cover and at the lightning speed — in those days — of my 10 words or so per minute. I remember untangling the typebars when I would hit more than one key at the same time, that happened a lot.
I recall too the smell of the ink from the little reels of ribbon. How I would occasionally flip them over and carefully thread the inked-cloth — from one reel and across through the guides to the other — to catch the bottom (now top) half for a fresh, dark image. My fingers were blackened with the inked smudges that to my mother’s chagrin left their mark on the typewriter, the furniture, my clothes, the walls and everywhere else. There was something too about the finished product from those machines, the feeling of accomplishment and something about the feel of the paper between my fingers, the smell and the texture. Even today I’ll often pick up a newly printed book, check to see that no one is watching, and inhale the fresh aroma of the paper and the ink.
I was always drawn to, and in some ways mesmerized, by the sound of a typewriter’s rat-a-tat-tat, the clickity clack with each tap of the keys under the skilled hands of a 40+ word-per-minute typist. That percussive symphony with the dependable ring of the bell at the end of each line followed by the slap and slide of the returning carriage. A room full of them, even better!
Despite my half-hearted attempt to take typing class in ninth grade before a gun-metal, slightly abused Royal, and later several similar attempts to learn the touch-typing method, I’ve always reverted back to my trusty old hunt and peck technique. I overdid the power-stroke thing as I vividly remember the heavy impression of my typewritten pages with their tiny indentations that made the back side of the page feel like Braille. Still today I have an annoying tendency to beat my laptop keyboard to a noisy and sometimes distracting level. Old habits as they say are hard to break.
So now, as an adult advancing well into my years, I admit it, yes I’ve been with my share of a few alluring, seductive typewriters in my day. After leaving that Smith Corona behind when I left home, and throughout my days in the Air Force then college and on to work in various broadcasting jobs, I would have my way with the Olivetti’s, the Royals, the Remingtons and the Underwoods. Later as a television news reporter I would become familiar with several breeds of those come-hither IBM Selectrics. I had arrived! Top quality, rugged reliability and that snap-in, snap-out interchangeable typing element. How’d they get that little ball to spin and tilt so darn fast?
Who would have thought what was in-store for the typewriter in those days and the things we’d be doing from the modern version of it’s still-familiar QWERTY keyboard? Not that manual typewriters aren’t still being made, they are. Much like the error in reporting the death of writer Mark Twain earlier reports of the typewriter’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Now in an age when the typewriter has lost it’s luster and they’ve become mostly mechanical corpses – relics of the past – I pay tribute to the little machine that started it all for me. Oh how I wish I had recognized the value that beautiful Smith Corona of my youth would one day have. Yes, the typewriter may be on it’s last legs, but my memories of me sitting at that Smith Corona at my mother’s mahogany desk, so many years ago, will be with me forever. Funny how simple things like that leave their indelible mark on our memories of the past.
Now, don’t get me going about floppy disks!
As always thanks for stopping by.
Note: I’ve rewritten the basics section of my About the Writer page. Maybe you can take a moment to check it out.