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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Talking about Typewriters

Today the last typewriter made in the UK was produced and sent straight to the Science Museum in London.  The BBC produced a eulogy for the machine with a contribution from a friend of mine, Keira Rathbone.

Here is something I wrote after talking about typewriters with Keira a little while ago

Talking about typewriters last night has set my mind racing back over all the machines I have loved and lost over the years.  I had been writing poetry since I was about three and by the time I was a teenager I knew I was going to be doing it as a serious part of the rest of my life.  Both my brothers in law used typewriters in their work and I knew I had to have one like theirs if I was going to be taken seriously.  One was a nuclear physicist and the other was a journalist and both had portable Olivetti Lettera 32s.  At that time I could only dream of such style and such cutting edge technology but on a visit to a small typewriter shop close to the station in Southampton I found a portable Remington.  It was a bit old fashioned and ungainly but I loved it and I used it continuously for the next seven or eight years.  It took me all the way through college but, strangely enough, looking back through my papers I tended not to write essays on it. (When I could be bothered to write essays at all). I think it had become too personal and was only for poetry and plays. The typeface is clear and precise with only theT and H showing signs of fading.  But that could have been down to my self taught typing style which means I press more lightly on those keys.

Once I was writing for a living I knew I had to upgrade and I traded in the Remington for an Olivetti Dora, a lighter (and cheaper) version of the Lettera. This did me equally as well and lasted some ten years.  On it I wrote all of my early performed plays.  Again I swopped and this time I opted for an electric Smith Corona.  This was still much the same as a manual in appearances but had a sort of motor which made key operation much lighter and consequently, typing speeds could be much quicker.  The ribbon was made of plastic film and came in a cartridge that you slotted into the side.  There was also a correcting ribbon which could be inserted in place of the ribbon and by typing back over your last letters you could delete them.   It may seem primitive from here but it was a huge improvement over tippex and correction papers that we used up to then.

By a series of chances I was out of work for a year and a half and it was almost inevitable that I managed to find a job selling typewriters.  I worked in a shop that specialised in office machines and had the franchise for a Swedish brand called Facit.  These were probably the top brand at the time and competed head to head with the IBM golfballs which, by then, had reached the peak of their development.  The problem with the IBM was that the golfball tended to wear out and the replacements cost nearly as much as the typewriter itself.  People used to prowl into our shops and ask if we could get replacements but they could only be obtained direct from IBM.  The Facits had a typehead arranged in a daisywheel.  These were very simple to replace and relatively cheap and came in many typefaces.  The staff and owners of the shop knew I was a writer and when I left they presented my with an expensive fountain pen and a Facit T120 portable electronic.  This was a beautiful state of the art machine with memory and automatic correction.  The pen lasted about a fortnight. The typewriter lasted me for fifteen years and even after I had gone entirely over to computers I still kept the Facit for form filling.  That machine only went to typewriter heaven as late as the autumn of 2007.

It was whilst I was working at the typewriter shop that I saw the writing on the wall for the typewriter.  We had the first consignment of Amstrad word processors and we could see straight away that this was going to be the future.  Ironically, at the same time, we also had a consignment of Russian portables that were the last hurrah of an old technology.  I can’t remember the brand name but they were truly awful and were always breaking down and I spent more time trying to persuade people not to buy them but they were cheap and a lot of people were prepared to battle with them to produce the occasional letter.

Am I nostalgic about typewriters?  No.  I loved all of my typewriters at the time and I loved the lifestyle that they formed a part of but when I think about ribbon changing, cleaning, tippex, carbon paper I’m happier with my computer.

Here is the link to the BBC news article

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