Music - CDs Classical
Early Typewriters at the ROM to January 2008
By AlidŽ Kohlhaas
At the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) a very special display is on view until January 2008 that takes us back to the very early days of a mechanical 'personal' communication machine. This is not the computer, but the typewriter, a machine that had a place not only in business, but also could be found in many homes from the late 19th century onward. The typewriters in the exhibit are part of a much larger collection owned by Martin Howard. His is probably the largest collection of typewriters in Canada, if not all of North America.
The idea of creating a writing machine dates back to the early 18th century, but no workable machine came on the market until the 1870s. No one can claim to be the inventor of the typewriter. It is estimated that more than 50 typewriter patents existed around the world for a wide variety of machines. If you speak to Brazilians, for one, you will be told that a priest, Father Francisco Jo„o de Azevedo, invented the typewriter in 1861. Of course, he is just one of many candidates for the job, including one Henry Mill, who registered a patent in England as early as 1714.
From some of the designs of early typewriters it is obvious that the inventors geared their invention toward the blind. After all, no one could really imagine why any respectable writer would want to give up the use of the pen for writing when the idea of a machine first cropped up about 200 years ago. As for the keyboard arrangement we use even today, it dates back to the 1874 Sholes & Glidden typewriter, the first commercially viable typewriter produced anywhere. It established the QWERTY layout for the letter keys in the English language we now use with minor alterations.
The 1990 film, Awakenings, features Robert De Nero as a patient who has just come out of a catatonic state as the result of a rare sleeping sickness. Robin Williams plays the doctor who uses an experimental drug to wake him out of that state. The doctor and nurses attempted to stimulate the patient in the early stages of the treatment by getting him to communicate with a machine very similar to a Victor (1889), a Victorian typewriter in the collection on display at the ROM. The patient in the film used his index finger to operate a swing arm to select a character situated on a semicircle very much like the one on the Victor machine. Only after viewing the Victor machine in the exhibit did I make the connection from the implement used in the film to an early typewriter. Even more startling is the first German typewriter, a Hammonia from 1884, which looks more like a cheese cutter than a typewriter. Then there is the Lambert 1, a 1902 typewriter from New York. It resembles an old-fashioned dial telephone. Come to think of it, there is a whole new generation that has never seen a phone with a rotary dial.
Let's be honest. Today's generation has little or no connection to or understanding of typewriters. It knows the computer monitor and separate keyboard that insures the user never has to bother to return a carriage, never has to laboriously insert sheets of paper separated by a sheet of carbon paper into its machine. The keyboard, computer, and the monitor often come from different sources and are quickly cast aside if a better or newer model comes on the market. So, one wonders if members of this modern generation will ever have a sentimental attachment to a particular computer setup, one they will use against all odds long after they have come out of general use. Despite the ease of use of a computer there are to this day, however, people who will not give up their old typewriters, especially creative writers.
For those of us who were nurtured on the typewriter before switching to the computer in the mid-70s, there is something special about looking at the display of typewriters at the ROM. Few of us will have actually used one of the models on display, but they look close enough to some of the typewriters that could have been found in our parents' or grandparents' homes. As a consequence there is a feeling of familiarity when looking at the ROM display that comes unexpected.
One wonders how many young people, who now take it for granted that they can cut and paste, copy, delete (erase) or edit without difficulty, can even comprehend what it was like to use a typewriter. Will they even know why they use the terms 'cut' and 'paste' , why there is such a thing as 'cc' at the end of a letter? Will they ever have seen a sheet of carbon paper, or know the use of white-out?
When I started my career as a journalist, I worked a great deal at night and then had a 7:00 a.m. deadline. When I first started that job I fell asleep many times over my manual typewriter. Yet, my machine, in comparison to those displayed at the ROM, was a veritable emblem of modernity. It took several months for my body and mind to learn to withstand not sleeping at regular hours, and the typewriter was the implement that helped me to survive through those months of adjustment. For, not only did I have to write my stories, but then the editing process began, pushing the adrenalin to get it all finished for the looming deadline.
One read through the piece and began to literally cut and paste. A paragraph placed in the middle seemed better near the end, another further down should have been nearer the beginning. Another paragraph made no sense at all. So a quick rewrite began and then was pasted in the appropriate space.
Those are the ubiquitous memories of working first with a manual and then with an electric typewriter. But my memories connected the typewriter go back to my childhood. In my father's surgery stood an Adler typewriter. Which model I can no longer recall, but it was black and heavy. It did its regular job, however, of filling out dad's medical and laboratory reports, and whatever else that had to be written in a doctor's office. The old Adler did so without complaints for many years under the hands of various assistants.
There is a sentimental attachment to that particular typewriter, which I can still picture in my mind because it came from the company once headed by my grandfather, to me a mythical figure who had died long before I arrived. In our garage stood a green Adler car, another inheritance from the grandfather of whom I had been told so many great stories by my grandmother. And my first bicycle, red in color, also bore the Adler logo.
But, the typewriter is more important than all the other items because while grandfather was an engineer, his father and grandfather had been writers of a sort. Great-great-grandfather founded a newspaper that, if it still existed, would now be 175 years old. My great-grandfather, however, never took over the family paper. He became a diplomat instead, and in his free time wrote poetry and plays. I can imagine that these, most likely, were all written on some of the earliest typewriters ever produced.
Strangely enough though, this part of my family history I learned about only after I became an editor after a long apprenticeship if you like as a reporter. When that happened, a parcel arrived from Vancouver containing the 100th anniversary copy of my forebear's newspaper, and a copy of one of my great-grandfather's plays. It seems, as my mother told me, ink had run in my blood all along, and it was now time to tell me about it. This implied somehow that until my editorship, it seemed best to hide the writing part of my ancestry from me. I never did have the courage to ask why and now it is too late.
By the time that parcel arrived I had long abandoned the typewriter for a computer. Still, I have retained a nostalgia for the typewriter. I can recall the red and black ribbon in my father's typewriter. I used to play for hours on the machine when allowed to enter the office during hours when no one worked in it. What I wrote as a child, I no longer recall. I had not mastered the keys then and conducted a one-finger-at-a-time kind of typing. It may well be that I was not just attracted by the letters the machine produced on paper, but also by the tapping sound of the keys and the musical bell that sounded whenever the line came close to the end and the carriage was pushed back. The typewriter's obvious musicality is what inspired Leroy Anderson to write his Typewriter song, one of his most well-known compositions made famous by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. I can also visualize the first typewriter I owned, an Underwood, that served me for many years, and I learned to type on at a high speed. It, too, was very musical.
To be honest, when it came to typing, I did not learn that skill until my final high school year in Vancouver. I had a spare period and decided to take it as an easy subject. It might come in handy I thought, although I knew for sure that I would never be a typist. As it turned out, I failed the subject miserably, the only failure on my high school report. I only managed 17 words a minute, not good enough for a pass in the subject. I had the problem even then that I just could not copy a text as presented. I had an urge to edit it if it failed to live up to my liking. This, invariably, slowed me down. Besides, it meant that my typing report never matched what had been handed to me for copying.
Well, things have long since changed. Today my speed is well over the 80 mark. It is amazing what can happen when one sits down at a machine to meet a deadline. But, when I look at my computer, there is no sentimental note attached to it. Well, not quite. My keyboard has a special design and I would be hesitant to give it up unless absolutely necessary. I know that in a few years the computer set-up will look very different again because progress seems to demand that it has to be changed sooner or later. But, I doubt that anyone will ever compose a song about the computer. The tapping sound of the keyboard does not quite come up to the musical standards of the typewriter keys hitting the paper and the carriage making a return. As for paper, I still have a strong attachment to the tactile feeling of the kind of paper one cannot use in computers. The romance of such paper being put into a typewriter is far greater than filling the printer tray and watching printed sheets come out smoothly on their own, rather than ripping them out of a typewriter's carriage.
When the typewriter came into existence, it soon became evident that the major users of it would be women. Hence the designs often incorporated pretty images. I cannot even begin to imagine a computer with mother-of-pearl inlays, with flowered decals around the keyboard or the monitor. Yet, various manufacturers did all this in the early days of the typewriter. By the 1930s, however, the idea of functionality seemed uttermost important. The only luxury allowed was a variation in color. Some typewriters switched from being black to being gray, red, beige, or light green, depending on the manufacturer. Once the electric typewriter arrived, a whole new attitude developed toward the machine. The typeface looked cleaner than that produced by the manual machines. It almost equaled the sharp face now produced by today's printers, whether they be lasers or inkjets.
While the romance of the typewriter is undeniable, I will not agree with those, who have the opinion that writing on a typewriter is more conducive to creativity than writing on a computer. Nonsense! If one is a good writer, it does not matter whether it is the quill, the pen, the typewriter or the computer that is the instrument for writing down one's thoughts. Still, I am glad to have seen Howard's early typewriters at the ROM. They brought back a lot of memories.