Wunderkammer: a series celebrating the almost lost...
Did you know that typewriters have their own unique 'fingerprint'? Apparently, during the Cold War in the Eastern Bloc, typewriters were a controlled technology, with secret police in charge of maintaining files of the typewriters and their owners.
I suspect everyone with writing aspirations has a typewriter, whether manual or electric, no matter what your age. Somewhere in a cupboard, under the bed, in the shed, there's an old typewriter. Maybe it was yours before you surrendered to the ease of a computer. Maybe it was passed down to you from a family member. Perhaps you saw it in a junk shop and couldn't resist, but then you discovered you couldn't get ribbons for it anymore. Or if you're lucky, you have one in full working order, with as stockpile of ribbons and other odd accessories (font 'golfballs'!).
I used to work for an elderly professor who was unable to use a typewriter, let alone a computer. It was in the early 1990s, when secretaries were being phased out and academics were expected to do their own typing (but not their own administration). More...Prof found any noise above the scratch of his biro distracting. He'd bought a typewriter once, used it for a day then abandoned it through sheer frustration at the noise of the keys. It's still in his garage, a brand new Remington, mint condition. I used to do his typing for him, on my brand-new Mac Classic. These days he still writes longhand, and pays someone else to type for him.
But it's that noise of the keys that seduces would-be writers into acquiring the typewriter. There's something about the effort of tapping the keys, the simultaneous 'clack' noise and the instant gratification of seeing the words appear -- printed -- on the sheet of paper in front of you. It's that magical combination that promises avant-guard success in writing.
But the promise is an empty one. Ours is a gear-orientated, materialistic culture, but unfortunately the bottom line is all the gear in the world won't buy you the talent you need. The typewriter is abandoned when you realise that using one does not make you a better writer. All those mental images of the lone writer hunched over their keyboard, cigarette in mouth, tapping away on their life's masterpiece, is just a hopeful fantasy. Truman Capote would have loved a laptop. Jack Kerouac would have adored internet cafes, and On the Road probably would have been a blog.
Still, it doesn’t stop the typewriter from being an object of beauty, worth having for the fun of playing with it. I admit to having two typewriters at the moment. One was given to my son by a friend in an attempt to get him interested in doing his homework. It didn't work, but it got me playing with typing again as part of my art practice – 'play' being the operative word. I can't type fast on it because the 'v' key falls off with annoying regularity and I spike my finger on the exposed stem. So I play with it. I type on foil, on toilet paper, on prints. Typewriter art isn't new, certainly isn't cutting edge, but it's damn good fun.
The other typewriter is in a drawer at my parents' house, and it's a strange and short-lived hybrid of typewriter and printer; you type into it, it stores your lines up for a while in its memory, then it prints out, supposedly trying to justify your lines and space your type in a more elegant way than a normal fixed-space typewriter. It was confusing to work with, because the delayed reaction eroded your concentration. It was quickly -- and thankfully -- overtaken by the computer and printer, and now I can't get any parts for it, so I guess it'll be landfill before too long. That's why the old, manual, portable typewriter will live a little longer: it satisfies the senses, and when the ribbon runs out, I can just use carbon paper to make it work in the traditional sense. But carbon paper is another post for another day.
BTW: For those nostalgic about their typewriters, it is possible to install a piece of software that simulates a typewriter 'clack' noise for your computer keyboard. But it's just not the same, is it?
Sites to Explore: The Virtual Typewriter Museum (which is where 2 of the images above come from),The Classic Typewriter Page, Chuck & Rich's Antique Typewriter Museum, Typewriter Wiki. Any other suggestions welcome!
[crossposted at Sarsaparilla]