Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Wunderkammer: 2. The Typewriter

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]


Val said...

Well, your post is quite a masterpiece, starting from that delightful 1930s(?) photo, and then reminiscences about elderly professors and those strangely satisfying clackety keyboards.

When I read about you typing on foil etc. I thought damn! I shouldn't have turfed out my old portable. As for "embossing" on different materials, what about this: a couple of weeks ago in a country antiques/old stuff place I saw a box of what looked like old printing equipment. There were individual letters of the alphabet in metal on the end of slender wood handles. I think it would be great to have at least my initials which I could then pound into the cover of a handmade book. Don't know how that would go on paper, (not game enough to try leather) but the next time I'm at that shop I'm going to buy some letters and see what I can do with them.

Boysenberry said...

I learnt to type in 1989 using an old typewriter. However, as speeds increased, so did the ever present threat of key conjunction... nothing gives dye stained fingers quite like sorting out a key jam!

Still, I have a fairly old keyboard on the PC, so it rattles rather nicely when I get the fingers pounding.

BTW, nice pic. Something rather erotic about this style of picture. :)

Ampersand Duck said...

Ah yes, that's probably because I found it when I googled 'typewriter erotica'.

Mummy Crit said...

Ah yes, the lure of the typewriter. I never had my own, but my mum's old manual holds a fond place in my heart. I was allowed to play on it occasionally, and then later I was allowed to use it for my homework, but it was always faster and better for mum to do the typing (she could touch type and I couldn't) The lack of a 'delete' key would annoy the crap out of me now. I did learn to touch type at TAFE in 88 using something not unlike the machine you describe - a short term memory typewriter. Not easy at all.

I love the idea of Kerouac in an internet cafe updating his blog.

Boysenberry said...

Well, I don't feel much less of a perv now, but at least I'm in good company. :)

Dave said...

Great posting. Love the photo - Google truely must have everything if it's got typewriter erotica! never even knew that existed.

Suzy said...

This is a great post, and even more interesting having just received a typewritten note from you yesterday! Thank you SO MUCH for my lovely backtack package - the bunny is great (I love the printed fabric) and all the other goodies really made my day... your printed things are really gorgeous.
I'm going to write a post about it tomorrow but just wanted to let you know now that it had arrived and to say thanks.

Ampersand Duck said...

And Val -- I adore coptic binding! Once you master it, you can make anything into book covers, even album covers. It's a great skill. Enjoy!

Val said...

Mmmm, maybe I'll "sacrifice" my original Rolling Stones "Sticky Fingers" cover (zipper still functional!) and make it into a book.