Wednesday 27 June 2018

My Family & Other Typewriters by Janie Hampton

My mother Verily Anderson typing her next book
in 1956, watched by my father Donald.
I have always loved typewriters. Both my widowed mother and my older sister were full time writers, so I was brought up with the clickety clack of typewriters resonating through the house. It was the first sound I heard every morning when I woke. My mother used an old, black Remington with worn down keys. When I heard the bell ping frequently as she neared the end of a line, I knew her work was going well. My sister had a modern Olivetti, with a lighter sound than the solid Remington. She touch-typed, whereas my mother, despite publishing dozens of books, wrote with only four fingers in a jazzy, syncopated rhythm. 
My grandfather, the Rev. Rosslyn Bruce,
with the typewriter he named ' Jane' c 1910.
As our mother’s Remington was the tool which fed us five children, we were not allowed to touch it. But I soon learned how to remove and replace the two sheets of ‘bank’ paper and carbon paper so that she didn’t notice. I had to work out the worn vowel keys and muzzle the bell, so that my mother, busy elsewhere in the house, did not hear. I still have the manuscript of my first book ‘The Year of Mr Goodbery’, written when I was 10, with its uneven lines and many typos. The rejection letter from Brockhampton Press was polite and encouraging.
I bought my first, very own typewriter in Portobello Road market when I was 12. It was a huge, office ‘Imperial’, that cost me 15 shillings (75p). I could barely lift it and the stall holder gave me an old shopping trolley to drag it home. Oh! the hours I toiled over the pangram, ‘Quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’, trying to use all my fingers.
My 1915 Corona
My next typewriter was given to me when I was 15 by my mother’s publisher, Rupert Hart-Davis. It was made in 1915; a tiny, fold-up Corona ‘Personal Writing Machine’. The ribbon cartridges were no longer available, so I got inky fingers rewinding my mother’s old ribbons onto the tiny cartridge. When the ribbon became too faint to read, I used an old piece of carbon paper. There was no key for number 1 or 0, so I had to use a capital I or O; and for and exclamation mark , a full stop, backspace and then an apostrophe were required. Even though it had only three rows of letters, I loved it, and wrote my first published poem on it - about a kestrel.
My aim was to look like this efficient typist.
Typewriters took a long time to develop. More than 50 inventors worked independently over the years, each one adding details that eventually resulted in the successful machine. In 1714, Henry Mill obtained a British patent for ‘an artificial machine for impressing or transcribing of letters, one after another, as in writing, whereby all writing whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print’. He recommended its use for public records as they could not be counterfeited. Several Italians in the 19th century invented versions including the 
tacitipo – ‘quiet printing’ – and the Cembalo scrivano da scrivere a tasti - ‘scribe harpsichord for writing with keys'.
'Daily News' by Dona Nelson, oil on canvas, 1983.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, USA.
The first commercial typewriter was sold in 1873, with a QWERTY keyboard, on which the word ‘typewriter’ could be written using only the top row of keys. The typewriter soon became an indispensable tool for professional and legal writing and the QWERTY layout became standard, even though there is now no risk of the keys becoming entangled if the typing is too fast. By about 1910, all "manual" or "mechanical" typewriters were made with each key attached to a typebar with the corresponding letter moulded, in reverse, into its striking head.
 The word typewriter originally meant a man who used a ‘typing machine’. Then by 1900 it was noticed that women could type too, and the status and pay soon dropped. However, being a typist became a respectable job for a nice girl before she wed. In 2005, Barbara Blackburn of Oregon beat the world record by typing 212 words per minute, with an average of 150 wpm over 50 minutes. However, she used a Dvorak keyboard, which has vowels on one side and consonants on the other, with the most frequently used letters in the middle.
London Transport poster featuring a  lonely typewriter to encourage
Londoners to 'Go Out into the Country' by Graham Sutherland, 1938.
Mark Twain was the first writer to present a typed manuscript to his publisher, with ‘Life on the Mississippi’ in 1883. Ernest Hemingway wrote his books standing up in front of a Royal typewriter placed on a tall bookshelf, while J.R.R. Tolkien had no room in his attic-room for a desk so balanced his typewriter on his knees in bed. In 1951, Jack Kerouac typed his book ‘On the Road’ in two weeks, on a roll of paper 120 feet long so he didn’t have to keep changing the paper. Fellow author Truman Capote said, ‘That's not writing, it's typing.’ Two years later, Ray Bradbury wrote ‘Fahrenheit 451’ on a typewriter he had rented from the local library.
Typewriting technology changed very little in 100 years, and the last typewriter made in Britain was a 2012 ‘Brother’. Typewriters are still used in remote parts of Africa, the South Pacific and South America where there is no electricity, and in US prisons where computers are banned. In Romania under President Ceausescu, people with criminal convictions or those deemed to be ‘a danger to public order or to the security of the state’ were refused police approval to own a typewriter and it was forbidden to borrow, lend or repair typewriters without authorization. 
Typewriter erasers were often attached to the machine with string.
Unlike pencil rubbers, they rubbed a hole in the page.

Many authors still use typewriters, believing they improve their work. The American Harlan Ellison claimed, ‘Art is not supposed to be easier!’ while Will Self has said, ‘the computer user does their thinking on the screen, and the non-computer user is compelled, because he or she has to retype a whole text, to do a lot more thinking in the head.’ Cormac McCarthy writes all his novels on an Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter. In 2009, he auctioned his 1963 Olivetti for charity at Christie’s for US$254,500 (£192,000); he then replaced it with an identical one for US$20 (£15).
The television series ‘Murder She Wrote’ opens with fictional sleuth Jessica Fletcher touch-typing a manuscript with a 1940s Royal KMM. Every well-used typewriter develops an individual ‘fingerprint’ or signature and typewritten evidence of crime first appeared in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘A Case of Identity’ in 1891.
Musical compositions using typewriters include Leroy Anderson’s 1950  The Typewriter for orchestra and typewriter; Dolly Parton's song ‘ Nine to Five’; and ABBA’s 1986 Musical ‘ Chess’. The satirical Boston Typewriter Orchestra  has half-a-dozen percussionists playing typewriters under the slogan, ‘The revolution will be typewritten’. 
French typists prefer to work naked, even on birthday cards.
My last typewriter, in 1985, was an unwieldly electric Smith Corona, with a Daisy wheel instead of type bars. It remembered the last 10 letters so that I could go back and correct typos with a roll of sticky tape which plucked the offending letters off the page. I thought that very clever. Within two years I had acquired an Apple computer, which suited my unreliable typing even better. There is a revival of interest in typewriters now among steam-punks and street poets. But they aren’t getting my 1915 Corona!
French cats are good at writing novels.


Lynne Benton said...

Fascinating post, Janie. I spent my entire childhood longing for a typewriter to type up my first, very juvenile, stories (it was important to me that they should look printed.) But although my father had one he wouldn't let me use it because, he said, it was a German one with the keys in different places. And my mother wasn't interested, so she didn't see why I should be! When I began earning I bought a very ancient second-hand typewriter, though I soon realised it had its limitations, so upgraded to a little Olivetti and went on a short course to learn how to touch type - and what a valuable skill that has proved to be! Now I wouldn't be without my computer, but your blog has reminded me of that old longing for a very basic typewriter. Thank you.

Claire said...

Great post! I adore my beloved Olivetti! Have you seen this book? It's beautifully produced by uppercase magazine

Sue Bursztynski said...

I think I may have acquired my first daisy wheel typewriter at about the same time as you, Janie. I had won $250 in a children’s short story competition and decided to buy something special with the money. How excited I was! I remember buying an italics daisy wheel as an extra. I didn’t get my first computer(a Mac Classic 2 with about 4 megabytes on it) till 1991.

This post has inspired me to do one of my own about my adventures in typing! Thanks for the idea!

Maggie Black said...

Great piece -- brought back many typewriting memories! When I first began to write -- journalism -- it was on the typewriter my father had bought in 1948 to keep himself occupied on the long voyage to Australia by sea. This wonderful ancient machine still had the luggage label from this voyage on its (hard) cover. For many years -- including in Africa and in New York -- I could only write articles on this typewriter because I needed to see that particular typeface on the paper in front of me in order to continue, so many pages had to be torn out of the machine and scrunched up and thrown into the bin in the process of production. I found that after six page ones, I could get past page two and three without multiple iterations! Unfortunately it broke down while I was living in New York. I took it to some outpost on Lexington Avenue where I found someone even more elderly than the typewriter who could mend it. I forgot to collect it for many weeks, and when I went back the building had been torn down -- in the endless process of New York regeneration. Thus ended the 40 year life of a great boon to my career, and a wonderful old friend. My father kindly bought me a new one, but it was never the same. Thanks Janie for this and other memories!