Typewriters Lost in Time

June 23, 2018 | Ann

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1988 Image of discarded typewriters from the Toronto Star Archives

Obsolete: manual typewriter in a discarded pile in the Toronto Star's newsroom (1988)

On April 25, 2011 news broke that the last typewriter manufacturer had closed their doors. For many, this story stirred outrage.

National Public Radio (NPR) published a skeptical response to the news. Minyanville's article, "Contrary to Reports, Typewriter Industry 'Far From Dead'", reported that prisons were currently the best typewriter clients. Typewriter machines for prison are manufactured in clear transparent plastic. Even the ribbon cartridges are stored in transparent cartridges to ensure that no narcotics or weapons can be stashed inside.

Further discussions on the typewriter began in earnest for those who grew up using these machines and for those who were curious about their history.

Toronto Public Library's Digital Archive offers images of typewriters and those who used them proudly

Why QWERTY? QWERTY Keyboard Typewriter

Why are the letters arranged as they are on standard typewriter and computer keyboards?

Why are the letters arranged in this order? According to HowStuffWorks.com, Christopher Sholes invented the QWERTY keyboard design so that the letters arranged on type bars do not jam and lockup on the typing cylinder thus preventing the typing process to continue. Computer keyboards simply inherited this keyboard order to ensure a seamless transition from typewriters to word processors onto computers.

Sandy Lucs, curator at the Halton Regional Museum, shows off the Blickensderfer portable typewriter
Sandy Lucs, curator at the Halton Regional Museum, shows off the Blickensderfer portable typewriter; a popular machine for travellers in the late 1800s

The Blickensderfer portable shown above did not utilize the QWERTY keyboard. Its keys were organized in a more "scientific" order (known as Dvorak) in which the most used keys are the most easily accessible. Still, the QWERTY key arrangement won over time. (The portable typewriter built in the late 1800s favoured portability over durability. As a result, the machine appears exposed and unprotected. The long thin finger keys and return bar dangle over the typewriter base. Still, this was a popular machine for writers, reporters, and authors on-the-go.)

The debate on keyboard design still continues today. Have a look at this recent article from Tim McDonald from the BBC called, "Why We Can't Give Up This Odd Way of Typing--Our Stubborn Reluctance to Change Keys", and decide if you are willing to switch keyboard designs to improve your own typing.

Glorious Years of Typing

Seven telegraphic printer machines carry news from the distant world into The Star and telegraph wire operates the typewriter.

Seven telegraphic printer machines carry news from the distant world into the Toronto Star. A telegraph wire actually operates the typewriter.

The telegraphic printer (or teleprinter) in 1929 was an innovative tool where one operator communicated to another operator from a distant location through a typewriter-like device. Notice the old wall telephones attached to the telegraphic printer. A well-dressed operator glanced at typed notes sent from another operator and would reply back through the telegraphic printer. It appears that this single operator may have navigated among the six teleprinters. (Multitasking occurred long before this notion became common in our current use of the term!)

First page of the Prospectus of United Typewriter Comany  Limited

Prospectus of United Typewriter Company (1903)

The prospects of United Typewriter Company back in 1902 were quite good with its head office located in Toronto and branches spread across cities such as Hamilton, London and Montreal. The company had confidence in itself, as expressed in the above booklet:

As the most progressive Typewriter Institution in Canada, this Company has achieved a position of undisputed supremacy, and has, by a large expenditure of time and money, laid a foundation for a solid, permanent and successful business. (Prospectus of United Typewriter Company, 1903, p.7, my emphasis)

Even though the prospects of this company appeared hopeful, a brief search through The Globe and Mail Historical Newspaper Archive database (accessible with a current Toronto Public Library Card) indicates high advertisement activity ranged between 1903 to 1939, with the highest activity from 1910 to 1919. When the Second World War began, there were no more entries for this company. Despite the disappearance of this brand name, typewriters remained in high demand until the beginning of the 1980s.  

1980s: Word Processing at its Finest 

Louise Rossholds holding daisywheel from the Xerox Memorywriter
Louise Rossholds holding daisywheel from the Xerox Memorywriter in 1982

In the early 1980s, technology began to infuse typewriter machines with computer-like characteristics. In this particular case, the detachable daisywheel allowed users to change the fonts of the typewriter by simply popping one daisywheel for another. The Xerox Memorywriter provides a 40 character screen at the front of the machine so the typist could type and alter the document before he or she printed it. The document is stored in memory on a 5-1/4 inch floppy disk tucked in a 5-1/4 inch disk drive located discreetly at the front below the keyboard at the base of the typewriter. A 1983 commercial marketed this revolutionary machine.

This computerized typewriter hybrid was the precursor to the development of the word processor with a larger "computer monitor."

AES's new low-priced word processor
AES's new low-priced word processor is expected to sell for about $7 000. It was inexpensive enough to replace typewriters.

The "low price" of $7,000 for one word processor back in 1981, adjusted to the rate of inflation, would now equal $19,996.15 (2018). Regular consumers would not be able to afford such a machine at home. These word processors could duplicate copies of a document and were worth their price in human power — fewer assistants were needed to process information. One thing worth noting is that the price of evolving computer technology remained stable for over 30 years. As technology improves, the cost of manufacturing these devices goes down.

By the late 1980s, the transition from word processors to computers with word processing applications was complete. Prices of personal computers dropped and word processing programs emerged and became affordable as well as the rise in interest of dot-matrix printers. More consumers began to use word processing programs and the interest in typewriters and word processors began to decline.

Renewed Interest in the Typewriter

Those who grew up with the illustrious typewriter see June 23 (National Typewriter Day) as a day of celebration. Some of us typists are old enough to live through the changes over time and some are inspired to preserve these rare and marvelous machines for future generations.

Link to CBC Video: Toronto man has Canada's largest collection of vintage typewriters
Martin Howard and his classic typewriter collection

Martin Howard is an antique typewriter collector and lives in Toronto. There is a CBC article on his collection and he has also participated in the 2017 documentary, California Typewriter, which received positive reviews from online movie critics such as Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB.

 California Typewriter

California Typewriter (DVD)

Martin can also be reached on Facebook and on his website for those who are interested in the history and diversity of typewriters from the 1880s to the 1890s.

For those of us who would want the typewriter feel but refuse to give up computer access, a happy middle ground is available with retro-styled keyboards.  PC Magazine offers a listing of their best mechanical keyboards as of 2018. Also worth including here is a keyboard that reviewers including MacSources rave over is the Rymek Retro Bluetooth Mechanical Keyboard. The demand for the retro feel and design signifies how these beautiful past machines still call out to us today.

May your month of June be filled with the loud clacking sounds from these industrious machines, the quieter clicking noises from computer keyboards, or the artificial tapping sounds of thumbs pressing on glass screens of tablets and smartphones. No matter how you express your words, typewriters stamped their mark in time.