Monday, February 20, 2012

Typewriters animate and inanimate


  1. Richard, I thoroughly enjoyed this intelligent, creative post!

    The metaphors you use, in my opinion, are spot-on. "Life Support" and "Inanimate" machines are not so much analogues of the human user (soul) as they are analogues of electric power. In comparison to the manual typewriter, they are "impersonal." That said, I would consider keeping an electric mainly for its design or historical value.

    Are those your sketches?
    Very cool.

  2. To a certain extent, I agree with your typewriter taxonomy. The mechanical typewriter is an elegant, self-contained machine. A well designed and maintained machine creates a wonderful dance between kinetic energy, potential energy and gravity. Like most good tools, in absence of its creator and user it is full of potential. Unlike a modern laptop computer, that potential can be turned to task with relative ease.

    One hundred years from now, I suspect that our anachronistic friends will still be recognizable in both form and function. Sure, they will be museum pieces, but one could intuit their purpose without too much thought.

    I'm not sure the same can be said for a modern computer.

    My dividing line on electric machines is somewhat irrational. Yes, they are all on life support and dependent on Tesla's flip-flopping electrical waves, but some have more evidence of handiwork and craft than others. Machine turned brass and steel made and assembled by hand, in my world view, has more intrinsic value than ABS plastic bits.

    I have to admit a moment of weakness after reading the Nightline story on Foxconn. When shown an operating iPad for the first time, a worker who carves the Apple logo in the aluminum shell commented for the benefit of product users: "I want them to know me. I want them to know we put a lot of effort in this product so when they use this please use it with care."

    Gray areas are so tricky.

  3. I agree completely. Even the electrics I like, I don't like to use. I also resent that tether.

  4. I do have a stenotype in the middle group. I didn't realize for awhile that it had batteries and I'm anxious to replace them to feel the difference.

  5. Excellent post, and the illustrations are fantastic as well. I particularly like the manual typewriter with a pulsing heart spewing out letters.

    I have never been drawn to electronic typewriters - my very first trash find typewriter was a Brother wedge that worked well enough, but I quickly realized that it was not for me and gave it away. Another thing I didn't like about it was that it was unpredictable - I could not explain why it would skip letters or go a bit berserk, as it was wont to do. On manual typewriters, I like being able to follow the action from depressing a key to imprinting a letter.

  6. I agree fully! I never thought of an electric as on life support, but you hit the nail on the head (or is it into the coffin).

    The mechanical all manual machines will be around and useable for centuries as long as one can find. make or restore a ribbon.

    The electric: planned obsolescence. Even if they physically survive they will die. The plastic gears will rot, the rubber goods will rot and maybe the motor will run, but without the special belts and such ... well it may make an interesting conversation piece for a door stop if ever anyone has use to prop open an door anylonger.

    I do have one of those all plastic electric daisy wheel ones in the garage though. I never consider it part of the collection. It came with my 3 for $5.00 Craigslist purchase last year and I felt I should not refuse it for perhaps someone may want it. No takers so it sits and stays in its lonely place on a pile of things that may go to the thrift store one day. I may relent and add a Selectric though because I really like all the different fonts available and I know I'll not have room for individual typewriters if I could even find and afford them.

  7. I dunno. I have almost as many electric (and electronic!) typewriters as I have manuals, and I like using both. To me, they are instruments of my creativity and tools of my trade (go figure!), and, suffering rather frequently from joint pain, I REALLY appreciate the reduced effort you have to exert to type on an electrically powered machine, though I do love to use my old Remingtons and Olivettis as much as my poor wrists and knuckles can resist. Right now I'm enjoying using my newly refurbished IBM Executive D, which, "by its doctor's orders", will see a lot of use in the future.

  8. Great illustrations! And a great post also! I absolutely agree with your... The only thing I like about electrics is the possibility to change between several fonts. But there's something about their "hybrid" nature that makes it wrong.

  9. Thanks for saying so eloquently what many of us typewriter enthusiast have always felt. The ultimate typing experience involves using only your hands and brain to power the typewriter. Not only to do manual typewriters have soul but everyone who uses them imprint part of themselves into them. Just another small part of why we connect with so deeply.

  10. Beautifully said, Richard. Manual typewriters pulse with vital energy. Their differences -- mechanics and touch, arcing keys vs. thrusting mitts, clatter vs. momentum-based quasi-noiselessness -- make them individual in a way you can touch and see and feel. Tom Furrier is right: they have soul. For me, working on an electric (I confess, though, that I have a special spot in my heart for some Selectrics) is a bit like using a series of electric shocks to make an animal jump. It can be done (a downscale amusement park here in NYC once boasted a cage containing the 'amazing Chinatown dancing chicken' that moved on this principle every time you inserted a quarter) and it is done, but it's kind of heartless and ugly in the end.

    Besides, electrics have a horrible way of getting damaged in shipping. I recently bought a Praxis 48 on eBay because I wanted to see the Sotsass style first-hand, only to find, once it arrived, that it had been horribly disfigured and, perhaps inalterably damaged, due to desultory packing.


  11. Well said, sir! The mainspring is indeed a thing of wonder, sometimes holding all that pent-up energy in store for years, waiting to be unleashed...

    That said, I've had more than one mainspring try to leap up and take out an eyeball. Alive indeed.

  12. I agree that manual typewriters have more "soul" than electrics for the reasons you described.

    But I also happen to view the latter as valid writing tools. Yes, the electrics are dependent, in a way, but the manuals are also dependent on our fingers pressing the keys.

    Both manual typewriters and electrics are mute unless the human element is present.

    So we may ask: What is the sound of a typewriter sitting alone in the forest?

  13. Having come a bit late to this comment, I still found it wonderful. Manuals require our hands, which reminds me of this old quote, and one of the first bits we translated from the Greek at St. John's, "It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals." Anaxagoras