Thursday, December 28, 2017

Paper survives in futures past

I was given two vintage SF paperbacks for Christmas, which make for fun vacation reading and also have gotten me thinking again about paper itself—how we used to take it for granted as the universal carrier of information.

Here's a 1957 short story collection by the nearly-forgotten Dick Wilson:

In the cover story, a computer becomes sentient and makes contact with alien machines. It must decide whether to remain faithful to humanity or cast its lot with the extraterrestrials. Yet this super-powerful thinking machine still communicates with humans, as computers generally did in the '50s, by way of paper:

Yes, this supercomputer communicates data at a blazing 120 words per minute. Assuming 5 characters per word and 1 byte per character, that's a throughput of 10 bytes per second. In contrast, my current Internet connection is running at about 27 megabytes per second—well over two million times as fast as the computer in Wilson's tale. (And of course, neither my Mac nor the entire Internet is anywhere close to sentience.)

According to another story born of "Mr. Wilson's galloping imagination," by 2009 there will have been another American civil war that separates big cities from the backward but liberty-loving "Outside." The technology of 2009 will include audiobooks, test-tube babies, and a replacement for typewriters—but not for paper:

What about this 1978 novel by Jack Vance, part of his Alastor series that imagines a distant future in which humans have colonized thousands of planets? This is a much more elaborate fictional scenario, and it was written at a time when personal computers and word processors were getting underway. Surely it won't be so papercentric, will it?

The technology of Vance's universe includes interstellar travel, synthetic food, and massive moving sidewalks ("man-ways"). But the Connatic, the supreme ruler of trillions of people, still depends on paper cards:

Apparently, a mere 40 years ago it still didn't occur to some science fiction novelists that paper would become a second-class citizen to glass screens studded with millions of tiny pixels.

Note that the word "paper" does not actually appear in any of these passages. That's the way it is with things we take for granted: they're as invisible as the air we breathe.

I expect that our own speculative futures will look just as ridiculous 40 years from now. What developments are we failing to imagine?

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Spawned by my Noiseless

On Christmas Eve, I was driving down 40th Street in Oakland, California when I had to pull over and snap a picture of a building across the way.

That sign for the Integrative Wellness Center looked very familiar.

Yes! It was made with my own Remington Noiseless font.

As I write in my book:

     Even as a kid, I was fascinated by the typeface of my Remington Noiseless Portable Model Seven. I liked typing it, copying it by hand, and noticing its little imperfections, such as the missing right foot on its lowercase m. That disabled m has now appeared on blogs, games, books, packaging, and ad campaigns—because I turned it into a digital font and shared the soul of my typewriter with the world. I’ve now created over a dozen typewriter fonts that I give away on The Classic Typewriter Page, and I didn’t need to know anything about font design to do it.
     Here’s how. First, find a website that offers to make a font from your handwriting (there are several). The system works via a template that you print, write on, then scan and upload to the site. Of course, the template will work with typing just as well as with handwriting. You can either type directly on the printed template, or use an image editing program to work with a high-resolution scan of your typewriter’s typing and paste it into the digital template. Extra characters can be created through some image manipulation. The results won’t look just like real typing, but it’s a kick to see the soul of your typewriter manifested on a screen.

Remington Noiseless was the first of 17 fonts that I've created so far using this method.

The font has been downloaded over 110,000 times from

You can find it along with more typewriter fonts on The Classic Typewriter Page.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Ritual

Many thanks to Juan Alfredo Luque of Alcalá la Real, Spain, for this poetic guest post. My translation follows.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Torpedo Solitaire typewriter

This typewriter is so big it doesn't fit on my blog.

At Herman's I got carried away in the excitement of an auction and ended up winning this ginormous Schreibmaschine with an 18-inch carriage. Well, it wasn't utterly irrational, since I've never had a chance to try a big '50s Torpedo, and the opportunity may never come up again. These are not normally found in the US, and shipping one over from Germany would be insane.

This machine has a German QWERTY keyboard. That is, Y and Z are not switched as on most German keyboards, so in that regard this layout is like the American QWERTY; but there are also German letters (Ö, Ä, Ü, ß), accents, and symbols that you don't generally find on US machines, such as §. Some characters are in places that Americans consider strange (the semicolon is over the 1, and the apostrophe is in the lower right corner over the hyphen).

But the machine was clearly used in the US. Its American users attached this label, which after a little deliberation I decided to remove. (Unfortunately, a little paint came off with it.)

The machine was last serviced by a shop in upstate New York.

The carriage can be removed by moving it all the way to the left (the drawband is then automatically removed from the carriage and held safely in place), pushing left and right levers under the carriage to unhook the carriage from the body of the machine, and pulling the carriage straight upwards. The carriage must also be in the far-left position when it is replaced.

You then have good access to the escapement for repairs and cleaning.

This machine is very robust; it's made to last a century. There are thoughtful mechanical touches. For instance, I don't remember any other typewriter that uses ball bearings on its ribbon mechanism.

The serial number, located inside the left side of the machine, dates it at 1955.

This typewriter uses basket shift. It has a brown platen and 11-pitch type, for a writing line of 198 characters. The type style is ordinary.

As for the typing feel, there's nothing transcendent about it. Writing is easy but not especially swift or snappy, and of course, it takes a little effort to return the huge carriage.

That little knob on the right end of the carriage is funny. I think the knob broke, and a shop carefully smoothed down the sharp edges so it could still be used.

I'll end by pointing out a couple of unusual controls.

Friday, December 15, 2017

People seem to know me

I think I detect a common theme in my birthday cards and gifts ... —Mr. Retro

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Designing a typewriter shop receipt for the 21st century

In the 19th and early 20th century, typewriter manufacturers and dealers, like other businesses, printed marvelously intricate images on their stationery and bills. (See Peter Weil's story in ETCetera No. 95.) Here's a nice example.

But I'm personally more fond of mid-20th-century designs, especially Art Deco graphics such as these:

The other day I found a series of receipts from Spain online that particularly impressed me with the density of their imagery. You could buy a couple of typewriter ribbons and get a receipt with a beautifully designed, multicolor letterhead, an elaborate typewritten account of your purchase, a signature, a rubber stamp, and a tax stamp. The receipt was itself a treasure!

REMER, or Reconstrucción Española Máquinas Escribir y Representación (Spanish Reconstruction of Typewriters and Copiers), produced its own typewriter 3 years after this receipt was typed. (Story in ETCetera no. 87.)

The signature on Señor Trumpy's stationery reminds me of Donald Trump's:

I particularly love this image of the tiny repairmen clambering over the typewriter (or is it normal men and a giant typewriter?). A bit of research uncovered this image, uploaded by Georg Sommeregger:

This ad for "over 200 bargain typewriters" dates from 1935, a year later than 1934, the date on the Spanish receipt shown just above. So I don't know when the graphic was originally produced, but the machine shown is indeed a Continental from Germany.

Spanish repairmen seem to have loved images like this, to judge from this sign I saw in 2015 in the window of a Madrid typewriter shop (which was, sadly, out of business).

These drawings, probably inspired by the Continental image, show Hispano-Olivetti M40 standards, the most plentiful model of large typewriter manufactured in Spain in the first half of the 20th century.

Even though I don't systematically collect typewriter-related paper, these receipts made me contemplate starting a new collecting line.

But then I had a better idea: I was inspired to try designing a receipt for my own typewriter services (benefitting WordPlay Cincy) which would share some of the charm of these old documents. I had a fine time last night and this morning dreaming it up, along with a business card.

I'm having these printed up by Vistaprint. Now I look forward to providing some collectible paper of my own to the customers of Urban Legend Typewriters.

The oh-so-appropriate image (the skyline even reminds me of Cincinnati and the Ohio River) comes from this August 1930 cover of Fortune magazine (which really was meant for the fortunate few—who else could afford to spend $1.00 on a magazine in 1930?).

View from Cincinnati's Carew Tower:

If you like the fonts I used, you can download Geomancy and Royal Vogue for free. Geomancy has lots of interesting details, and it's really two capital-letter fonts in one, with shifted and unshifted versions.