Thirty years ago this past Saturday, Apple founder Steve Jobs introduced something called the Macintosh computer to the world. As we all know now  — but didn’t then, as is usually the case with revolutionary ideas — it would change the world. What we also didn’t recognize at the time was that the Macintosh computer would presage the beginning of the end of another revolutionary communication tool — the typewriter.

I learned how to type in typing class in high school. When I went to journalism school at Mount Royal College in Calgary in the 1970s, we worked on typewriters. I had my own typewriter, a Remington portable, which I still have today. When I got my first newspaper job at the Fort Saskatchewan Record in 1978, we used typewriters. When I graduated to the Red Deer Advocate, we used typewriters.

imagesBy the 1970s, typewriters in some form or another had been commercially available for about a century. They got better, of course, but essentially the typewriter I learned how to use in high school was essentially the same typewriter that had been in use for decades. I would guess that the majority of newspapers around the world, from the New York Times to the New Serepta Gazette, used Underwood typewriters.

Now, I’m not going to launch into some nostalgic paean to the typewriter. Compared to a modern word processor, the typewriter was no more sophisticated than that bird that used to peck out letters on a stone tablet on The Flintstones. For those of you who have never used a typewriter, let me explain the process. You may not believe this was the way we did things in the late 20th century, but it’s all true.

A manual desk typewriter was a heavy piece of machinery, probably about 30 pounds. You did not carry them around. The keyboard was essentially the same one used today, known as QWERTY. The difference between a computer keyboard and a typewriter keyboard is mostly in the force needed to type. You did not use a feather touch on a typewriter keyboard. You POUNDED the keys, because you had to cause the metal arms to lift with enough force to imprint a letter onto a piece of paper. A lot of old newspaper people used the two-fingered approach to typing; pinky fingers are pretty weak, actually, and if you just used your index fingers, you could really make that typewriter sing.

Typewriters are actually very sturdy machines. While Mac computers from 30 years ago are entirely useless today, you can still use a typewriter from 30, 40, 50 or 100 years ago today (assuming you can find a ribbon, the thin, inky piece of cotton or nylon or silk that imprinted your prose onto a page). There was no need to reboot a typewriter; the biggest problem was keys jamming, which you could overcome by unjamming them with your fingers. You needed to know how to spell, of course; the only spellcheck mechanism was your own knowledge of the language, or a dictionary. If you made a mistake, you either backstroked it out on the page, or manually edited it on the page.

Writing on a typewriter and writing on a computer are two entirely different methods of writing. On a typewriter, you have to think before you write; on a computer, with its ease of editing and release from the onus of knowing how to spell, you write as you think. When I worked at newspapers that used typewriters, the only way to rearrange a story without redoing the whole thing was to cut out the paragraphs with a pair of scissors, rearrange them, and either glue or staple them onto another page. Seriously, kids, I am not making this up.

Clearly, the typewriter is vastly inferior to today’s word processing programs, or even the world processing programs on the first Mac. I wouldn’t go back to typewriters if it somehow guaranteed me a Pulitzer Prize. Truth to tell, they suck.

BUT … you can’t beat the sound.

Yes, the sound. When I used to watch old movies that were set in a newspaper milieu, I loved the sound of a roomful of reporters slamming away on a roomful of typewriters. The closest I ever came to that was the sound of the Red Deer Advocate staff of maybe a dozen or so reporters furiously pounding away on Underwoods. To me, it was the sound of news being made, even if the news was only school board briefs. The clickety-clack of thousands of keystrokes writing thousands of words, the ‘ding’ at the end of the carriage, the grind of the carriage return, the final, triumphant ‘zzzzip’ of the paper being ripped from the roller.

Sigh. I’d better stop right here. I’m beginning to sound like a cranky old-timer railing against the modern world. Which isn’t too far from the truth.

(For a look at how Steve Jobs introduced the Mac and other Mac related history, go to http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/mac30/

2 thoughts on “The birth of the Mac, the death of the typewriter.

  1. I learned to type on a typewriter in high school too. My kids are impressed that I don’t have to look at the keys to type (and the words are spelt correctly). When they were younger, they thought I had a magical power where I could see with my fingertips. lol

    Like you, I like the sound of the typewriter, but I won’t ever go back.

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