10-finger writing dance

Sometimes, I unknowingly time travel when I am writing. Some word or phrase I am wrestling with triggers that travel.

Once upon a time, my father had an Underwood typewriter. He used it occasionally to communicate with others and I used it often to communicate with myself; it was a gleaming machine I couldn’t resist when I thought no one was looking.

the typewriter dance

the typewriter dance

It was full of keys you thumped and type hammers that crunched onto the paper, leaving red or black impressions in a font that never varied in type or size. There was a carriage that cruised to the end of each line. When a bell dinged, it was time to work the lever that jacked up the paper to the next line and yank the carriage back to its start position. There were other little attractions, like the tiny lever to set single or double line spacing or the one to choose the red half of the ribbon, the black half or neither.

That typewriter was a constant source of exploration for me. Over time, I wasted reams of paper making like one of the million monkeys. I thought my “writing” was unobserved, but hindsight says my father was on to me.

When I finished high school, he asked me if I would like to learn to use a typewriter the right way. At a local typing institute, I was put through the grind: asdfg a million times with the fingers of the left hand, same for ;lkjh with the fingers of the right hand. Repeat for qwerty and poiuy. Wrap up with the zxcvb and /.,mn.

Done with the alphabets and punctuation marks, I progressed to passages from magazines and books. I developed the knack of keeping my eyes on the source and typing without having to look at the paper on the platen. I was taught to correct mistakes with Tippex fluid.

Then the electric typewriter with a stationary platen and a moving type basket hit my part of the world. Over time, the basket gave way to switchable golf balls and Daisy wheels, both of which offered font type, style and size options. A correction tape rendered Tippex obsolete. A little later, built-in memories and small digital displays allowed pre-print editing, rendering the correction tape obsolete.

typewriter gold ball and daisy wheel

typewriter golf ball and daisy wheel

And then came the computer—a whole new paradigm that ushered in a whole new century, even a whole new millennium.

And a whole set of new concerns that became relevant when I decided I wanted to write books. All of a sudden, that old Underwood began to look like a caveman’s tool. I had to watch out for a million bad habits that seductive old typewriter had lured me into.

I had to delete the habit of double spacing between sentences. I still don’t understand why double spacing was legit when typing or writing with pencil or pen, but a crime with the computer.

I had to get used to the curved quote mark, rather than the typewriter’s all-purpose straight quote mark/ apostrophe/ whatever else I wanted to make of it. I also had to make sure that I got my opening quote marks” and my “closing quote marks right. They are always used in pairs: one curves this way at the beginning of the quote and the other curves that way at the end of the quote, and you just can’t have them curving the wrong way or in the wrong place. Apparently even the apostrophe has to curve a certain way to avoid catastrophe.

I had to reeducate myself on the inferior social status of the hyphen. An all-serving god suddenly became a puny mortal, replaced in most of its roles by superior beings like the em dash and the en dash. Why, there is even a distinct minus sign somewhere between the hyphen and the en dash in length. Three periods were no longer good enough to serve as ellipses. There actually was a distinct ellipsis character with the dots joint, not several…

I learned that my typewriter had been accentless. Seems like people speaking these weird foreign languages—like French, German and Spanish—had been too lazy to develop their own script. They had hijacked the English alphabet and compounded the crime by adding all these nutty diacritics and accent marks, just to make it seem like they had their own original script. My innocent typewritèr did ñot hávê ã clüe.

Nor was it capable of fancy characters. The copyright symbol was (c)—a “c“ within parentheses, not ©. The registered symbol was (R) and the trademark symbol was (TM). If I remember right, that Underwood had the dollar symbol ($) but if you wanted to show sterling pounds, you typed s-t-e-r-l-i-n-g p-o-u-n-d-s. Same thing went for all those other inferior currencies that infest the world.

That poor unidimensional Underwood didn’t do superscript and subscript. It did monospaced fonts, but had no inkling of the existence of proportional fonts. I mean, that typewriters just did not know its i’s from its m’s when it came to proportionate spacing. And kerning and letterspacing? Those terms didn’t even exist before computers came along.

The Underwood didn’t produce instant boxes of perfect unbroken lines. If you wanted a box, you typed so many ‘s (or _’s or x’s) across, so many |’s (or x’s) down from the first horizontal – and the last one, and so many ‘s (or _’s or x’s) across again to draw the bottom border. By the time you finished the box you forgot what you wanted it for.

I couldn’t get bold or italics with my Underwood. The only way to emphasize any text was to underline it. In hindsight, of course, that was a terribly ugly thing to do, as you are seeing here.

And yet…

I miss that old Underwood. If I had the time, I would be writing my drafts on a typewriter before switching to a computer. I miss cursing when two or more type hammers snagged because of my clumsy typing; when I got stuck an unhyphenable halfway through a long word at the end of a line; when a finger missed and slipped painfully into the space between two keys. I miss the urge to murder something whenever I typed much of a page only to realize the ribbon selector lever was set at the no-ribbon mode—the mode used to punch stencils for mimeographing.

I miss the click clacks of the keys, the dings at the end of carriage travel, the snick snick of the lever moving the paper to the next line, the rrrip of the carriage going back to the start of its track. I miss the way that typewriter used to sing and dance gently on the table top, like Fred Astaire rehearsing in his sleep, when I was hitting the keys fast. My computer is unmoving and silent; it just refuses to indulge in one-on-one communication.

Yes, my computer has other, infinitely superior features, but compared to the jalopy rides of that old Underwood, each journey on my computer is like a safari in an enclosed, airconditioned cabin with shaded windows.

You pine for anything from the “good old days”? Pine for us in the comments below, please.

  • You can’t beat the feeling of manually moving the carriage to the next line. You feel like you’ve accomplished something every time. I still feel like I’m cheating on a computer.

  • venkyiyer58

    Rob S: A computer is very impersonal, no doubt about that. Part of the charm of typewriters was the act of pulling out the finished PAPER page. A lovely feeling of accomplishment, such as you have mentioned.

10-finger writing dance

by Venkatesh Iyer time to read: 5 min