Tap, Tap, Tap

Tap, Tap, Tap

By Patrick F. Cannon

I mentioned to my daughter Beth that my laptop was in the shop getting its Wi-Fi connection fixed (it’s back, I’m typing on it now), and we got to chatting about the various ways one has had to type in my lifetime, and she suggested a piece on this subject might be of interest.

I guess I’ve probably written millions of words over the years. As late as the 1950s and 60s at Northwestern University I was still doing my papers in long hand. Not long after that, professors began to refuse to accept anything not typed. I remember in particular a paper I did on Existentialism. It must have run to a couple of thousand words. I got an A, most likely because the prof didn’t want to bother deciphering the scrawl. In that regard, I often wonder if Count Leo Tolstoy had good handwriting? Imagine typesetting the manuscript of War and Peace!

I really didn’t learn how to type until I was in the Army. Because I went to Signal School, I was taught on a Teletype machine. When I got out in 1963, I bought a manual portable typewriter; a Royal as I recall. In my first real job after the service, I didn’t need a typewriter, as I dictated most of my correspondence. I did see my first Xerox machine there, and it seemed the marvel of the age. It was roughly the size of a refrigerator and could make only one copy at a time. You fed an original into a slot and – voila! – a copy come out below.

Of course, there was nothing like e-mail then. If there was a need for urgency, you would send a Telex! We also had a direct phone line to corporate headquarters in New York, and a WATS line for other long distance calls.

In my next job, I did a good deal more writing – newsletters, brochures, and news releases. I used a manual, office-size machine for the drafts, which were then finish-typed by a secretary. It was only in a subsequent job that I got my own typewriter. My then boss told me to buy any electric portable I was comfortable with. I chose a Remington, which churned out reams of deathless prose. By the way, in those days, if your copy was going to appear in print, it had to be sent to the typesetter. When I started, it would have been composed on a linotype machine, which produced what we called “hot type.”  Very soon, however, this was replaced by photo-type, then by computer-generated type. The type house would send galleys. If you made any changes, you were charged.

To this day, I still remember the glee I felt in being given my IBM Selectric typewriter in a later job. It had the magic type-ball, and a correcting feature! No more need to use the dreaded white out! There was a time when every desk in the civilized world had a little bottle of the stuff at the ready. The next advance – was it sometime in the early 1980s? – was having a word processing terminal at my desk. This was something of an advance, since you could print documents and letters yourself after making corrections. Alas, you still needed a typewriter to make envelopes. But the magical thing in both cases was the automatic carriage return!

People will perhaps be amazed to discover that most typewriters had a dandy feature called the carriage return. As you typed away and got close to the right margin, a warning bell would ring. If you didn’t heed its call, and kept on typing, the little letters would keep appearing until they ran off the end of the page. Not good. Heeding the bell, you were faced with a decision. If you had typed a complete word, your right hand would rise up and manually use the supplied lever to return the carriage to the left margin. Most electric machines had a key to accomplish the same.

But if you were in the middle of a long word – let’s say exaggeration —  you had to hyphenate it, i.e., decide where to separate the word into two parts, with one part on the line you’re currently typing upon, and the rest on the next. This could not be done willy-nilly, but according to established rules. If you were unsure about just where you could properly separate a particular word, you looked to a dictionary for guidance. Many of you will be amazed to discover that dictionaries were once actually contained in large books. A knowledge of the alphabet was required to navigate them.

Nowadays, all the fun has been taken out of writing. The laptop I’m writing this on would let me type away until the end of days without worrying me about hyphenating a word, or using a return bar or button. It even alerts me when it thinks I have misspelled a word, or even composed a run-on sentence. By the way, I just misspelled “sentence” and it corrected me automatically.

The job of typesetter is no more. For all of my five published books, I simply sent the publisher the Word texts as e-mail attachments (it took several). They then ran the files through a program that gave them the text in a style and size they wanted. Of course, some writers still prefer to compose in long hand. I once worked with one who would write all his articles by hand, then type them on his computer. He had to work longer hours to do all this, but he didn’t mind.

By the way, typewriters have now become collector items. If you happen to have an old Smith-Carona gathering dust in the attic, you might want to give Tom Hanks a call. He might be missing that model.

Copyright 2020, Patrick F. Cannon

4 thoughts on “Tap, Tap, Tap

  1. I have a couple of my old typewriters, a sleek Olivetti Lettera 22 that looks better than it types, and the indestructible Hermes 3000 portable on which I typed my 300 page dissertation. Since it was tiresome to edit once you had typed, you were compelled to have spelling and phrasing present in mind before you committed.

    I certainly do remember Leroy Anderson’s classic Typewriter Song. Also the immortal Nairobi Trio:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I saw the Olivetti on display in the modern design room of the Indianapolis Art Museum (now called Newfields). Mine is from the 1950s. I used it in high school and college. They must have sold a million of them, so you can pick one up for a few hundred dollars today. The Hermes is the smoothest typewriter I ever worked on. A marvel of Swiss precision and engineering. I should start using them again, but I don’t know what to use them for, maybe envelopes?

      Liked by 1 person

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