My life in typewriters

By Todd R. Nelson

My father’s secretaries used to request he close his office door while typing so they needn’t hear his speed. By this time in his career, he had an IBM Selectric, a Ferrari compared to the big, black Royal typewriter we had at home, a 1955 Buick by comparison; like the difference between a pneumatic nail gun and a hammer. And even dad’s pinky finger was a hammer. Or, “like hail on a tin roof,” as my brother once said. Speeds approaching 120 words per minute were not uncommon. One font and size; no digital kerning; no italics; printing as dark as your hardest finger stroke. His typing kept pace with his composition, which kept pace with his thoughts.

Typing was thinking in our house. It required two Royals to keep abreast of the thinking. My mother also had one for her newspaper columns. We three children matured thinking they had a typing gene. It’s at least a sonic inheritance. So, it was expected that after seventh grade I too would join the Nelson Fraternity of Touch Typers by taking a summer school course — every morning for an hour, all July. Picture the proverbial typing pool: thirty typewriters at individual desks, instructor at the head of the class … “K-I-K, A-S-D-F, ;-L-K-J.” Setting margins, tabs, manual returns with that delicious little bell reminding of the impending end of the row too. By eighth grade, I was typing my school essays, honing what I called “my Eric Sevareid style.” Archival evidence endures.

There were never not typewriters at hand. When we went on vacation, Dad’s brown Olivetti portable with the leather case came too. It had accompanied him on numerous newspaper reporting trips. It had been to the American Southern states during the height of the civil rights movement and eventually to Ulster when he reported on the troubles in Northern Ireland. The keyboard had a resistant spring to it. You had to work to avoid crossovers and the small roller tended to coil the paper tightly. Nonetheless, the Olivetti was a rugged companion.

Imagine the days when writing occurred on one machine, then had to be retyped to file the story with headquarters. I once accompanied Dad to the Reuters office in London so he could file on deadline. His dispatch had to be retyped by a Reuters typist to be sent electronically — teletype, they called it — then retyped by the Linotype men in the composing room in Boston.

I went off to college with my own green Olivetti. I wrote draft after draft of English papers, then edited with a pencil, then retyped on Eaton Corrasable Bond for a final draft. Nothing like a clean draft to work over the ideas and expression. Do we even have “rough drafts” these days, given digital composition? There is only the present state of this essay.

My Olivetti even went to Scotland with me for my junior year abroad. Most English majors at Stirling University wrote their essays long-hand — incredibly, typing was not required. I arrived ready to type. I couldn’t imagine any other way of presenting my ideas on Pound, Eliot and Auden (one course), Shakespeare (another) or Romantic poetry (another). Typing was de rigueur, in my humble opinion.

I earned a little money by typing for others, especially if they owned a good electric typewriter. One friend was writing an honors history thesis on the Paris Commune of 1870-71. I kept the presses rolling on the final draft-barricades as friends helped organize her footnotes and bibliography. Honors granted.

Our first computer, an Apple IIe, put an end to the typewriter. I never imagined an English teacher requiring a computer. It now seems as antiquated as the Royal, compared to my current laptop. My current typewriters are items for display—sculptures dedicated to printing. My bookshelf gallery includes a Hermés Rocket once used by Philip Booth — the space bar has a unique worn spot. I have two Underwoods of varying vintage. And I have big black Royal identical to the Ur typewriter of my youth, and the persistent emblem of my life.

And so, there was a special frisson today as I opened the mail and extracted a fresh typewriter ribbon, threaded it through the guides and placed the spools on their spindles. I prepared to type once more on the big, black Royal, the gift of a friend, who knew it had a sentimental value for me. Words per minute? Nothing approaching this MacBook Lamborghini. But oh, the sound. It’s hailing again.


Todd R. Nelson lives in Penobscot.

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