Recently I was lucky enough to take a break from editing the Shady Characters manuscript with an entertaining trip to New York City to visit Brendan Curry, my editor, and Penny Speckter, to whom dedicated readers will require no introduction. (More on that in a week or two, I hope.) In amongst the various punctuation-related news items that popped up since I was away, however, one story in particular caught my eye: the last new typewriter to be manufactured in the UK came off the production line at the Brother factory in Wrexham, Wales, at the end of November this year.1 It is the end of an era, and one that bears a little attention.
The typewriter is one of those disruptive innovations that have arrived periodically to shake up written communication: the unified Carolingian alphabet of the middle ages; Gutenberg’s moveable type of the 1450s; the automated typesetting of fin de siècle Linotype and Monotype machines, and of course the modern Internet, have all, like the typewriter, irrevocably changed the way we write. In the typewriter’s case, however, has that change been for better or for worse? Its demise has inspires mixed feelings in me.*
On the positive side, there’s something reassuringly straightforward about hitting a key and seeing a letter printed right before your eyes, and I appreciate a good, typewriter-inspired monospaced typeface as much as the next coder.† For all the nostalgia bound up in the memory of the typewriter, though, it has a darker side. During the century for which it remained the writing implement of choice, those office workers and writers who tapped away ceaselessly at their keyboards were shackled by the typewriters every bit as much as they were emancipated by it.
First, and most apposite to Shady Characters, is the havoc wreaked by the “Great Typewriter Squeeze”, a term coined by writer and blogger J.L. Bell to describe the decimation of punctuation marks caused by the new device.2 Early typists were hamstrung by the paltry selection of symbols available on their typewriters: in addition to an uppercase alphabet and the numbers 2–9, the two-row keyboard on Christopher Latham Sholes’ 1867 prototype bore only ; $ – . , ? and / keys,3 while Sholes’ 1878 QWERTY model added only an apostrophe and a colon.4 Typists could not draw upon the utility of the ampersand, asterisk or octothorpe, nor could they list items @ a unit price or inject emotion with a judicious exclamation mark! (Even a parenthesised aside was out of the question.)
For the most part, we still struggle with the legacy of the typewriter’s unthinking war on punctuation: though marks like the manicule (☞) and pilcrow (¶) can be got at with a combination of keyboard gymnastics and an esoteric knowledge of Unicode code points, for practical purposes we are still confined to the hundred-odd characters made trivially available to us on our laptops, tablets and smartphones.
Second is the typewriter’s social impact. Though it was ostensibly “a tool of female emancipation, offering women a respectable line of work in offices”, the typewriter instead became a visible reminder of an impenetrable glass ceiling. As Samira Ahmed wrote for the Guardian:5
[W]hen the British civil service took over operating telegraph and postal offices in the 1870s, the official in charge, Frank Scudamore, sought out women clerks for their typing speed and dexterity. But crucially, Scudamore said the wages: “which will draw male operators from but an inferior class of the community, will draw female operators from a superior class.” Women would spell and type better, raise the tone of the office, then marry and leave without requiring pensions.
Even when the interrobang (‽) arrived on Remington typewriter keyboards in the late 1960s, at least one newspaper editor still saw the world in Scudamore’s terms. The headline for the Kansas City Kansan’s coverage of this momentous typographic event was “Look Girls, a New Key on Typewriter”.6
None of this will stop me trawling eBay for a pristine IBM Selectric, or dissuade me from wondering if a typewriter is a viable text-input device in the 21st century,7 but it is certainly food for thought. During its heyday the typewriter too was mightier than the sword, and it was double-edged.
- Unknown bibtex entry with key [bbc2012typewriter] ↩︎
- Unknown bibtex entry with key [bell2009-dash] ↩︎
- Unknown bibtex entry with key [weller1921early] ↩︎
- Unknown bibtex entry with key [US207559] ↩︎
- Unknown bibtex entry with key [ahmed2012guardian] ↩︎
- Unknown bibtex entry with key [DO1968] ↩︎
- Unknown bibtex entry with key [lowry2012strikethru] ↩︎
- “Demise” is perhaps a bit strong; one American company named Swintec will still sell you a new typewriter, and doubtless there are others. ↩︎
- As an exercise for the reader, right-click this page and hit “view source”, and see the computing world as programmers the world over have done for decades! ↩︎