Penman No. 360: Mechanical Murmurs

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Penman for Monday, July 1, 2019

 

I’M SURE no more than a handful of us knew about it, but last June 23 was National Typewriter Day—in America, where Christopher Latham Sholes was granted a patent for the new writing machine in 1868. While Sholes had been preceded by many others touting ideas for some kind of mechanical writing, it was he—along with Samuel Soule and Carlos Glidden—who put the first commercially viable typewriter together (in Milwaukee, famous for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Miller, Pabst, and Schlitz beer, and Briggs and Stratton engines, and briefly my home 30 years ago).

The typewriter would go on from that first Sholes and Glidden machine to revolutionize writing, industry, and communication over most of the 20thcentury, and bring forth names like Remington, Smith-Corona, Underwood, Royal, Olympia, Olivetti, and Hermes, among many others. (Remington, a gun maker, bought out Sholes even before his invention came out.) But few of its descendants would show the charm of that first typewriter (then spelled as two words—and would later refer to the person typing, or the typist, as well), its glossy black front and top bedecked with colorful flowers.

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The Sholes and Glidden came out on the market in July 1874, and it must have been such a hit that not even a year later—writing from Hartford, Conn. on March 19, 1875—a man who signed as “Saml. L. Clemens” would claim that it was causing him too much trouble:

“GENTLEMEN: Please do not use my name in any way. Please do not even divulge the fact that I own a machine. I have entirely stopped using the Type-Writer, for the reason that I never could type a letter with it to anybody without receiving a request by return mail that I would not only describe the machine, but state what progress I had made in the use of it, etc. etc. I don’t like to write letters, and so I don’t want people to know I own this curiosity-breeding little joker. Yours truly, SAML. L. CLEMENS”

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(The writer, of course, was better known as Mark Twain, whose tongue-in-cheek endorsements must have been much in demand, because almost 30 years later we find him scribbling again from New York, on Oct. 1, 1903, this time on behalf of Conklin fountain pens and their famous “crescent” fillers, which prevented pens from rolling off the table: “Dear Sirs: I prefer it to ten other fountain pens, because it carries its filler in its own stomach, and I cannot mislay even by art or intention. Also, I prefer it because it is a profanity saver; it cannot roll off the desk.”)

It’s probably safe to assume that hundreds of millions of typewriters must have been manufactured since Sholes and Glidden made their debut, spanning all shapes, sizes, and functions, from steel behemoths to plastic cuties, from manual to electric to electronic, offering all manner of type from all-caps to cursive. Of course, word processors and computers effectively buried typewriters and the industry behind them from the 1980s onwards—except for pockets of enthusiasts and personal users, such as the online Antique Typewriter Collectors group to which I and a few other Filipinos belong. (And many thanks to my friend Dennis Pinpin for his post reminding me of National Typewriter Day.)

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Eight years ago I wrote a requiem for the typewriter—prematurely, as it turned out—when the Indian manufacturer Godrej and Boyce, which was still making 12,000 machines a year in 2009 mainly for the Indian government, announced that it was closing shop. But lately a new manual typewriter (made, where else, but in China) , has been popping up online under the “We R Memory Keepers” brand; one or two young people I know have picked it up—attracted, no doubt, by its cuddly retro profile and its pastel colors—but I have to hasten to add that based on the expert opinion of my ATC friends, your money would be far better spent on a vintage Olympia or Smith-Corona, given the flimsiness of the WRMK’s construction. In other words, you can’t keep memories with shoddy engineering.

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But why even keep using typewriters when computers are so much more available and convenient? For some collectors and enthusiasts, it’s the very isolation of the machine and of the typing itself—removed from email, Facebook, and all such distractions—that recommends it for more thoughtful writing, especially for poems, novels, and personal correspondence. As a professional writer and editor working on half a dozen books at a time, I can’t afford to be that romantic; I love my fountain pens and typewriters, but do all my serious work on my Macs, and typically turn to my Olympia Traveller or my Olivetti 32 to fill out forms and address envelopes.

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But then again what have I amassed over 20 typewriters for (don’t say it—one friend has 70, another a hundred), if not for the romance of hearing a mechanical murmur from the past? As with my Parker Vacumatics from the 1930s, I have to wonder what secrets my typers wrote—especially my current pet, an impossibly thin, all-steel Groma Gromina made in East Germany around 1955.

Sometimes I type a line—a nonsense line, anything—just to hear that reassuring “ding!” at the end of it. Can we say, thereby, that life has no meaning—or that the meaning is in the gesture itself?

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