Typewriters for the modern writer

Typewriters for the modern writer

My wife recently reminded me that computing doesn’t have a monopoly on the meaning of the word technology, so in this Technophobia article I look at technology for writers that doesn’t involve the use of a PC or laptop. This includes a look at the feasibility of using a typewriter in our modern age – but that isn’t all that’s on offer.

The right typer

Let’s tackle typewriters first because they have a number of admirable qualities. Most modern models are portable, for example, or perhaps “luggable” is more accurate because they’re rarely lightweight. Still, they can be easily cleared off the dining table and stowed away until required, and many come with carrying handles and hard cases that are far more resistant to dropped objects and clumsy feet than laptops.

Additionally, all typewriters feature mechanical systems that were perfected over half a century ago and so rarely break down, simply because there’s little that can break.

Of course, there are downsides. A typewriter’s tap-tap-tappity-tap is antisocial in our modern age, and electric typewriters tend to make a distracting and constant hum or whirr when powered-up.

Manual typewriters tend to jam in the well-known way if you’re a fast typist, wherein several of the type hammers get stuck at the printhead. Fast typing is less of an issue with electric typewriters but, perhaps surprisingly, these can still struggle to keep up when you’re in full flow. You might find the typewriter is still punching out the previous sentence while you’re busy typing the next, and this disconnect between what you see and what you type is disconcerting.

Very few typewriters offer italic type (short of swapping out the typeface, of which more in a moment), while nearly all electric typewriters offer bold type (they simply overtype each character, shifting the printhead marginally each time). Both manual and electric typewriters allow the underlining of words, which in the old days was used as code for when italics should be applied when the page was professionally typeset.

Luddite impressions

Perhaps the biggest drawback of a typewriter is the luddite impression it’ll give anybody to whom you submit your work. We’re all so used to the easy perfection of a computer-printed sheet of A4 that a genuine typewritten page looks quaint. Speaking personally in my role as a former magazine editor, I would be concerned that a typewritten document I’d been sent probably doesn’t exist in electronic form. Because of this, what I’ve been sent could be the only copy – and I would resent the responsibility placed upon me to not lose or damage it, both of which happen a lot in a busy office environment.

But above all else, how am I supposed to convert a typewritten page into something my page designer can make use of? The days of magazine or newspaper offices having offices full of dedicated copy typists are very long gone. In other words, submitting a genuinely typewritten page would be adding significantly to the work of what are likely to be already overstretched editorial staff – and I wouldn’t blame any staff member who simply didn’t want the trouble, so immediately set the piece aside.

Different types (geddit?)

So, what’s the difference between a manual and electric typewriter? Aside from the obvious – one uses electricity while the other is human-powered – with an electric typewriter the print head moves as you type, while the roller holding the paper stays still. It’s the other way around with a traditional manual typewriter.

Electric typewriters you can buy today use daisywheel technology, wherein the print characters are arranged on a disc called – you’ve guessed it – a daisywheel. If you press the P key, for example, the daisywheel spins to the correct position and a piston hammers the P printhead onto the page. The benefit of this system is that you can swap-out the daisywheel for another typeface, should you desire, and the use of a piston to print each character ensures uniform typewritten page quality. Daisywheel technology even allows the use of italic typefaces, although it’s not really practical to swap in and out an italic typeface just to emphasise a word during everyday typing. Instead, italic daisywheel typefaces are intended to be used purely for stylistic purposes – adding a little class to a typewritten menu, for example.

While manual typewriters use old-fashioned ink ribbons, electric typewriters use a cartridge system containing a plastic ribbon that’s coated with an inky film. When the printhead hits the ribbon, the ink film is literally stamped onto the page. This is why electric typewriters can offer correction ribbons, which are nothing more than a roll of sticky tape. When you opt to delete something, the printhead stamps the correction tape onto the character and it sticks to the ink film, thereby lifting it cleanly off the paper.

Most modern electric typewriters include various degrees of word processing technology too, in that often you can type several sentences or even paragraphs within an LCD screen above the keyboard and opt to actually print them only when you’re happy with the way they look – although these machines also have a straightforward typewriter mode, whereby hitting a key instantly causes it to be typed.

Buying a typewriter

It’s not difficult to buy a typewriter nowadays but it can be hard getting one that’s new. It’s been some time since high street chains like Argos sold any, for example. The only major retailer I could find still in the typewriter business was the stationer Rymans, which offers a single model: The Nakajima AX-160, an electric typewriter with a somewhat bold price tag of £179.99 (see https://goo.gl/vFkjTz). Scotts of Stow also sell an electric typewriter allegedly aimed at the older generation for £199.95: https://goo.gl/9HjyiF. Both feature daisywheel technology and a single-line LCD screen that offers the elementary word processing features discussed earlier.

To acquire a traditional manual typewriter, or any other model of electric typewriter, you’re into the second-hand territory of sites like eBay.co.uk. However, because in the bygone days of the 20th century typewriters were bought almost as a household essential, but then used very occasionally, bargains can be easily had. When such models appear on eBay they’re essentially brand new. I bought a mint-condition manual typewriter a few years ago that still had its original receipt from 1954 in the box.

Prices of second-hand models vary dramatically because some have turned into collectors’ items while other models have a certain look that people buy primarily with kitsch home decorating in mind.

Stick to the likes of rugged Smith-Corona or Brother portable typewriters (sometimes referred to as travel typewriters), and there are bargains to be had. During a cursory search I saw some offered for just £25.

And where do you find the ink ribbons or cartridges? Try www.thetypewriterman.co.uk, which specialises in little else, although again eBay is your friend.

Evolution

The word processor application has been the most significant evolution of the typewriter, of course, but in recent times there have been noteworthy developments outside of mainstream computing.

Although you’ll again need to visit eBay to find used examples, because it’s no longer manufactured, the Alphasmart 3000 is little more than a keyboard and small four-line LCD screen powered by three AA batteries (that is, the same size you used to use in your Walkman). Users create writing on it and then connect it via USB to their computer to transfer the work across. The Alphasmart provides a distraction-free working environment – Facebook is but a dream on this type of very basic computing device – even if the original goal was simply to create an inexpensive word processor for education. Nowadays you’ll snap one up for just £25 if you’re lucky.

The Freewrite Smart Typewriter (https://getfreewrite.com) is the latest attempt to evolve the typewriting experience and went on sale early last year (2016). It features a small ePaper screen, just like those the screens on eReaders like Amazon’s Kindle, so that eyestrain is theoretically outlawed. Although the device is smaller than most laptops, the keyboard is full-sized, with keys that each have their own springs for maximum typewriter-like feedback. It uses a rechargeable battery that lasts for a very long time and although Internet-enabled for the syncing of your work, the Freewrite doesn’t do anything other than let you write. Social media and time-wasting games are banned.

Alas, the Freewrite is expensive at $499 and because it’s not yet sold in the UK you’ll need to add shipping from the US, plus import taxes.