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So, You Want To Use a Typewriter? - CFMU Staff Picks

Blog/FavouritesFebruary 7th 2020
Jomar Quilatan

"So, you want to use a typewriter?"

Whenever I’m asked that question, I always respond with a definite affirmative.

You may, too—or you may instead be wondering the opposite: why bother? Perhaps if I tell you my reasons, you might understand a bit better.

My interest in typewriters began during my first year at Mac.  I was one of the few first-years that joined my residence community advisors on a little field trip to Quills Paper, a fine stationery shop—and what I later discovered to be a hidden gem for typewriters and old gizmos of that sort.  I found myself most fascinated by just about anything that was a predecessor to the modern replacements we use today.  Typewriters fascinated me particularly, in part due to the pleasing aesthetic of having one propped on one’s study desk, but largely because I found them highly enjoyable to use.

A few months later, one of the greatest moments of my life came to pass— I got my first typewriter.  While it took me quite some time—and some repairs—to get it working more smoothly (and to get me typing), I had a lot of fun going through the process. I also got to learn a few interesting things about the predecessor to word processing along the way.  (That, there, in fact, is one of them—it can often be said that the typewriter was replaced by the computer, but, really, it’s just the word processing aspect of it!)

So, if you happen to want to know a few things about the typewriter (or perhaps yours, if you're lucky enough to already own one), here’s a quick guide to help get you started.

Typewriters fascinated me particularly, in part due to the pleasing aesthetic of having one propped on one’s study desk, but largely because I found them highly enjoyable to use.

Get to know your keyboard layout

The origins of the actual QWERTY keyboard layout in use today stem back to one of the earliest typewriters from the 1870s, but the layout itself has essentially remained the same ever since.  The above holds true for almost all the alphanumeric characters; however, there are a few exceptions, depending on the typewriter in question:

You said all alphanumeric characters were covered; where’s my ‘1’ key?

Some older typewriter models actually did away with the ‘1’ key—in modern computing, that would also mean doing away with the exclamation mark (‘!’).  In cases like these, the typeface (font) was designed such that the numeral ‘1’ could be represented by the lowercase ‘L’.

The exclamation mark issue was typically resolved using three keys: the period (‘.’), followed by a backspace and then an apostrophe (‘'’) that aligned with the period to form the shape of an exclamation mark.

My typewriter does not have a perfect QWERTY keyboard like my computer!

Some symbols were, in fact, non-existent before the introduction of the first personal computer, such as: the at sign (‘@’), the caret (‘^’), the backslash (‘\’), the straight line (‘|’), the square (‘[]‘) and curly brackets (‘{}’), the less-than sign (‘<’), and the greater-than (‘>’) sign.  This is a testament to the changes of the times, as many of these never had many uses in the time when typewriters were widely used.  That being said, it would have been cool to leave in the cent sign (‘¢’) and the fractions (‘¼’, ‘½’) that they did have as standard keys on today’s keyboard.  The only real workaround, therefore, is to write the symbols in yourself— my results with standard pen ink have been varied, but usually on the better side!

Yes!  A backspace key!  But why isn’t it deleting my typos?

Most typewriters have a “backspace” key, typically on the top left for older models; however, it’s there solely for the purpose of moving the carriage back a space (hence the name). So yes, that means it does not delete whatever was typed there in the process.

That being said, this does not (always) mean the end of the line for the draft you are currently working on. The most common workaround is the correction film, which usually comes in small, rectangular sheets.  To use this handy little companion, one positions it over the undesired error, and then “types” the incorrect character onto the correction film, which, in turn, transfers the whitened-out character onto the paper, overlaying the mistake and thus concealing it.  After that, the “backspace” key can be used to type the correct character in the same place as was originally intended.

Now, if you’ve detected a much larger typo that would take much too long to correct (and/or would make the document look visibly poor), only then perhaps you may decide to start again…

Most typewriters have a “backspace” key...however, it’s there solely for the purpose of moving the carriage back a space (hence the name).

Page Setup—the Manual Way

Another feature most typewriters have is the option to set both the page margins and the tab stop locations. These vary by typewriter model, but the simplest form is a sort of tab on a rail on either end of the page, which can be moved left and right to increase or decrease the margin for that side.

Tab stops also come in various forms (often depending on model). Some only allow you a certain number of stops (fixed onto a rail like the margins), while others allow you to set and clear them almost infinitely. Note that they do exist, though, and should assist in aligning your document well!

What Does the Bell Really Mean?

One of the most definitive sounds of the typewriter is the bell that goes off once you approach the end of the current line based on your margin settings. To answer the question above, the keyword here is “approach”. The bell does not mark the exact end of the line, but alerts you that you are approaching the last six or seven spaces of the line (which has been pretty consistent across all of the typewriters I’ve encountered).

Hearing the bell generally means you need to start running a few decisions in your head regarding whether or not to start the next word.

Don’t Type Fast; Type Hard (Smart)

Making the transition from a computer to a typewriter is an interesting experience, as the feel of the keys is surprisingly different. While one  can often get away with quickly transitioning between keys on , they cannot get away with it as easily on the a typewriter due to the natural mechanical action of the keys. Trying to switch quickly between keys on a typewriter often results in the dreaded type jam—when two or more keys are pressed at the same time, the tips collide in mid-air and become interlocked together.

When first trying out a typewriter, you may notice that the standard force you might use on a computer keyboard will make nothing more than a very faint imprint on a typewritten page. A bit more force is required for a more prominent readout.

All that to say: switching from a computer to a typewriter is definitely doable, but requires a bit more of a learning curve than one might initially think., It may help to start slowly at first, to get a better idea of the typewriter feel (and to avoid type jams), and then gradually start to build up speed as you get more comfortable with the actions. While you may not be able to match your computer typing speed, you can get pretty close to not only that, but also to the famous typing sound that epitomizes the 20th century office.  (If you are able to match your computer typing speed, you most certainly have my admiration.)

...The standard force you might use on a computer keyboard will make nothing more than a very faint imprint on a typewritten page. A bit more force is required for a more prominent readout.

Do Any Repair/Supply Shops Still Exist?

Yes! While very few such shops remain today, they still do remain!  Fortunately, for Hamilton, that comes in the form of one Nick Kadak, one of the brightest, kindest and most down-to-earth typewriter repair fellows in the trade. He also sells typewriter ribbon, the primary mechanism for transferring ink from the typewriter to the paper.  Check out his shop, Sigma Typewriters, on Upper James just north of Fennell—I highly recommend calling in before visiting, just so he knows you’ll be dropping by.  I’d love to tell you more, but I think I’ll leave that for next time.

Now, go get some typing done!

Jomar Quilatan is a third-year Automation Engineering Technology student, the CFMU Production Coordinator, and the host of First Up (Mondays 6am EST). Contact him at cfmuproduction@msu.mcmaster.ca.

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