Tag Archives: typewriters

Retro Future

A workstation of the future, as imagined in the 1970s.


Nothing becomes obsolescent faster than predictions and projections for the future. This marvelous photo comes courtesy of Retronaut (“see the past like you wouldn’t believe”) an online “bulletin board” of wacky, nostalgic, and absurd images from that vast, inexhaustible territory we call the past.

More Typewriter Tales

Ryan Ashley and his typewriter Jolene hang out their shingle at Clark Park Farmer’s Market

A young man sidles up to me at Clark Park’s Farmer’s Market and tells me that when I’m finished buying my eggplant he will write me a poem. He is dressed like a street performer, a juggler or mime: striped shirt, suspenders, a battered felt hat on his head.  But he is an itinerant poet in the old tradition of the troubadours. He’s traveling the country by train, setting up his folding table and hand-lettered sign, propped up on his typewriter case. He’s like Lucy in Peanuts when she’s dispensing psychiatric wisdom: “That will be 5¢ please.” What I am drawn to of course is not so much the quixotic nature of his profession but the tools of his trade. His companion and instrument in this venture is a sleek Smith Corona that he has christened “Jolene.”

(“You name your typewriters?” I ask.

“I named this one,” he answers.)

Jolene, it turns out, is one of four typewriters this poet,  Ryan Ashley, owns. He found this one at a flea market, purchased her for $45, and spent another $100 restoring her to her current sheen and efficiency.

When I ask him what he likes about his typewriter, he rhapsodizes like a man in love, describing her contours, her smoothness, and the pleasure of pressing the keys. He loves the resistance he feels, the precise pressure required to get results. He concludes that litany with “It’s analog!” he says, as if that single word encapsulates all the typewriter’s virtues.

Then he moves from the tactile to other senses. “I especially like the sound,” he says. “It is an instrument,” The taps and clicks that accompany his own compositions, he calls “music to my ears.”

So when it comes time for Ryan to write his poem for me, I ask him to write one for Jolene instead. Here is what he taps out.

In the minute or so it takes for Ryan to compose this ode, a couple of bystanders are drawn to the spectacle, the sight and sound, of this busker playing percussion  as the lyrics formed on slanted lines across the page. (The handcrafted effect enhanced by Ryan’s not lining his paper up straight)

Watching them watch him, I think about hurdy-gurdy players with their trained monkeys, snake charmers, bear baiters, ventriloquists who speak through their dummies. Has a typewriter become like some exotic pet or mesmerizer’s instrument of enchantment? (Or of seduction: Later I read Ryan’s blog and saw that he took Jolene out bar hopping that night, where Jolene served as babe magnet. Hmmm. I see a New Yorker cartoon in there somewhere)

Ryan and Jolene are traveling, making poetry and friends across the country, as  Ryan keeps a blog of reflections and poems about his adventures and encounters. For the vagabond poet, I think, the chance interactions, the unexpected intimacies and revelations that his itinerant poetry act brings about mean more than the verses themselves. Poetry is a vehicle. A means of connection. Those poems just come. That press of inked letters on fragile paper records a moment’s inspiration, handed out freely (though he’s happy for my $5 donation). He passes them on, and like an old-time troubadour, moves on.

A Boy and His Typewriter

Writer at Work

At 13, my friend Linus is the most tech savvy kid I know. A young artist – visual and literary – he feels at home in a wide range of media. He’s been making movies, editing on iMovie and creating special effects with Adobe software since he was 8. The stories he writes tend toward the futuristic, often dystopian fantasies filled with inventive gadgets, hovercrafts, hidden cameras, remote communications devices, and evil robots. Even when words are his main medium, he draws on the technology available to him to envision and enhance the imaginary world he’s building. It’s fun to watch him move fluidly from building a virtual skyscraper in a Google illustration program to writing an action-packed paragraph and back again. For the others in the group, Linus is the go-to guy for all computer-related problems (or smartphone or iPods as well).

A few weeks ago, though, Linus turned heads when he walked into the cafe where our writers’ group meets lugging a large yellow box. He heaved it onto the table, unfastened the metal latches and revealed the object within: a vintage Smith Corona typewriter. “Isn’t that heavy?” I asked. “Hey, it’s portable,” he said, quotation marks hidden in his grin.

It was amazing how quickly the outmoded machine in the middle of our table became the talk of the Green Line Cafe. Linus soon found himself fielding a barrage of questions and expressions of admiration, interest, curiosity. Every one who came over to gawk had a story to tell, mostly about the typewriters in their youth. What was funny (to me, who got through college and grad school and even started a professional writing career in the B.C. era — before computers that is) was that most of the gawkers and reminiscers couldn’t have been much more than 30.

“Hey, I first started writing on one of these,” said a guy in a black t-shirt with multiple figures who resembled Marvin the Martian cascading down a flight of stairs.  “And then I actually used a Word Processor. Ever see one of those?” He talked to my 13-year-olds like a classic geezer lecturing the young about the lazy ease of their existence. “It had a big black screen.” He widened his hands to demonstrate the unimaginable unwieldiness of his first computer. “Plus, the letters were bright orange. Bright orange! Freaky!”

Unhindered by memories, the kids just wanted to get their hands on this cool new toy. They reached over, grabbed for a turn, punched at the keys. Linus fended them off. He wrapped his arms around his precious machine and warned his friends about its fragility. I was impressed how much he knew about the history of typewriters. He recited the origin story of the QWERTY keyboard, designed to slow typing down. Too quick and the keys would cross, stick, break, he demonstrated. The kids and I then mused about cultural habits, and how our tools don’t always evolve along Darwinian lines, how custom can trump efficiency. We’ve inherited that keyboard, long after it outlived its usefulness. It has become a language of sorts, one we learn with our fingers. Our children’s fingers learn it too, even as they touch-type messages with their thumbs on electronic simulacra of pressable keys.

There’s more than one way to write a story

When I asked Linus what he liked best about typing — the process or the product, he answered without hesitation. He loved the act. The click and clack. The dance of the slender metal arms as they reach for the page. He hated the result. Too messy, he said. “If you make mistakes you can only type over them.”

I, on the other hand, found myself drawn to the look of the page. A typed sheet of paper has appeal. It has, for lack of a better word, personality. Not something I ascribed to it back when I was typing college term papers (in fact I cringed that my own WhiteOut caked bibliographies might reveal too much personality).

Again and again I’m reminded that loss is a lens that sharpens our view of the past. Linus, his view unclouded by past associations, can see his vintage machine as an object of wonder, more toy than tool, though I toy that’s treated with a measure of awe. Watching him play with his typewriter, I see its wonderfulness too. I admire anew the intricacy and inventiveness, the combination of delicacy and force present in a tool I once took for granted. Rich in history. Potent with possibility. Brand new.


In this scene from the first season of BBC historical drama Downton Abbey, the serving class confronts its future. What is this scary object found hidden in a housemaid’s closet? Why was she hiding it? What upheaval will it bring?

Outrageous Comparison of The Week

“When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac’s typewriter. It’s as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife.”

Rare-book dealer Glenn Horowitz on the auction of Cormac Mc Carthy’s Olivetti typewriter (quoted in New York Times on November 30, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/01/books/01typewriter.html?em)

Actually, Mr. Horowitz, it’s nothing like that. Writing is a craft in which the tools are irrelevant. That’s the beauty of it. Does the fact that Shakespeare wrote his plays with quill and ink, that Homer sang the Illiad and Odyssey, or that countless writers — bards and hacks alike — have scribbled stories with pencil stubs on the backs of envelopes have any bearing on the magnitude of the work (or lack thereof)?

But cross an outmoded technology with a revered, aging writer and you get double the fetish. The Olivetti is, admittedly, a sleek and stylish little machine, already a fetish object even when typewriters were commonplace. In the 50s and 60s, owning an Olivetti was a personal statement. It showed you cared about aesthetics, you believed that even the most useful and ordinary objects should look good too. And because it was European — even better Italian — an Olivetti put its owner in a class of cognoscenti. Type with an Olivetti by day, catch the latest Antonioni or Fellini at night.

McCarthy refers to his choice as practical. When he bought his Olivetti — $50 secondhand — in 1963, he needed to replace his clunky Royal with a more portable model when he went to live in Europe. If he’d been 40 years younger, the Olivetti might have been a NetBook.

There is an incongruity here, but it’s not, as Horowitz claims, between the complex monumentality of Cormac’s work and the “frailty” of his chosen tool.  It’s simply hard to imagine the cool little Italian number residing in the rough, grim and weighty worlds of his novels. McCarthy’s novels and his means of writing them seem to come from different planets.  It’s as if we discovered that Hemingway wore embroidered velvet slippers while he wrote of bullring gore or Jack Kerouac drove across America in a Country Squire station wagon.

An Emblem for Our Times (or at least, this blog)

An Emblem for Our Times (or, at least, this blog)

Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, Claes Oldenburg, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

A few years ago I took my kids (then 15 and 11) to Washington, D.C. to visit my brother. As we strolled past National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden, my brother pointed to Claes Oldenburg’s giant Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, leaning jauntily on the lawn. “The day will come when nobody will know what this is,” he laughed.

“What is it?” asked my daughter, demonstrating that that day was already upon us.
“What does it look like?” I asked her in turn.
“I don’t know. A pizza wheel with a sperm on top?” (She’s obviously logged too many hours in high school health class.)

Now, I have no sentimental attachment to typewriter erasers. I did go to school and even begin a writing career in the B.C. (before computer) era, but that particular tool always struck me as fussy and overspecialized. Still, seeing the giant eraser in the Washington sculpture garden evoked certain sensory memories: the particular squeak of the eraser wheel followed by the scratchy swish of the brush over paper; the gray ash, bits of eraser mixed with rubbed-off ink, that the bristles swept away. And I realized that the giant eraser could well be the emblem of our age – at once example and metaphor. Technological innovation, demographic shifts, changes in social customs and habits, and the whims of the marketplace keep rubbing out and sweeping away the tangible evidence of our own past.

We all – no matter how old we are – can name a thousand things, the stuff of our childhoods, that now are virtually extinct. I’m sure I’m not alone in having felt an irrational pang for the passing of utilitarian objects that I never paid much attention to when they were commonplace. If it hasn’t already, the typewriter eraser will soon disappear – from desk drawers, from office-supply stores, from memory itself. It’s part of a vanishing ecosystem connected to the typewriter, swept away along with ribbons, carbon paper, Dictaphones.

What we do have is Oldenburg’s sculpture. Though when the typewriter eraser (and many of the other ordinary, utilitarian objects monumentalized by this Pop wag and sage) disappears, the monument’s meaning will change —  from overblown mundane to inscrutable mystery.