Reverting to Type

In the fall of 1960, I.D. magazine published a New York–themed issue. In our zeal to avoid the usual metropolitan clichés, we looked for aspects of the city that had not yet been “special issued” to death. At the time, Olivetti was universally acknowledged as a model of corporate design leadership, and the sidewalk in front of its sleek showroom on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue featured a marble pillar supporting an Olivetti Lettera 22 portable typewriter. I don’t remember whether pedestrians were invited to try it out or whether they just did it spontaneously, but the machine was heavily and often revealingly used. A lot of people predictably wrote, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country,” but some wrote personal letters and even poetry. Once every hour someone came out of the showroom and rolled a fresh sheet of paper into the machine. The manager generously agreed to save a few week’s worth of anonymous contributions to run in the magazine.

The smiling woman in one Life Magazine photograph wrote, “I’d give up my spaghetti for this here Olivetti.”

As Ursula McHugh and I boasted in the introduction:

New York has the only machine in the world that writes poetry and it is characteristic that the machine itself is foreign…. Here is something it wrote last week:

           Do away with the dubways

           Only the insane ride the sibways.

           Plant mushrooms in the tunnels.

           Plant mushrooms in the tunnels.

Typos notwithstanding, it’s not bad for an untrained portable, without help of parent or teacher. It was clear that a typewriter, like a chair or a car, was an artifact capable of inspiring affection. Antique dealers know that they can always increase traffic by putting an Underwood portable in the window.

By the time the digital age caught up with me (I have never caught up with it) I had graduated from a manual to an IBM Selectric. When I bought my first computer I called my local typewriter store and asked what I could get for the Selectric, which was in perfect condition. The answer was discouraging.” It has no resale value, regardless of condition,” I was told. “But since it’s fairly new, I’ll give you fifty bucks for parts.”

Parting with it was not as traumatic as getting it in the first place, which had meant making the tearful transition from an Olympia that sat patiently and silently on my desk while I waited for ideas to come.

Often they didn’t. I couldn’t stand the Selectric’s humming into my ear, reminding me of how desperate I was and filling me with guilt over missed deadlines and fear that the summoned ideas never would appear. The manual had made noise too, but only when I pounded it. Since I am a two-fingered typist my pounding was not incessant, and the resulting clatter was not annoying. Still, I never thought of it as attractive until my friend Cheryl Yau, preparing to write a design analysis of the Olivetti Lettera 21, decided to buy one, seduced not only by its elegance but by the clatter that sounds so romantic in old movies about the newspaper business. She didn’t get one, having been out-bid on eBay, and her disappointment emphasized that an artifact presumably made obsolete decades ago, has not entirely lost its luster.

There is a resurgence of interest in, and sales of, typewriters by people who already own one or more of the devices that replaced them. The New York Times reported:

In the last three months, type-ins have clattered into cities from coast to coast and even overseas. On Feb. 12, more than 60 people turned up at a Snohomish, Wash., bookstore over the course of three hours for a type-in called Snohomish Unplugged. Type-ins have popped up in Seattle, Phoenix and Basel, Switzerland...

Some of this surely is related to the renewed interest in cooking from scratch, home schooling, and DIY—or almost Y—eschewing Design Within Reach and reaching instead for parts from IKEA that can be cobbled together for short-term use. And some is purely nostalgic. But that’s not the whole story. Typewriters, like bicycles and Newtonian physics, still work.

Before it was on the way out, the typewriter had a hard time getting in. At least into private offices. Typewriters were parked outside on secretarial desks. And when computers began to make inroads into businesses, they were equally unwelcome. Word processors looked too much like typewriters! Executives were embarrassed to sit near any machine that connoted secretarial work. And besides, most of them didn’t know how to use a keyboard, even with two fingers.

When I was overseas, well-meaning friends and relatives kept writing to ask what I needed. Not cigarettes; I didn’t smoke. Not edibles; they rarely survived the voyage. But one day I saw a newspaper ad for a Hermes portable that was described as the lightest typewriter ever made. I asked my indulgent parents to get me one. They did, probably hoping it would provide an incentive to write letters home more often, and I carried it around the South Pacific for the next three years.

Occasionally one meets or hears about writers who pride themselves on not using computers, triggering memories of writers who refused, for similar reasons, to use typewriters when they were the most efficient alternative to pens. In college I had a professor who had written several books and by the time I graduated had written several more. I was enviously dazzled by his productivity, and utterly flabbergasted when I discovered that he wrote in longhand.

“Wouldn’t a typewriter be faster?” I asked.

“I suppose so,” he said.  “But I can’t think any faster than I can write, so the additional speed wouldn’t help.”

The contemporary affection for typewriters may be a passing fancy, but it isn’t necessarily fancy. One reputed advantage of the typewriter is its simplicity. I have always been attracted to objects, like the strawberry huller, that can only do one thing. A typewriter cannot cannot find information, take photographs, produce a spreadsheet, tell you who’s following you on Twitter, play podcasts, find tax loopholes, flood you with apps or remind you that three friends have birthdays coming up. All it can do is enable you to type. With however many fingers are equal to the task.

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.