Which Type?

“Can you do one more thing for me before you go?”  I put down my jacket and went to where my client was standing in a small nook off the main reception area in her office.  There was a huge, seriously huge, electric typewriter stationed at a side table.  I think it is safe to call any typewriter vintage at this point in time.  It was vintage IBM.

“Do you think you can put this ribbon in?”  She handed me a box and I look at it and at the ribbon that was installed in the machine.  The box seemed about half the size it should be, I thought, but did not want to say anything.

“Oh, this is the corrective ribbon,” I said, looking at the manual she had already taken out and had turned to the correct page right there waiting for me on the table.  “Not the ink ribbon.”

“Oh dear,” she said, “they said it was the ribbon.  It isn’t working and the lady I spoke with on the phone suggested a new ribbon.”  She didn’t realize there were two ribbons.

“Okay,” I said,  “Let’s see.”  In this case the corrective ribbon was attached to the main ribbon cartridge a lot like a baby in one of those papoose carriers is attached to a mother’s chest.  I took off the combined cartridge and separated the two.  It has been at least twenty years since I’ve touched on of these machines.  To me it appeared that both the ribbon cartridge and the corrective cartridge were full but I put the new one on anyway.  I was able to advance both ribbons with the gear on the side of the housing.

I reinstalled it and tried to type.  It was faint and growing more faint.  Hmmm.  “The ink tape isn’t advancing as I type,” I announced.  “I do think there is enough of it, but it is not moving along.”  I removed it from the typewriter and looked at it.  If you have ever looked inside an electric typewriter, there is a system of gears.  As you type, gears inside the machine begin to rotate and in turn rotate the ink tape so that each letter gets a fresh spot on the ink tape from the cartridge.  “I don’t think the gears are turning or catching on this,” I mumbled out loud.

There were at least four electrical connections with coated wiring running back and forth right there underneath where the ink cartridge rests. I started to reach inside and then realized it was still turned on.  I was very proud of my brain that a voice inside my head said, “hey, let’s shut off the power first.”  I have a history of getting shocked.  I shut off the power, poked at the gears I could see and I pushed each tiny electrical plug into its connection to make sure each was tight.  I did not know what I was doing. I was just doing what seemed to make sense.  At the back of my mind I am thinking she will need to call someone or replace the monster of a machine with something less vintage. I put the ink cartridge back in, closed the top and turned it on.

I typed “how does this look”.  It was perfect.  It worked.  The ribbon was moving along with each letter. The type was dark and definite.

“What did you do?”  She asked.

“I’m not really sure,” I shrugged, “I just made sure all the connections were tight.  Maybe the vibrations when it is on loosened them.  You are good to go.”   I wanted to ask what on earth she used it for, but decided I did not want to be late for my next appointment.  She was thrilled.  It was one less stress for her day.  It was as though I’d performed a miracle that saved her time, money and more.  I was kind of impressed myself, but I didn’t say.

It was great just using a typewriter again.

My mother was a very fast typist.  She would work as a temp during those weeks or months when my Dad was laid off or when his union sent the employees out on strike. In a one paycheck home, an interruption such as a strike was a serious hindrance to paying bills and buying groceries. With five small children, Mom used her skills to help out.  In addition to temping, she took in typing at home as well to do in the evenings for extra money.  She had a Royal Quiet De Luxe manual typewriter.

image from ias Vintage shop on etsy

‘image from ias Vintage shop on etsy’

I suspect it was a prized possession in addition to being a valuable tool. It weighed a ton! It was tricky to wind the ribbon which was a lot like threading a sewing machine since there were no convenient ribbon cartridges then, but it sung as she typed.  We were always fascinated by how fast she could type.  When she earned enough money she got us a used copy of the Gregg Typing Manual and a small portable manual typewriter.  It had a plastic case and was a pretty baby blue color.  When she was working in the evening, to keep us out of her hair, we would take turns sitting at the other end of the table learning the Qwerty system from the Manual which was bound uniquely to stand up on its own like an easel next to the typewriter.


It did not take long for my brothers to lose interest and abandon the pretty blue machine.  I enjoyed it. It was almost like learning a new language understanding which fingers were responsible for which letters of the alphabet.  At some point I got good enough to use Mom’s Royal typewriter.  It felt so much more impressive.  It was heavier, solid.  When you reached up and swung the arm back to advance to the next line of type, it felt like you were doing something with great authority.  And it also rang and clacked, creating a wonderful rhythm and music.

When I reach the end of a line and had more to include, there was that handy Margin Release key:  MAR REL.  I quickly learned how to foresee the need to hyphenate or hit that key and add a few more letters.  It was about looking ahead, being aware. There was no correction tape in the old manual typewriters.  We had white out but it was often dried out and somewhat gummy to use if you put it on too thick.  Later we had small pieces of correction tape that seemed to give a cleaner correction.  They weren’t really lifting off the incorrect letter so much as covering it up in white so that you could type over it and it was not terribly noticeable.

I always wrote my stories in long hand and then would sit at her typewriter to type them out.  When you stop to think on a manual typewriter there is silence, complete silence until you begin to type again.  Later when using an IBM Selectric for the same purpose, there was a nagging, almost taunting hum if you paused to think.  It was waiting.  It was waiting.  Come on, type something, it seemed to demand.  It was not a supportive writing companion like the manual typewriter was, waiting ibm-selectricpatiently in complete respectful silence.  With electricity had come impatience.

I learned the IBM Selectric in high school typing class.  We were first taught the Qwerty keyboard which I’d known for a number of years, but the practice was more formal and I was able to pick up a great deal more speed on the electric.  On Mom’s manual typewriter, each keystroke popped up a single arm with the letter on it and raised the ribbon up for the key to strike against it onto the paper making its mark.  If I were typing too fast, several of these arms would get caught up in each selectric-font-ballother and I would have to stop and pick them apart and restart.  I always ended up with little ink letters on my fingers. The new electric had all the letters on a tiny little ball that popped up, spun and danced like R2D2. The new electrics also did not have the arm for the return.  It was a simple button, automatic upon arrival at the end of the line.

It was less physical, less emphatic.  Still my keys never got stuck together as my fingers sped along adding text to the page. It never slowed me down.  There were two font choices then, two balls of type that you could easily swap in and out of the housing.  Pica and Elite seemed to be the most popular.  Font size was more about the spacing of the letters on the line than the size of type.  Later there were many more choices and built-in corrective tape.  It was a heavy machine, hard to lift and move, so you didn’t.  It always had its own stand, usually on wheels so you could move it somewhere convenient to work.

I avoided using a computer for many years having entered college just before they became widespread in use.  When I did start, I was ahead of the game, having learned the Qwerty keyboard as a child.  The speed potential on the computer was stunning.  I loved it.  I could type as fast as I could think and the keys never stuck.  There was less humming at me during the pauses, but the cursor was always there blinking, waiting, not impatient but a persistent reminder that something comes next.  What is that?

I left my client’s office feeling quite pleased, not that I had fixed her machine, but that I had gotten to type on it.  Even just a few short sentences had reminded me how good that felt.  There is a hum and rhythm to the old typing sessions that people do not get to experience on today’s computer keyboards.  And there was a physicality to writing with a typewriter that I am doubtful can even be described to people who have never experienced a manual or even an older model electric typewriter.  I miss that.  I might have to go find myself a typewriter.

2 thoughts on “Which Type?

  1. I just love this piece. It reminds me again of my childhood – I may need to write a back note on how fabulous your stories are for 50-60’s kids.
    The joy you express about using the typewriter is exactly what I felt when my father bought me my little blue typewriter. There was no autocorrect – just using clumsy erasing papers and backspacing. Typewriters were a nightmare for perfectionists like me. Back when we were is school, typos and misspellings were egregious so you took great care to not make any mistakes. Now a days – no one even catches most of them. It is appalling.
    I was enrolled in typing 10/20 in high school. I only took typing 10. Seems I learned incorrect finger placement but could still type at rocket speed. I imagine it looked awkward but it didn’t matter. Those IBM Selectrics went like the wind. And the self correct feature was awesome! My teacher used to slap my fingers with a ruler because my fingering was bad. I’d still meet the times and no errors. So she docked me on my report card. I went to the office and argued that my work was perfect. So she had to give me 100. The counsellor agreed with me. That it wasn’t the means to the end – but getting to the end and doing it perfectly right. So funny. I was such a little shit disturber.
    Thanks for sharing. I adore your stories.


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