When the pen evolved into a machine

When the pen evolved into a machine

Before word documents, before word processors, even before dot matrix printers, there was the beast called a ‘typewriter’. On a variety of models were great novels written, duplicated via carbon paper and produced only in hard copy. Not a computer file to be found. Now, sadly, say some, the typewriter has been relegated to the museums as a historical oddity, a relic of that time before technology made us completely reliant on the national grid.
Deep beneath the museum, Yvonne O’Connor and I were looking at two early typewriters: A 1907 Royal Bar-Lock. and a (1893) US-made Blickensderfer with an unusual keyboard layout. Yvonne’s interest in these old machines stems from her mother’s advice to get a job as a secretary. Advice she took, although these days the job has evolved to encompass all aspects of administration. Her mum’s advice was more of an instruction, really, and one doesn’t argue with one’s mother. Yvonne says her mum gave her a toy typewriter one Christmas with a painted keyboard. She says you turned a dial to get the right letter then pushed a button to hammer it through the ribbon on to the paper.
“And that was my first typewriter,” says Yvonne, who then went on to Wairarapa College to take the commercial course, which included typing, shorthand and all things secretarial.
From black Imperials the class upgraded to the big, clunky grey models with keys that made a noise like a car door closing. Her typing teacher was a male, a Mr Boredman. He must have been a rarity.
The Blickensderfer is particularly interesting because a small wheel – a bit like the ‘golfball’ of much later electronic models – can be removed and replaced by another with a different font. Very advanced for 1893. The keyboard is not of the QWERTY variety either, but laid out in a way the designer thought was more efficient, with the most commonly used letters in the bottom row. The Blickensderfer did not use an inked ribbon. The lettered wheel touched a tiny ink pad on its way to the paper after the typist struck the key. This company, based in Stamford, Connecticut, would make the first electric typewriter.
The Royal Bar-Lock machine of 1907 is cluttered with a huge number of keys, but lacks a (usually) important one. There is no ‘shift’ key because each letter is represented in both upper and lower case. Both machines, however, are armed with the @ symbol … is it possible they were anticipating email more than 100 years ago?
“Sadly,” says Yvonne, “we’ve got no provenance on any of the typewriters except for the one used by Major Kemp.”
We spent ages observing and analysing each machine, looking at the differences and talking of things historical, discussing the evolution of the typewriter as a machine to save time, rather than just make the letters uniform and legible. Yvonne’s knowledge and extensive research on the subject made the time interesting and we had a look at the museum’s collection of similar machines as well as teleprinters, adding machines and other things of a bygone era. This story was written on a Dell keyboard using Cyberpage on a Dell screen.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in April 2011.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.


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