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Keyboards

I first wrote about input in this post about keyboards. I’ve always liked typewriters, or so I thought for the longest time. I had a beige IBM Selectric that I wrote TV scripts and documentaries on in the 1980s. After following a tip from a friend, I bought it off the back of a truck in New York, in Hell’s Kitchen, and it was most certainly stolen. The Selectric came in a bloody box that recently held dead chickens, judging from the feathers inside and sticky red stuff that looked like blood. It was an excellent machine, silent when I wasn’t typing, and satisfyingly noisy when I was.

I still have the blue and white Smith-Corona that I wrote most of my plays on in the 1970s and early 80s. It turned on with chug sound, an inertial thud of some sort of flywheel spinning up. It was a hybrid machine, sleekly electric for its era, but also clumsy and mechanical, prone to jams. I pretty much forgot about it the basement of the house I left after getting divorced. One day, my son brought the typewriter over to me, along with the box of old stories. I turned it on. The same old chug sound. I tried some typing. Didn’t get far. The keys tangled up on themselves. I put it back in the box and put the box in a closet and that was that. I thought I would leave the past behind but it wasn’t to be.

Around 2006, I had one more go at typewriters. It was the year that my mother died and my divorce was final. I sought wilderness and brought film cameras to record it. While I was on a hike, looking through the Zeiss lens of a big black camera, my boots showed their age. The soles peeled away as I walked, and soon I was hiking nearly barefoot. Post divorce, post mother, it seemed like my life was coming apart from the bottom up. I decided I needed a manual typewriter and picked out a matte black Olympia sold online by a guy who went by the name Mr. Typewriter. (In this memory piece about typewriters, I’ve skipped another “O” typewriter I had, an Olivetti. Light, white, and portable, I traveled to Europe with it in the late 1970s and enjoyed how its letters were wonderfully irregular, bouncing up and down off the horizontal, and how it rendered some of those letters dark and clogged and others light, nearly invisible.)

The Olympia I bought in 2006 came highly recommended by manual typewriter experts, and it was a good machine for those like me who didn’t want to pay for the top-of-the-line Olivetti. Mr. Typewriter sent it to me in a massive box, easily large enough for a portable washing machine to fit in. I pulled out all the protective wrapping and hefted the machine, carried it into the kitchen, and rolled in some paper.

It had the sound that I wanted. I soon realized, though, that typing stories on typewriters was pretty horrible for me. Every time I made a mistake, which was often, I had to xxxx it out and therefore my pages looked like bad maps of my ideas. When I finished writing something, the act of typing it all over again to make a neat copy was time I felt could be better spent doing almost anything else.

It realized at that moment that I was not a typewriter guy anymore. I tried to convince myself that typewriters mattered because they made every word you type matter. It was like film photography. Film made you think. It made you frugal. It made each photograph matter. When you carried a heavy camera in a backpack in the woods, the decision to haul it out and mount it on your tripod was not to be taken lightly.

Working in the age of computers, though, typing manually seemed like a wasteful, even stupid, way to write. Having to type everything perfectly so that it was finally presentable wasn’t fun at all. Hiring a typist was too expensive.

Why were typewriters important, anyway? I investigated a little. The early inventors of the typewriter thought they were inventing a prosthetic device to help the blind, because why would writers need a writing machine when they had pens? Early typewriters were entertainingly bizzare. One was almost eight feet tall. Others had keyboards closer to what you see on a piano, and they didn’t have ribbons, but inky rollers instead.

In the 1870s, the Remington company was looking around for a new product line. They made guns, and the Civil War was over. A fellow named Sholes had invented a typewriter. In 1873, Remington attached it to a sewing-machine table and put it on the market. It caught on, even though the arrangement of keys was deliberately inefficient.

The Sholes design team, the inventors of the QUERTY keyboard we still use, analyzed the most common two-letter sequences in the English language and then designed their keyboard so that these pairs were separated. They needed to create a delay between the activation of one common letter and the next, so the keys wouldn’t jam. The result is a less-efficient system than had the keys been randomly placed. Keyboards are a refreshingly quaint way to enter data, or faintly ridiculous, depending on how you see it.

After considering my old typewriters, and the stories that come with them, I realize that it’s the sound that I like the most. A keyboard going clackity-clack can command the room, but more importantly, it commands my attention and keeps me on task. Often, I will keep typing just to hear it, and not surprisingly, some good writing comes out of that. I write on phones, on iPad, on computer, using voice input, writing with an Apple Pencil with character recognition, and sketching mind maps. I use index cards and pencils. But I like clacking keyboards the best. They are my preferred input method. The sound my keyboards emulate, that clackity-clack, came into being for me in the early 1970s, during the period when I first started to take writing seriously, so when using keyboards, and listening to them, I am always present at the birth of my first writing moments.

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