It’s hard to imagine giving up precious summer mornings to sit in a classroom and learn to use a typewriter, but many of us did suffer through “aaa”, “fff”, “ggg” and more as we took our typing “basic training.”
Most students looked forward to school being out for the summer, with the freedom from homework, tests, term papers and having to be up early in the morning to make the journey to school, and be seated in home room before the late bell rang.
Most students, that is, except for me, I thought, as I walked from our quarters, cutting across large open back yards, then across the road as I made my way to Fort Knox High School during the summer of 1970. It was cool and the morning dew had given my shoes a wet shine as I made my way across the grass towards the school as it came into view.
I had the familiar “first day of school knot in my stomach” as the school building loomed ahead, and I wondered what I had gotten myself in to.
The school looked deserted at first glance, missing the usual rows of cars belonging to teachers. There was only a couple of cars in the parking lot.
Also missing were the throngs of students who gathered at every door, talking excitedly—I saw a handful of other students making their way into the building, and like me they were a few minutes early.
I was to start my freshman year at Fort Knox High School that fall, and I had signed up for a summer school class, Typing I, being taught at the high school.
My mother encouraged us kids to sign up for some sort of class during the summer to give us something to do outside the house.
The year before I learned to bowl. It was fun, except when you could only master gutter balls, and it didn’t seem that practical to me.
I had been interested in writing for a couple of years and after seeing my older brother typing away on school papers and such at home (and keeping me awake as he typed away into the night sometimes), I decided to go with a practical class this particular summer, even if it meant giving up some of my personal time.
It was a bit strange at first, getting up early and going to a near empty school on warm summer mornings, when I could be sleeping in late. And I worried that someone would think I had flunked a class and I was in summer school because I was a slacker.
I soon discovered I was not alone in my quest to learn to type—about twenty other students were also giving up their summer mornings in order to learn to type as well.
Welcome to Fort Knox High School
This was my first time in the high school, but the inside hallways were almost the same whether it was Junior High or High School. The hallways were missing the usual clatter of locker slamming and the hustle and bustle of students making their way to home room while catching up on gossip or the latest school news.
It appeared this was the only summer classe being taught.
We filed in and found our seats in front of mostly dark gray Underwoods and Smith-Caronas, which were massive office typewriters and obviously built to withstand a nuclear bomb blast.
These “office” typewriters were non-electric “manual” typewriters, and each of us would face the same beast every day for the next few weeks, until we either tamed the beast and mastered typing—or quit—whichever came first.
It was 1970, and while IBM had revolutionized the business world in the 1960s with it’s lightning-fast, electric, ball-element typewriter, The Selectric, we were stuck with what most of the military and much of the business world were using—standard manual typewriters, built like tanks and probably weighing in at a good thirty pounds.
We were all issued a dark orange Gregg typing course book, which was, may still be THE typing book, and we began our first day.
The Gregg book was unusual, in that it was bound along the top edge, not along the side, so it could actually stand upright and display the various typing lessons.
Flipping through the book, it was obvious it was not a book about typing, but was a series of lessons to help the user learn where all the keys were and that rote memorization would be used.
We were instructed on the basic parts of the typewriter, and we rolled in a fresh sheet of paper into our typewriters, then carefully aligned it. Next, we set the margins so the text would appear the correct distance from the left and right hand side of the sheet.
My typewriter keys were well worn and I was mystified as to how I would learn where the keys were as the layout of the letters made no sense at all.
We also learned how to reach inside the typewriter to un-stick jammed letter bars. Jammed letters would sometimes happen if you typed too fast and struck two letters at once.
We learned how to use the carriage lever, in order to return the carriage quickly soon after the tiny bell would tinkle to let you know you were at the far right side of the page, using a quick flick of the wrist. As you typed on a manual typewriter the “carriage” which held your paper moved across the top of the typewriter as you typed.
After our instruction on the basics of the typewriter, we were all eager to actually start typing, and we turned to our first lesson.
Soon the room was filled with noisy clicking, clacking, tinkling and ratcheting sounds as we struggled with our mechanical beasts.
fff jjj ddd kkk hhh . . .
Letter by letter, we typed “fff”, “jjj”, again and again, keeping our eyes looking straight ahead, repeating the letters so that our fingers learned the position of each letter.
Over the next few days we progressed from “fff”, “jjj”, “ddd” typing repetitions through the entire keyboard, without looking at the keys in order to “teach” our fingers where each key was.
As the days wore on, and we mastered letter after letter, like recruits doing drills, our typing became more uniform and the typing sounds in the room more uniform.
On more than one morning, as we settled into our seats to begin our repetitive typing of the same letter over and over, my mind would drift back to thoughts of sleeping in, after staying up late to watch movies on T.V., which is what I did most summers, and I wondered if it was worth the effort.
But now it was a matter of principle—I had to finish what I started.
After a few weeks, we finally mastered the location of all the letters, punctuation marks, symbols and numbers. We were now actually typing words such as “cat”, “saw”, “how”, gradually working our way up to short sentences.
We also practiced striking the keys with some pressure, so that we would produce nice dark letters, and some consistency in terms of lighter and darker letters no matter what letter we struck. It was very hard at first, but with daily practice, and seeing the results of our efforts instantly, we learned quickly what letters were problematic.
Faster, Faster—But Not Too Fast!
Our instructor started to time us, in order to get our typing speed up. The idea was to type as quickly and accurately you could for a minute, then count the letters and spaces and divide by 5.
With the manual typewriters, you had some speed limitations due to having to really peck the keys so your letters would make a good impression against the cloth typewriter ribbon, and the mechanical linkages within the machine itself.
If you typed too fast, you made mistakes, and mistakes took away from your typing average.
When we had a speed test, which was just about every day, everyone would sit upright, hands poised above the typewriter keys, not quite touching the keys, waiting for the instructor to say go. Then the classroom would erupt into a mechanical roar as all the individual typing blended together with the dings of bells and the sound of carriages being snapped back to the right.
When time was called the room was silent, as we counted our characters and mistakes.
By the end of the summer I was typing an earth-shattering 27 words a minute with no mistakes, on my manual office typewriter at school, and maybe a little faster at home.
The Portable Smith-Carona
At home we had a portable electric Smith-Carona. Unlike an office typewriter, which would have weighed 30 or 40 pounds, the portable Smith-Carona was designed for students or writer’s on the go.
It was about six inches tall at the back of the typewriter, and used plastic liberally in order to keep the weight down. Even so, it weighed in at about 15 pounds.
While not the top of the line, it had an electric motor to propel the letter levers up to make very consistent, dark letters. It’s main drawback was that I had to manually return the carriage when I reached the edge of the paper.
My brother received the typewriter as an early Christmas present a few years earlier, and there was many a night where I fell asleep listening to the clack-clack-clack of the typewriter as my brother worked on a term paper or notes for speech and debate competition.
I found I could type much faster on this portable electric typewriter than I did on the manual office typewriter at school, and I didn’t have to worry about how hard I struck each letter—it responded quickly to a key being lightly pressed, and pushed each letter against the paper with equal force.
I learned to correct mistakes using special erasers designed for the typewriter. These erasers were circular, about the width of a typewriter letter, with a brush on the end for brushing away the tiny eraser fragments.
Liquid Paper, or “White Out” for correcting mistakes had been invented in the 1950s, but I never saw any in the PX, so onion skin paper and typewriter erasers were what I used.
Smith-Carona did have a special self-correcting typewriter ribbon system in the early 1970s, but this was only available on its most expensive models, which we did not have.
While at first I hated to give up my summer mornings that year, learning to type without looking at my fingers was absolutely the best time investment I ever made.
Instead of writing school term papers in long-hand, typing the papers was faster and teachers appreciated the effort made to make their life easier when reading stacks of papers from students.
By the end of the summer I began to work on some short story ideas, eventually turning small packages of onion skin paper into fresh double-spaced manuscripts. I eventually worked up the nerve to send a few stories off to different magazines.
When my brother graduatated from Fort Knox in 1972 and left for college late in the summer, he took the Smith-Carona with him, which was fine by me—I had set my sights on a new typewriter—my own typewriter.
The Olivetti Letera 36
I had been checking out some of the latest typewriters available in the PX for a few months, and I fell in love with an Italian typewriter, an Olivetti Letera 36.
This was a new portable and the first electric portable from Olivetti, and it made the Smith-Caronas, it’s primary competitor, look like clunkers when compared side by side.
This typewriter was a step up from the old Smith-Carona, in that when you hit the return key, the carriage returned itself. The typewriter was very compact and portable, weighing maybe 12 pounds, and used ribbons that could be purchased in the PX.
Best of all, I didn’t have to share it with anyone.
I think I could type about 45 words a minute with this typewriter. If I typed too fast, the typewriter letter levers would jam as more than one letter tried to strike the paper at the same time. While it was a great feat of engineering, it would let you press two keys at the same time, unfortunately.
The Olivetti was my faithful office assistant through my junior high school year at Fort Knox.
In addition to term papers, I wrote a number of science fiction short stories, and I also collected rejection slips along with my returned manuscripts. I could never figure out who was mishandling my manuscripts—the Post Office or the readers at the magazine. In spite of my including two layers of cardboard around the manuscript, the returned manuscripts would return with bent page corners and, and I would have to retype the manuscript before sending it off again—publishers would not accept copies and you had to make a good impression with a clean, crisp manuscript.
I also put the typewriter to work on an “underground” newspaper that I co-edited, but that’s another story topic.
Before the school year was over, my dad received his orders for our next assignment, Friedburg, Germany.
As was typical throughout his career, he went on ahead of us, leaving my mom and us kids to deal with the packers and cleaning the quarters for their final inspection.
I did not let the packers box my precious Olivetti, but I chose instead to use it up until we left. The typewriter had a slick black case and fit easily underneath the passenger seat on the plane.
We joined my dad in Germany in late May of 1973, and we lived in Florstadt, a small town outside of Friedburg. I counted the days until we got our household goods . . . I missed my stereo and albums, but I had my Olivetti, so I could work away.
Oh, the Joys of Transformers
In Germany, we had to use transformers, of course, to convert the 220 volt electricity to 110 volts, and I learned quickly that my typewriter ran a bit hotter than it normally did.
I had to take frequent breaks to let the typewriter motor cool down. It had a motor that ran all the time, which propelled the letter levers up when a key was pressed, and returned the carriage of the typewriter at the end of line when the “return” key was pressed. So even if you were thinking about what you were going to write, the motor hummed along.
It turned out that it was the difference in the electricity “cycles”. The motor was designed for 60 cycle, which is the frequency for 110 current in the U.S. In Germany and much of Europe, their electricity uses 50 cycles. There was nothing I could do about the motor running hot, and there was the possibility it would eventually burn out, which would be bad.
There was no grass cutting to be done in Florstadt to earn extra money and I didn’t think I could get a big allowance advance if the motor went out, so I just took breaks and hoped for the best.
The IBM Selectric
In my senior year of high school at Frankfurt American High School, I needed several elective classes my senior year, and the advanced typing class offered an introduction to the business world—invoice typing, letter writing, and so forth.
I was a bit surprised the first day of class when I realized I was one of two guys who had signed up. I knew that shop classes were popular and that a lot of students went over to the Darmstadt Career Center, a technical trade school near Frankfurt American High School, but I thought a few other guys would be in the class as well—I was wrong.
At this time, the average business office had mostly women in the roles of clerks, typists, secretaries, court recorders and the like, so the business classes were made up mostly of female students.
As I looked around the room, I quickly realized my chances of finding a date to the senior prom had just increased by 1,000 percent.
I also got to use an IBM Selectric on a regular basis. There were only a handful of these amazing typewriters in each typing class.
The Selectric was quite innovative for its time. First of all it did not have letters mounted on long rods like a traditional typewriter.
Instead it had small, removable ball with all the letters of the typewriter contained on the surface of a 1-1/4 inch aluminum ball. This ball was close to the surface of the paper, and would quickly spin, lift up, then strike the paper in quick response to your touching a key on the keyboard.
Since it could only type one letter at a time, you could not jam the typewriter.
My typing instructor was able to easily type at some 120 words a minute with no errors . . . very impressive.
Since the ball element did away with letter levers, the Selectric did not have a moving “carriage” that moved your paper across the top of the typewriter. Instead, the paper was stationary, and the ball element assembly traveled across the page, making it easy to see each letter as they appeared almost by magic.
The Selectric also used a special ribbon that was a thin plastic film coated with carbon. The ball element would strike the film side of the ribbon transferring carbon to the paper, making crisp, clean letters. The ribbon was used once then thrown away. Since the machine controlled the ball element, all the letters were uniformly perfect.
Traditional typewriters used a cloth or nylon ribbon. When the typewriter key would strike the cloth or nylon ribbon, it would pick up cloth particles and ink. Over time, the typewriter letters would have to be cleaned and the letters were fat and blurry when compared to the letters of the Selectric.
Even the best manual typewriter typists would strike different keys with more or less pressure, meaning the typed text was not as uniform. But with the Selectric, each letter was perfect.
The second generation Selectrics had a special “correcting” ribbon that would let you back up and erase a mistake. On a traditional typewriter, mistakes were hard to fix without being obvious, but the Selectric II would let you fix a mistake that looked perfect.
The class was a lot of fun and with all my extra typing on manuscripts during the previous two years, my accuracy and speed were fairly good. One of my teachers, Mr. Platis, who taught art, drafted me to help type his tests, which introduced me to printing.
Printing from Stencils
To reproduce black ink copies of tests, I had to first type on a special “stencil” or master instead of paper. Keep in mind that this was 1973 and while Xerox copiers were being used by the military and many businesses, they were large, expensive machines, and not in the budget of most high schools.
To print from the master stencil, I would wrap the stencil around an inking drum. When the printer started, it would force ink out through the drum by centrifical force, and through the stencil where there were typed letters. This process was much like squeezing ink out through a silk screen stencil, except it was much faster. In a second or two, the printing press would start turning out printed “copies”.
When the printing was completed, the “master” or stencil was removed from the printer and was carefully destroyed or wadded into a ball and disposed of.
I had no idea at this time that this exposure to very basic printing would be a stepping stone into an apprenticeship in printing after high school.
After graduation I returned to the U.S. and I brought my Olivetti back with me to Columbus, Georgia.
By this time the overheating of the motor had taken it’s toll on the typewriter. The bearings in the motor were making a rumbling, rattling sound, which sounded like metallic marbles clattering instead of a smooth, quiet hum the typewriter had made when it was new.
Fortunately, I was working for a printing company which had both an IBM Selectric II for office use and an IBM Composer, which I could use during lunch or after work, so I could save my Olivetti from its enevitable death.
The IBM Composer
When I first started working at Diversified Printing Services, I did mostly bindery work, but within a few weeks an opening appeared in the art department and I found myself putting together ads and occasionally typesetting.
The IBM Composer was the Rolls Royce of the IBM typewriters. In addition to having several thousand moving parts, it’s claim to fame was that you could make “justified” columns of text or you could perfectly center text by typing the line of text one time to take a reading on a special scale, then retype the text again after setting the Composer to the same reading. The result was beautiful typesetting, not typewriter letters.
The Composer also used real typefaces. Typewriters all had letters that were the same width no matter if you typed an “i” or an “M”, and they type font varied little from typewriter to typewriter.
The Composer, on the other hand, had dozens of ball elements so you could change from say 14 point type down to 6 point type and you could easily change the Composer’s line spacing in one point increments, which was also called “leading”. I was introduced to Bodoni, Times Roman, Helvetica and other type faces I had no idea existed.
It was definitely not a typewriter, and a much more complex machine than the Selectric. The IBM Composer was prone to frequent tuneups and repairs. It seemed that we had a repair technician in every other month.
I used this machine for creating forms and setting type for newsletters and other projects, and it had been a true “work horse” for a few years before I came to work at Diversified.
The CompuGraphic IV TG
About a year after my introduction to the IBM Composer, Joe Wheeler, the print shop owner, bought a CompuGraphic IV TG. This was a $20,000 (more like $50,000 in today’s dollars) phototypesetter that used photographic paper and a fast spinning strip of negative film and a strobe light to expose each typed letter onto the photo paper.
This typesetting machine was quite advanced for it’s time. It used thousands of IC chips, but it had no memory, so you could not store and later edit what you were typesetting. It had a tiny red LED display that showed maybe six or seven words you were typing, before they were sent to the machine for actual output.
You could type away for several seconds, then once you hit the “return” key, it would quietly work away.
The CompuGraphic was much more efficient than the IBM Composer, in that you only needed to type your text one time, and it would would justify or center your text automatically. There were special keys for making text bold or in italics, using different letters on the font filmstrip. As you typed, you could insert “commands” using special keys to make italic, bold or centered type. In contrast, the IBM Composer required you to stop and switch the ball element from say Times Roman regular to Times Roman Bold, in order to make a bold sentence or word.
The stopping and starting up again with the IBM Composer really slowed you down, and the small plastic tabs used to lock the ball element in the machine were prone to breaking from time to time.
If you made a mistake with the CompuGraphic IV, you would have to later go back later and “paste in” over top of the incorrect word or line of text, so I worked hard to be both fast and accurate.
After you typed several pages of text, you would remove a cassette from the CompuGraphic which held several feet of exposed photopaper, then you would place the cassette into a special photo processor, close the lid and it would use a chemical developer to create black letters on the paer. A second stage of the processor would “fix” the photo paper, so that after the paper was developed, it would no longer be sensitive to light. This process resulted in long strips of typesetting called galleys of text, that when dry, would be waxed, cut and pasted into position on pasteup boards as part of the pre-press process.
I liked the CompuGraphic as I was able to type as fast I wanted to without fear of jamming anything. If I got several lines of text ahead of the machine, it would eventually catch up to me. The down side was that the machine required several steps to set type, and there was no way to store type or edit out mistakes before committing it to final photopaper, but the resulting type was great.
A new Olivetti
For my personal use, I decided in 1976 to get a new Olivetti, but this time I went with an office machine that had a ball element mechanism similar to the IBM Selectric.
It was quite expensive, but cheaper than buying a new IBM Selectric III, and the quality of the print on paper was great. Like the Selectric, it used carbon ribbons to create crisp type, and had a “lift off” ribbon, that allowed you to go back to a mistake on the page and lift off the text, retype the correction, producing perfect pages.
I used the Olivetti typewriter until it wore out finally while I was in graduate school, in 1986.
The late 1980s was also the coming of age for “word processors”. Word processors were basically typewriters with some memory or the ability to store text onto a floppy disk. In some respects they resembed early personal computers that were becoming popular, with some word processors having a small screen for editing a few lines of type. But beyond typing text, their comparison with a computer ended.
In the summer of 1987, I started a freelance graphic design business, and the typewriter was vital for letters and proposals, addressing labels and envelopes.
The “daisy wheel” was a circular disk, with multiple spokes, each containing a different letter. This disk would spin an when a key on the keyboard was tapped, a small “hammer” would strike the wheel making one letter appear on the page. This approach was much simplier than the IBM ball element typewriter, and allowed Brother and other comanies who adopted the same technology to produce very inexpensive and light-weight typewriters.
I think it cost about $300, and was a good value. This typewriter cost about a third of what I paid for the Olivetti office typewriter.
The typewriter had a small LCD screen, which displayed about 100 characters as you typed, or about 10 words, and had some built in memory. It was possible to store some commonly used text, do mail merges and there was a spell checker built in that beeped when a word was mis-spelled, so you could catch most mistakes as you made them.
The late 1980s is also when the personal computer really took off, and late in 1987 I bought my first of many Apple Macintoshes, or Macs, as they are called.
The Mac SE combined a tiny high resolution black and white schreen and computer housing and was the forerunner to the iMac concept that we have today. The model I bought came with an internal hard drive and a small slot for inserting 3.5 inch disks.
The Mac SE was really whatever you needed it to be, by adding software and external devices. By adding a dot matrix or laser printer, you could have a basic word processor—and more.
My graphic design business took off in 1988, and I used the Mac SE initially for writing proposals and letters, printing checks and for connecting to computer bulletin boards (the forerunner to the Internet).
The Imagewriter printer would print by using a “dot matix”, that is, it would create different letter shapes by printing very small dots with a print head that travelled back and forth across the page, much like inkjet printers today. The big difference is that the quality of the type was not as good as what an inkjet is today, and the ImageWriter made a muffled grinding noise as the printhead worked back and forth across the page.
The ImageWriter used paper that was in a continuous roll, and was kept aliged in the printer by using paper that had sprocket holes along the left and right side of the paper. After printing you would have to tear off the “holes” using perforrations on both sides and across the sheet to make your individual pages.
You could roll individual letterhead sheets into the ImageWriter, and it could be used to create ads and even newsletters as you could make type different sizes and you could buy different typefaces for the Macintosh.
While the Imagewriter was relatively inexpensive, it was noisy and the type quality was not very good.
By combining the Macintosh, a laser printer and a layout program like Quark XPress or Pagemaker, the Mac SE was an incredible typesetting and layout device, and launched a pre-press industry single handedly called “desktop publishing”.
The printing industry was revolutionized over the next few years as very expensive dedicated typesetting machines were made obsolete by Macs. Most dedicated typesetting systems at the time would not let you see on screen what the final typeset page would look like, but with the Macintosh you could.
Within a couple of years I upgraded to a new Macintosh, a 21 inch monitor, a laser printer, and in the early 1990s a scanner for making my own halftone scans.
Newsletters, brochures, books or just about anything could be created on the coputer and the files saved and sent to high resolution film output for platemaking and printing using offset lithography.
While the computer was relatively new concept for me, having worked on typesetting equipment years before seem to make it all a bit less intimidating, and I could see there were so many possibilities with a computer beyond using it for design and layout.
Email and beyond
Along with the use of the computer in the late 1980s, email evolved from a novelty to a business necessity. In the late 1980s, email was a bit limited as you could only email within the service you were using. If you an AOL subscriber, you could not email to someone who was a CompuServe or Prodigy subscriber, but this would change in the mid-1990s with the emergence of the Internet.
In the late 1990s especially, letter writing and faxing of office documents gave way to emailing and sending documents as email attachments.
While I do miss the mechanical click-ity clack of the typewriter, and seeing the letters appear on the page as I type by mechanical means, with word processing on a computer screen, I can now type as fast as I want to, or as slow as I need to.
I can store text, edit it again and again before committing it to paper. I can use Google Docs to work on drafts of documents from any computer that is connected to the Internet.
If I had not taken my first typing class at Fort Knox, I wonder what I would be doing today?
The Joy of Analog
While the technology in the office and home has changed over the years and typewriters are only occasionally used, the keyboard remains the same and good typing skills can definitely come in handy.
While I love word processing on the computer, there is something to be said for the simplicity of the typewriter.
With the pre-1980s typewriters especially, there’s no software to upgrade and if taken care of, a typewriter can work for decades. This is not true with most computers. Computers are obsolete the day you buy them, and rarely can you use one for more than about five years, as new operating systems and external technology make computers outdated.
I’ve been looking on Ebay for a Selectric or maybe an old manual typewriter. Not so much to use on a daily basis, but to serve as a reminder of how far we have come, and to hear familiar sounds . . .
Clickety-clack, clickety-clack . . . . ding.
Oh, how I miss that sound.