A Short History of Typing: A Tribute to Steve Jobs

by John Perry

October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs, may he rest in peace.  I write this on a MacBook Pro, using the Apples Pages program (inexpensive compared to Word), while listening to music I bought from the ITunes, played through my MacBook.  The speakers the music comes out of, and the pipe I am smoking, and the clothes I am wearing, are virtually the only parts of my present existence that don’t owe something to Jobs.  Quite a guy.  This has led to think about what writing used to be like.

By the time Jobs was born, in 1955, I was already twelve and doing a lot of typing.  My parents had an old L.C. Smith machine in the basement which my brother and I both used.  He wrote science fiction, a life-long passion.  I wrote history, mainly summaries of what I read in Hillyer’s A Child’s History of the World, H.G. Wells’ Outlines of History, and Van Loon’s Story of Mankind.

The main enjoyment came from using the big machine, still a shiny black after years of use.  You hit the keys and then they made a very satisfying “whap” on the paper, a nice comforting noise of accomplishment.  At the end of the line you threw the carriage return, on the right side of the L.C. Smith machines, unlike most others.  This break in typing, it turns out, was a main reason generations of manual typists didn’t get carpal tunnel syndrome.  At least I think I read that somewhere.

Typewriters were invented in the 1870’s.  The first generation of typewriters, until about the turn of the century, typed in the mechanically simplest way;  you pressed the key down, which pressed one end of the typebar down.  Like a teeter-totter, the other end of the typebar went up, hitting the paper and the platen on the bottom.  You couldn’t see what you had typed.  You had to rotate the platen about a third of a turn to see, and then rotate it back to continue typing.

A more complicated mechanism led to typebars that hit the front of the platen.  These were called “Visible Writers”.   The underwriters were doomed, although advertisements from their purveyors warned that seeing what you were typing was distracting, and could lead to confusion and dizziness.  About this time a number of configurations were tried out.  One of the most popular machines in offices near the turn of the century was the Oliver.  The typebars were large U-shaped things, coming up in two batches, to the left and the right of the platen.  When you typed, they whapped down from above, putting gravity on your side.  The Oliver remained a best-seller for ten or fifteen years, until the company decided to market them directly through the mail, rather than through stores.  That didn’t work and the Oliver faded into history.

Also at that time something akin to the later IBM Selectric, with its print-ball, was developed.  The type was all on a cylinder; when you typed the cylinder was turned and raised and lowered just the right amount for the required letter to hit the platen.

Everyone has heard about the QWERTY keyboard.  The configuration of keys we have now was developed early, to keep people from typing too fast, and to make it probable that successive key strokes were from different sides of the keyboard.  This helped prevent jams.  The fact that we still use QWERTY keyboards is a tribute to the principle that non-optimal arrangements survive, when the reason for adopting them is long past, if change requires new habits.

A number of turn-of-the century typewriters had two QUERTY keyboards, one for regular letters and one for capitals: a difficult system for for touch typists, one supposes.  The standard configuration of three rows of letters and a top row of numbers took a while to become universal.  Many typewriters had just three rows, with two shift keys, one which gave you capitals, the other which gave you numbers and other odds and ends.  One of the most popular of these was the first portable, a Corona whose keyboard folded elegantly onto the platen, so the whole thing could be fitted into a small case.  You can still find these at flea-markets and antique stores; I paid $10 for one a few years ago, but now they are closer to $100.

Once the standard configuration was settled on, and the underwriters and the Olivers bit the dust,  typewriters were all pretty similar and didn’t change much for about fifty years.   There were Underwoods, the biggest sellers, Royals, the handsomest, L.C. Smiths,  Corona portables, and then Smith-Coronas when those companies merged.  Less popular were the Woodstocks, but they became famous when Nixon and the House Un-American Activities Committee convicted Alger Hiss on testimony from Whittaker Chambers; a Woodstock was a key bit of evidence.  I think it was found hidden in a pumpkin in Chambers’ garden, although maybe it was something else that was hidden in the pumpkin.  A pumpkin would have to be pretty big to hide a Woodstock.

Virtually all typewriters were black enamel until the forties,, and then  sort of slightly textured grey or brown finishes became popular.  The typewriters used in my typing class in high-school were like that; brown Royals I think; the keys were blank to force you to memorize the letters so you could look at the paper instead of at your hands.  There were also lots of portables; no longer foldups, just smaller versions of the big machines.  Writers like Hemmingway used them, carrying them with their luggage on trains and ships to Paris and Havana and other exotic places.

Sometime in the late fifties or early sixties IBM developed electric typewriters, and these eventually became standard in offices.  My father had a small law firm in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his brother and their father.  I remember going there in the mid-fifties, and they were still using manuals.  The secretary, Mildred, could type sixty or seventy words a minute flawlessly, with five or six carbons.  The contracts and briefs they typed at a law office weren’t supposed to have any mistakes.  It was quite amazing to watch her type, and the whole operation was very noisy in a pleasant way.

Carbons?  Do young people know what carbon paper and carbon copies were all about?  I wonder.

For graduation from Lincoln Southeast High in 1960 I got a pale green Smith-Corona portable; until then I had used the L.C. Smith in the basement when I needed to type an essay.  I used this portable though my undergraduate years at Doane College, and for most of graduate school at Cornell.  It never let me down; never crashed; never interrupted me in the middle of an essay to tell me I needed to update software; never became obsolete because software didn’t work on its operating system, never had any mechanical problems at all.  As an undergraduate I typed all of my assignments, and many of my wife’s, on this great little machine.

At Cornell of course I had to write a dissertation, which I did on this portable.  Typing an essay or a dissertation was a lot of work.  You typed a draft of an essay or a chapter.  Then, to revise, you had to type it again from scratch.  I would lay out the pages on a couch and table, and then cut them into pieces and scotch-tape them together in the revised order that seemed appropriate.  Additions were hand-written or typed, and taped in place.  Then you put this mess on the desk — usually about 3 a.m. the day before the essay was due — and typed it all again — with a carbon, if you wanted a copy for yourself.  But you didn’t just type the draft verbatim.  Since you had to type each sentence, you thought about each sentence, and the thing improved with each draft.

While I was in graduate school, Smith-Corona came out with an electric version of their portable.  At that time Frenchie, my wife, and Jim and Sarah, my two oldest, all lived on a meager (but much appreciated) fellowship from the Danforth Foundation.  Nevertheless, I came up with the $100 or so required to buy one of these machines.  It was fantastic.  But it wasn’t as problem free as the manual portable.  Twice as I was typing furiously the end of the `e’ typebar flew off, and had to be soldered back on (or maybe the whole typebar was replaced, I’m not sure).  I typed the last version of my dissertation — that is, the version that my committee had for my oral — on that machine, making four or five carbons, which would have been impossible on the manual.   Then the whole thing had to be retyped by a professional for the university’s archives; I was never a good enough typist to produce the error-free pages that were required for that.

Typewriters were an important part of my life at UCLA (1968–1974), used to write the articles that earned tenure (or at any rate sufficed for me to get it), as well as lectures, memos, and lots of anti-war materials, and a beautiful pamphlet that Tom Hill and I wrote to protest the firing of our colleague, Angela Davis, by Governor Reagan and the UC Regents.  Burt Lancaster actually gave us some money to distribute the pamphlet—but that’s a different story.  For serious stuff you could use the IBM self-correcting Selectrics in the Department Office.  With them, it seemed to me that document preparation had reached perfection; nothing better could be imagined.

Things changed when I moved to Stanford in 1974.  My colleague Pat Suppes had an institute —the Institute for Mathematical Studies in the Social Sciences, or IMSSS — which had a big computer, a DEC 10, I think.  He had a lot of people working for him, and they were doing amazing stuff:  developing computerized logic and set theory courses, among other things.  In some dark corner of IMSSS Dikran Karagueuzian, now the esteemed leader of CSLI Publications, sat making Armenian computer-accessible.  One fellow, a genius named Pennti Kanerva, developed a program called `TV Edit’ — one of the best pieces of word processing software there ever was.  Kanerva is now becoming famous as his work on Sparse Distributed Computing comes to the attention to brain-scientists, but people my age at Stanford still associate him with TV Edit, the first word-processing program many of us used.

Suppes let philosophy graduate students and his faculty colleagues come over to IMSSS and use terminals running TV Edit.  Then you could print out your work on a huge printer, called a LinePrinter because it printed a whole line at a time.  Talk about satisfying noises connected with writing!  Kathunk, Kathunk, the whole building shook as your work was printed out.  That was my introduction to Word Processing.

There was a downside to this.  Up until then, when a graduate student gave me a draft of a chapter or a whole dissertation, I would go over it with them and gently make suggestions and criticisms.  I knew that to deal with them, the student would have to retype the whole thing,  and I counted on that process to lead to much more radical rethinking and revision, so the next draft would be substantially changed.  But the Stanford graduate students, using TV Edit, didn’t have to do that.  They could replace an offending paragraph, improve a disorganized section, change some terminology, just by cutting and pasting and searching and replacing on the computer.  I could no longer count on mild criticisms from me, plus the discipline of retyping from scratch, to produce significantly changed drafts.  For a while I tried forbidding my students from using TV Edit until their final draft, but that didn’t fly for long.  I learned that to get substantial revisions, I needed to make all my criticisms explicit and say several times:  “Don’t just cut and paste.  Rethink and revise!”

My grandfather used to complain that the typewriter had ruined English literature, leading from the sort of florid prose that flowed from the pens of Dickens or Henry James to the telegraphic style of Hemmingway.  I thought that was a sort of curmudgeonly point of view, but perhaps something like it is true in analytical philosophy, where short polished articles have given way to self-indulgent books, no doubt due in large part to how much easier it’s become to write such things.

Then Jobs and Wozniak invented the PC, and IBM and Radio Shack came out with their versions.  Stanford helped those of us in the Humanities to buy machines, and everything changed.  There wasn’t much more to the internet than file-transfer and email, which most people didn’t yet use.  To do those things you needed a modem, usually 300 or 1200 baud.  There were no hard disks, and you could only run one program at a time, and you had to load it from a floppy disc.  Looking back it’s hard to see why such machines were the godsend that they were.  But in a way things were easier; once your got your word-processing program working and started to write, there was no motivation to stop and surf the net, which didn’t exist.

Jobs’ Macintosh brought WYZIWYG (what you see is what you get) word processing, icons, the mouse, and other things to the world of PC users.  The mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart at SRI, and the rest by folks over at Xerox Parc, but it took Jobs to put it all together.  After his exile from Apple, he returned with his solid NEXT operating system, based on UNIX.  Since then its been one thing after another.  My MacBook Pro is based on a solid system, not the elaborations on kludges that the original PCs ran (and some still do).  There is every conceivable temptation to waste time; you can watch movies, do email, surf the web, catch up on the news, and a hundred other things rather than write the essay you sat down to write.  Or you can just write something other than what you intended to work on, which I have just done.

5 Comments

Filed under Memories and Memorials

5 Responses to A Short History of Typing: A Tribute to Steve Jobs

  1. Steve Jobs and Whittaker Chambers mentioned in the same article — and with humor: well done! 🙂

  2. Really lovely!
    I like this idea about grads making minimal changes between drafts. The default really is to leave the text alone rather than rewrite it between drafts. This was actually a selling point of word processing and office automation equipment, a 1981 Arthur D Little report suggested one repair to a vacation house and work with already existing text from reports and memos to build new texts (the report was called “Strategies of Productivity” by Vincent Giuliano)

    The problem is if the sentences are not worth repeating…

  3. >>>My typewriter “never let me down; never crashed; never interrupted me in the middle of an essay to tell me I needed to update software; never became obsolete because software didn’t work on its operating system, never had any mechanical problems at all.”

    Here’s an analogous situation from the world of instructional technology.

    I began teaching high school math in the 80s using a chalkboard. The board never gave me an error message, never wanted to be updated, and didn’t even quit working in a power failure. The board I used had been installed in 1959 and was still working after a quarter century. Chalk and erasers were cheap and plentiful.

    Now I teach by writing on a digital input device connected to a computer which sends the image through a projector. Technological problems that hinder instruction abound. If the computer freezes up and has to be restarted, class slows down. If I accidentally turn off the projector and need to turn it back on, a significant wait is required while the projector goes through cooling down and warming up. I could buy a lifetime supply of chalk for the price of a replacement bulb for the projector. I could buy the whole school a lifetime supply of chalk for the price of a replacement laptop.

    Technology does have its advantages. For example, notes can be saved in electronic format to be printed or posted to a web site. Nevertheless, the high tech approach to delivering instruction has a huge cost-to-benefits ratio which few seem to recognize as we continue to pour our resources into more and more electronics devices and the staff to maintain them.

  4. Michael Massengill

    If I may presume, I’d like to offer a corollary to the act of structured procrastination, based on my present experience: serendipitous procrastination. I settled in with my coffee and MacBook Air for morning email and to begin some writing, an indulgence enabled by recent retirement. One message announced today’s Audible Books Daily Deal, “The Art of Procrastination” by John Perry. Several links later, I’m reading Dr. Perry’s two-year old blog on typing and Steve Jobs. My day is made.

    I was engulfed with memories of my early academic years wrestling with stuck keys, flimsy carbons, eraser-caused holes in drafts, and the dread of an error when nearing the end of a thus far perfect page. I was transported back to my undergraduate days on the UCLA campus, which partly coincided with Dr. Perry’s tenure there. And I appreciated and understood the ambivalent paean to Steve Jobs, whose contributions have been central to my own career and personal journey.

    As a teacher in the early 80s, I embraced at home and at school the first generations of Apple computers. Educational technology became a passion and new career. From a close vantage point, I have observed the mixed blessings that technology brings education and society at large. But certainly among the benefits owing partly to Steve Jobs are occasions of meaningful connection, delightful procrastination, and serendipitous discovery such as I just experienced. The rest of today is just bonus time. Thanks for your writing.

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