Steven Levy, Wired senior writer and the man who found Einstein's missing brain, joins us to recollect his gadget-laden life back in 1979. He starts, fittingly, with the last typewriter he ever owned.
In 1979, I wrote all my stories to the accompaniment of a grating hum, which sometimes modulated to a low growl. These, along with the greased metallic Gatling-gun clicks that punched out my prose character by character, were the sounds of my Olympia Report deLuxe typewriter.
Compared to using a word processor on a PC, using the ORD was an earthy process: Hands-on ribbon changes, the smell of ink, and cranking the platen to see what you just typed. Not to mention an unforgiving process—all too often I was faced with the option of swabbing Wite-Out on a typo or an infelicitous phrase, or simply using a pen to cross it out and scrawl a correction in the blank line between double space. But in 1979, an electric typewriter was the tool of choice, and my was the Olympia.
I'm not quite sure how I first settled on the Report deLuxe. I know I didn't aspire to save my pennies for the high-end of typewriters, the IBM Selectric. Certain professional writers swore by them: These were the clerical Clydesdales with the type-ball, sometimes referred to as a golf ball. You'd press a key and by some magic, the ball would jump forward, revolve and peck at the page—like an indignant woodpecker— with just the right character. You could even swap out the ball for an italic font. The output of the Selectric was very clean and orderly. And the motor hum was low and calm, like soft classical music. You would always come across Selectrics desks of secretaries working for people who made you wait to see them. The Selectric wasn't for me.
Instead, as best I can remember, one day in the late '70s I went into a typewriter store to replace the Smith Corona from my college days and emerged with the Olympia, a more traditional typewriter where hitting a key sprung a lever that make a little arm jump up and hit the page. I think it cost around $300. Its two-tone looks weren't exactly modern, but not retro. It had a plastic shell, but was pretty solid. It was a "portable," meaning it came in a case slightly smaller than a cinder block, and not much lighter. It wouldn't fit in the case unless you rolled up the electrical cord just right, squeezing it into a gap in the plastic.
The Report deLuxe did a lot of things right. It was easy to put in the paper so it wasn't tilted at a slight angle. And when you had to Wite-Out a mistake and then go back and type over it, it was pretty easy to adjust the platen to find the approximate positioning and type in the correction so it almost looked like you did it right the first time. And most important, when you got excited and started typing really fast, it could handle the flurry, only rarely getting jammed.
Once you bought a typewriter, you held onto it for a while. It wasn't like a new upgrade or a rival model would come out in a year or two that had you lusting so much you'd ditch your present model. You'd just keep the one you had. It's not like you were waiting for some sort of spiffed up UI or anything-with an electric typewriter, you just turned the thing on, twirled a piece of paper in it, and started banging away. The trickiest thing you did was set the margin.
When something went wrong, you took it to a little shop when some guy who had been there since World War I put a tag on it and told you to come back in two days. And he would fix it. Every couple of months you'd change the ribbon, a messy process that made your finger look like you'd just been to the police station.
I'm not going to bother comparing the virtues of typewriters to computers when it comes to writing books and articles; you'd have to torture my family to make me go back. Typewriters force you into a linear process of writing-hammer out a draft, revise by pencil, type the next draft... By comparison, I'm writing this post by jumping from paragraph to paragraph, moving things around, shaping and reshaping. It's almost as if the final draft just emerges, like a photograph in developing solution (if you don't mind an old film reference). Computers are much preferable, and no scissors and glue are required like in the original "cut and paste."
But I was quite happy with my Olympia Report deLuxe. Of course, I didn't go around raving about it. People didn't talk much about their typewriters. It wasn't until I had long given up my Olympia that I learned via one of his columns that Ron Rosenbaum, one of the great magazine writers of our time, had a fetishistic relationship with his Olympia Report deLuxe that lasted well into the computer era.
In the movie You've Got Mail, Nora Ephron created a character based on Rosenbaum. When asked what kind of typewriter he used, he said the name of the model, adding, "Report, as in gunshot."
I still can hear it.
Steven Levy is a senior writer for Wired, most recently writing about Google's ad business and the secret of the CIA sculpture. He's written six books, including Hackers, Artificial Life and The Perfect Thing, about the iPod. In 1979, he had just left his first real job, at a regional magazine called New Jersey Monthly, to become a freelance writer, and had yet to touch a computer.
Gizmodo '79 is a week-long celebration of gadgets and geekdom 30 years ago, as the analog age gave way to the digital, and most of our favorite toys were just being born.