It's easy to forget how much time computer word-processing programs have saved the writing public. Before computers, any typewritten document that needed revision had to be retyped again and again. And that's hardly the end of it.
Photos: Jon Snyder/Wired.com
Total up all the hours that people spent whiting out errors before the Delete key … how many zeroes would the final figure have? Combine the surface area of every lumpy smudge of liquid paper: Would it cover the country? The world?
Despite these inefficiencies, there are a few places where typewriters still clack away. New York City police stations, the desks of a few stubborn hangers-on, and, increasingly, the apartments of hip young people who have a fetish for the retro. Mechanical devices with a lot of moving parts, typewriters require maintenance by technicians with specialized knowledge and years of experience. A surprising number of people still make their living meeting that demand.
Wired.com takes a look back at these charming machines and visits three Bay Area workshops whose proprietors keep hearse-colored Remingtons and Underwoods from disappearing into the grave.
Above: If you need a spare part, or a carrying case, then Berkeley Typewriter is a good place to look.
Typewriters provoke curiosity and nostalgia for many. They are one of the more visually appealing members of the catalog of once-ubiquitous technologies that includes kerosene lamps, land lines and VHS.
Above: Co-ower Jesse Banuelos, sporting a Wendy's apron in his workshop at Berkeley Typewriter.
Berkeley Typewriter co-owner Jesse Banuelos is emphatic that, appearances to the contrary, the store's floor-to-ceiling shelves of semi-disassembled typewriters are not junk. Components for these old machines are hard to come by, so the word "hoarding" doesn't quite apply. After all, where else are you going to find a replacement spacebar for that 1926 Corona portable?
Banuelos, who owns the business with his brother Joe, immigrated to the United States from Mexico at 13 years old and soon started working on typewriters. He spent years at IBM, but was laid off and took the opportunity to spend a decade riding his motorcycle around the country. When his rambling days were done, he joined his brother Joe, who also grew up in the typewriter trade, and became a partner in his business.
Above: The workbench at Berkeley Typewriter.
The tools of the trade are simple. Minus the menacing syringe, they are the kind of basics you would find in a mini-toolbox that hits the shelf just in time for Father's Day. Though the implements are commonplace, there aren't many people with the knowledge to put them to work on complicated mechanical devices from a century ago.
Both Jesse and his brother Joe have been working on typewriters for 40 years, Jesse specializes in the older models in particular - an expertise that is fast disappearing from the landscape.
California Typewriter Company is the quintessential family business, employing proprietor Herb Permillion (above), his daughter Carmen, and his mother Nita. Although Carmen works in the business, her father believes that the craft of typewriter repair will not survive into the next generation.
"Once we go," he says, "we're taking it with us."
Above: Technician Kenny Alexander in the small workbench of California Typewriter Company, located in Berkeley, CA.
Though typewriter repair is clearly a career for the fastidious, the three shops Wired.com visited have one thing in common: clutter.
California Typewriter Company works on both vintage and modern office equipment, but surprisingly, over the last 10 years, the sale and repair of manual typewriters has constituted an increasing share of their business. Most of the people buying the older machines are under 35, the company reports, and are mostly people looking for an interesting gift or a decorative conversation piece.
In addition, girls under 12 have become a significant market, following the example of the titular character of the recent movie Kit Kittredge: American Girl, who frequently uses a typewriter. California Typewriter Company also worked on machines for celebrity clients including Danielle Steele and Tom Hanks, and sold a replacement ribbon to Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong.
Above: The variety of styles available at California Typewriter Company may brighten the day of an unhappy hipster searching for meaning through décor.
There are typewriters to meet the needs of aspiring madmen and parents who can't get their daughter to shut up about Kit Kittredge. The various flavors of retro revival have turned what was recently garage-sale junk into a cool commodity.
The megablog Apartment Therapy describes typewriters as one of their most passionate "vintage loves." According to its mission statement, the site's goal is "[T]o connect people to the resources they need to improve their homes, while reducing their reliance on stuff."
However, the editors make an exception for this particular paramour, and seem to know their audience well, noting that typewriters are "typically used as décor while the owner reads blogs."
Above: The Oliver Typewriter Company Model 9, circa 1915.
The Oliver Typewriter Company manufactured this and other typewriters using a "down strike" design. On down strike models, the levers that carry each individual character, called typebars, "swing down onto the paper from above," rather than the standard mechanisms that lift typebars from a half-moon below the page.
This orientation delivers more powerful keystrokes, which makes it easier to punch type through carbon paper for multiple copies. Down strike machines also allowed for "visible print," meaning that the user could see several words of a sentence at a time, rather than only a few characters, as is common for "up strike" devices.
Technological progress has changed the definition of "portable," but this lightweight model isn't too much larger than a laptop, though you did have to pack a lot of paper.
Above: A Mignon Model Four "index" typewriter manufactured in 1924.
Keyboards, it turns out, aren't the only way to type. "Index" typewriters like the one above had fewer parts and a much lower price tag than standard models, but their operation amounted to hunt-and-peck crossed with a hand pump.
The machine's optimistic instruction manual claims that after "a comparatively short space of time" users can achieve "speeds of 250 to 300 letters per minute." That's roughly sixty words per minute, which, according to Wikipedia, is ten words faster than the average typist can manage on a modern QWERTY keyboard. Take a look at this Youtube video of a similar Mignon model in action and decide for yourself.
Above: Index typewriters – the official user interface of hell.
To operate the Mignon, the typist uses the index on the left side, a kind of miniature Ouija board, by moving a metal arm so its tip hangs above the desired character. When the arm is over a given letter or number, the lever in the center spins a macelike globe covered with type so that the corresponding character is facing downwards. The user then pushes a handle that bangs the globe onto the paper.
Index typewriters appear to be roughly as efficient as Morse code, which explains why they were marketed to consumers who did limited typing. As the instruction manual points out, "the user of the Mignon typewriter does not have to learn ‘typing' in the accepted sense of the word."
The 1930s-vintage Bantam typewriter above, bargain priced at $11, was marketed to "boys and girls from four to 12." It featured a simplified keyboard that had no numbers and only a few marks of punctuation. The color-coding was meant to teach touch-typing, highlighting the keys for which each finger was responsible. Similar systems are still in use in the computer era.
Transparent models like this one are the only typing instruments available to inmates in some state and federal prisons. A single company, Swintec, continues to manufacture typewriters made of clear plastic, and sells them to correctional institutions in 43 states.
Wardens frequently ban inmates from using computers out of concern that tech-savvy convicts will hide illicit files from guards, and require see-through housings so guards can easily check for contraband. As an additional precaution, officials have hired California Typewriter Company to inspect even these transparent machines to verify that they contain only the original parts.
At the bottom of the San Francisco Peninsula, about 45 miles away from the Bay Area's other two typewriter repair shops, Los Altos Typewriter and Business Machines has served the public for nearly five decades. Owner John Sansone (above) took over the business from his father, who despite a career surrounded by keyboards, never actually learned to type.
Though typewriter repair accounts for about 40 percent of his revenue, Sansone is in no way a collector, and has scant interest in actually using a typewriter. His wife, Elaine, feels differently, and she uses one as she attempts to compose what she jokingly calls "the great American short story." She likes the finality of typing without a delete button.
"It makes me think it out before I put it down," she says, a method that seems to go against the grain of the Twitter approach to prose. Whether or not she likes the end product, the crunch of keys hitting paper makes her feel like she's "accomplishing something."
Above: Life imitating art at Los Altos Typewriter and Business Machines.
Above: A brochure-sized instruction manual/exhortation from Remington Portable Typewriter.
Before Mavis Beacon started teaching typing, guides ranging from the miniature to the massive aided students in mastering the QWERTY keyboard. An album released in 1923 under the imprint "Rational Rhythm Records" taught students to type to the beat of a tinny brass band, each song a little faster than the one before it. This method must have created scenes worthy of Monty Python as students scrambled to keep pace with a sadistically accelerating Victrola.
At the turn of the century, the word typewriter referred not only to the device but the person who operated it. The 1910 census records that 81 percent of America's professional "typewriters" were women.
Many years later, the notion that females were ideally suited to be secretaries (and nothing more) would be accepted as sexist and demeaning, but at the beginning of the last century, clerical jobs offered one of the first opportunities for women to work outside of the home.
Contemporary social critics decried the advent of women's pursuit of paid employment, arguing that it would disrupt the natural order of the nuclear family and create a generation of nimble-fingered libertines.
Typewriter repair may be a dying art, but it is not a dying business. All three of the shops that Wired.com visited seemed to generate a comfortable living for their respective owners, supported by an eclectic clientele of collectors, design enthusiasts, prison inmates and tweenage girls.
In every case, however, the technicians in charge say that there won't be a next generation to take their places. If they are right, as time goes on fewer and fewer of the old manual machines will remain in working order. That said, crops of amateur enthusiasts have sprung up to save other obsolete technologies from disappearing entirely. Dedicated fans are preserving the Apple II and similar lungfish that bridge the gap between typewriters and digital word processors.
For many people, the limitations of early writing machines, with their mono-font and unforgiving keyboards, are part of their charm. That bodes well for the future of typewriters, even after the last professional repairman hangs up his apron.
Photos: Jon Snyder/Wired.com