Tech #11 Typewriter Days

Remember when an adding machine was the size of a two car garage?.... or when you had to take out a second mortgage to afford a calculator? It's become clich√® to point out the alarming advances in technology; but when you really stop and think about it - it's still frickin amazing.  It's hard to believe that things as commonplace as a copy machine didn't exist when I was a kid.  To make a copy we used carbon paper! And that was the only record of the transaction.  There were no databases or hard drive storage, or CDs, etc.

If I want to make a copy of a document today, I can scan it or make copies on a Xerox machine, or maybe convert it to a PDF, or save it to a secure server - the list of ways I can duplicate and save this document boringly endless.  Back then, the carbon copy was put in a file cabinet.... and that was about it.

God forbid you make a mistake.  You either had to start completely over, or you got out the liquid paper.  Originally invented by Monkee Mike Nesmith's mom, who as a secretary used white nail polish to fix typos. You also had the added grief of the ribbon getting curled up and tangled or the paper wasn't in there perfectly and the lines are all slanted.

Good luck writing a "special character" like √™ or £ or using font other than Courier.  Just try and insert an image or increase your font size - "caps lock" is as close as you're gonna get.  When we wrote stuff back then, it was plain single or double spaced text..... and if you spilled coffee on your term paper, you were SOL.

I remember the first time I used a word processing software. It was Aldus Page Maker and it came in about 50 floppy disks; and it still couldn't do shit.  Nowadays, text and simple graphics aren't good enough - you've got to have "multimedia" with hyperlinks, sound or video clips, spreadsheets with charts.... it's almost gotten to where I miss the ol' typewriter.

I'll be honest, I don't have the slightest clue what contraption is in these brochure photos.  I scanned and cropped these images and never bothered to write down what they were from.  Obviously, punch cards are involved.... but beyond that I'm at a loss.  One thing's for sure, it cost a small fortune.  And I can't help but wonder if it was more trouble than it was worth...... as a matter of fact, I wonder if all our document technology of today is more trouble than it was worth.  We lived without Microsoft Word and flatbed scanners for thousands of years and somehow we managed to survive.


  1. ...And let's not forget what Hunter S. Thompson referred to as "the Mojo Wire", which pre - dated the fax machine. Thompson had so many problems with "the Mojo Wire" while working for Rolling Stone magazine in the 70s that he became notorious for destroying one if it ever went on the blink.

  2. I'm 28. When I turned 10, I received a typewriter as a present. I miss the sounds it made so much! It made me feel so productive!

    Typewriters should make a comeback. If they have smart pens, they can have smart typewriters. They can function in the exact old-school way BUT at the same time they save everything you type in a nice Word document and then you can transfer it into your computer.

    Just sayin'. And they could make 'em nice and cute like the 50s and 60s typewriters.

  3. Never heard of carpal tunnel with typerwriters. You had to hit the keys with some force and move your hands. Movement is what keeps the tendons loose.

  4. I've been in publishing for almost 30 years, you should have seen the contraptions we used to use. Huge typesetting machines, Letraset headline machines, stat-cameras where you'd have to hide under a hood to make a screened photo, linotypes with toxic chemicals you'd have to change, waxers, burnishers, T-squares, rubylith. One person on a Mac does the work of 5 people back then.

  5. My first computer was a TI 99/4A. I paid about $200 for it. It came with a simple operating system and nothing else. I bought an $80 portable color TV to use as a monitor, and a cassette tape deck for data storage. Programs came on cartridges which plugged into a big slot. I think it came with on program, a BASIC compiler. I forget how much memory it had, probably much less than my phone has today. I bought this in the early 1980s.

  6. I'm a computer history nut, looks like a card punch system (quite nice one too, has some programmable logic on the side and a paper tape device on the other.... googling... it's a Burroughs Series E 1400 Electronic Computing/Accounting Machine. More or less the accounting computer for a small corporation.


    at the site is a PDF of the brochure, cool stuff.

  7. Typewriters had a shift lock key, not caps lock. :)

    Hey paradiddle (I'm a drummer too), in the building our company (MultiAd, I'm a developer) used to be in, one office floor was still stained from the Linotype machine they used to have.

  8. I had an Atari 800 XL computer with a word-processing program cartridge that was astonishingly user-friendly and productive. I never looked back at my typewriter, but I agree with those who miss the solid, mechanical quality of type-writing. Oh and kudos to Paradiddle for his fine username. If I had it to do over I might be Ratamacue or Flam-Tap.

  9. Great post! Where to begin?

    For starters, last July there was a great piece in the Atlantic about the Xerox 914, the first commercially available copy machine, introduced in 1960 and regarded as the industry standard well into the 70s. Well worth a look if you can dig it up.

    Second, my first job when I got out of high school in the late 1980s was dumping the catalog and transaction files from a small public library's computer system onto the old reel-to-reel tapes that dated from the punch card days. The server (which we called the "mainframe") was basically a big metal box with the tape drive on the front and hard drives the size of automobile tires mounted in the bottom. The whole setup was already obsolete when they bought it, but I had great fun playing with it while it lasted.

    Just the other day, I was flipping through a 1976 high school journalism textbook in my collection that has a great picture of the steno-clerks at a major newspaper transcribing classified ads. They were using keyboard consoles with the old-school text-based screens, with hooded cabinets that looked a lot like kinescopes (we should offer a prize to the first person who knows what that is).

    As for typewriters, I'm the proud owner of a mint condition Selectric II which I use often. Check it out here:

  10. You mentioned calculators. I remember buying my wife a small Texas Instruments calculator that she really wanted, but was a major purchase, back in 1974. I surprised her with it for a birthday gift, and she was dazzled! Now, one with that capability is a give-away, throw away item.

  11. Very interesting info; I really enjoyed reading these comments. And a big thanks to Joe Commodore for identifying the typewriter thingy.