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September 23, 2003

A public radio commentary

I got a catalog in the mail yesterday filled with the latest electronic gizmos. One ad caught my eye. The headline read: "A machine that performs tricks a computer can't."

Intrigued I read on: "Simply plug it in, switch it on, and its instantly ready," which the ad noted is "amazing" when compared to how slow a computer starts. What is this amazing machine? Its a typewriter. I love this because I still own - and use - three manual typewriters. Still I know its nearly time to write their obituaries, but before I do I want to give the typewriter its due.

The earliest proposals for typewriters are from the 14th century, but its influence really began in the 19th, increasing in the 20th century until it created a revolution. From the 14th century to the mid-19th some 51 people tried to build a useful typewriter, but the key engineering insight came from the 52nd person to invent the typewriter: Christopher Sholes in the 1860s.

He realized that the paper, not the letters should move. Sholes hooked up with the Remington Gun Company to make typewriters. This sounds odd, but after the Civil War their sales were slack, and they'd already moved into sewing machines, so why not typewriters. The original market Sholes and Remington aimed for was ministers and writers - hopping it would later catch on with the public - but they did not, as would seem obvious, aim for businesses. They backed into the business arena when they began marketing, in desperation, the typewriter to the daughters of middle-class businessmen.

The ads proclaimed "No invention has opened for women so broad and easy an avenue to profitable and suitable employment as the typewriter." The typewriter truly opened the world of business to women. Five years after the YWCA introduced typing classes there were 60,000 female typists in the US. Not, of course without an outcry: Women in offices would make the family collapse. And also women were too weak for the manual labor of typing. The YWCA countered this by requiring "a thorough physical examination of all the applicants."

The typewriter also revolutionized other aspects of our 20th century. My favorite is how the typewriter changed poetry. Prior to the typewriter poetry was written for the ear only, but with the typewriter a poet could write for the eye, laying out his or her words in a precise way - expanding meaning to include white spaces, not just words. This led the way, for example, to the wonderful poems of e.e. cummmings.

There now I've given the typewriter it's due. Let the day and age of the computer continue, but let's see if it brings us another revolution in the work force - or a poet with the power of e.e. cummings.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises