Thursday, June 29, 2006

Clickety, Clackety, Bing!

(Tools of the Trade, Part III)

By C. L. Beck

Ah, the old-fashioned typewriter. What? You’ve never used a typewriter? You must be a babe-in-the-woods, because anyone born before 1965 grew up knowing that nothing could ever put words on paper faster than a typewriter.

My first typewriter was an old, manual Royal, and since that’s the one I know the best, I’ll confine my remarks to it. A good typist could punch out 50 wpm—that’s whacks per minute—with only two errors. No wait. It’s been so long since I’ve used one that maybe wpm stands for words per minute. At any rate it doesn’t matter, because I was never able to get 50 whacks or words per minute out of it. My average was 20 wpm, with fifty mistakes.

Do you know why keyboards are not arranged alphabetically, in an order that actually makes sense to the human mind? According to my vast research—ok, I’ll admit it, I don’t remember where I heard this useless bit of information, it was probably on Paul Harvey—keyboards have the letters scrambled to slow the typist down.

Does that make sense to you? If the object is to type as fast as possible, why set up the keys to slow you down? The reason was this. With a manual typewriter, when you hit the keys too fast, they’d slam into each other and get all tangled. Yes, really, it’s true. They’d kink together and the typist had to reach in and unsnarl them. You could always tell a fast typist by the copious black ink smudges on his/her fingers, acquired from untangling inked keys.

Let’s not forget the inked ribbon. You’d be flying along, whacking out sentences, finally getting the rhythm when your words on the paper would grow dimmer and dimmer. However, only really good typists knew that was happening, because they actually looked at the paper as they typed. Everyone else looked at the keyboard, because they couldn’t remember the scrambled order for the letters. By the time most people realized they needed to change the ribbon, they’d typed three pages of invisible words.

There was also the matter of mistakes. There was only one way to fix a mistake and that was to get the Liquid Paper. If you don’t remember what that is, it’s a correction fluid created in the kitchen of Mike Nesmith’s mother.

You don’t remember Mike Nesmith, either? Oh come on, you’re making me feel old. He was a member of a singing group called The Monkees.

Back to the Liquid Paper. To describe it, it’s a tiny jar of white paint with a teeny brush. You dabbed it carefully on the mistakes, allowed it to air dry, and then retyped over it. If the typist was doing multiple, carbon copies, he/she had to remember to make the correction on each copy. It was only after you retyped the words that you realized you’d forgotten to let the Liquid Paper dry, and you had a messy white blob on your keys and carbon paper.

Liquid Paper is still available today, and I use it quite frequently. Somehow, though, it doesn’t seem to work as well. I spread it on my computer screen, but the mistakes seem to print out from my printer, just the same.

Despite all their problems, manual typewriters had one really neat aspect. Their sound was mesmerizing. You’d zip along, hearing clickety-clickety, clackety-clackety, BING! The ‘bing’ was the signal that you had reached the edge of the paper, and you needed to hit the carriage return lever to start on the next line.

Hitting the carriage return did have its potential problems, however. Once, after typing half a line, I made the mistake of putting my water glass at the right-hand side of the typewriter. All went well, until I came to the edge of the paper. I’d been punching along, typing at the whopping speed of at least 15 wpm and was so engrossed in my writing that when I heard the familiar ‘bing’, I hit the carriage return lever without thinking. The carriage flew back to the right and slammed into my glass, flinging ice and water all over the desk, curtains and walls.

I have to admit, after thinking back on the era, that typewriters were interesting but computers are so much more practical. My computer has never flung my glass of water across the room. No longer do I have to untangle keys, or get my fingers smudged using carbon paper. I can get my thoughts down much more quickly and never have to return the carriage to start on the next line.

Despite the advantages of a computer, I still have one problem. It seemtth that even with compooters, I still make mistakes. Until I find a way to fix that, Maybe I’d betterr buy stock in Liquid Paper.


Triple Nickel said...

Great Blog. It brought back a lot of memories. Many painful memories too! I still have bruises on my fingers from having to hit the keys so hard. But at least you can't see the bruises because of the ink smudges!

C. L. Beck said...

Hi Triple Nickel,
Thanks for reading.

They say epsom salt is good for bruises. Personally, I think if you tried putting a ribbon in the typewriter, you wouldn't have to bang on the keys so hard. :-)