The war in Ukraine pounds on without sign of let-up or solution, but as the clocks have leaped forward and the days conspicuously lengthened, I've been getting out of the house more. By way of distraction, last week I visited the Typewriter Revolution
exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, which runs until September.
Gallery 2 is a relatively small room on Level 3 reached by a bridge from the gallery overlooking the busy technology hall. Given the predominance of typewriters globally throughout the 20th century until the arrival of computers, I had expected something much bigger, but it has been carefully curated to reflect the evolution of the machines and their social and economic impact, especially their influence on the arrival of women in the workplace.
A video collage of typewriters in use plays on one wall to the accompaniment of the old clickety-clack chorus of a typing pool in full flow while you browse. Researching typewriters on the internet afterwards, I was surprised to discover that attempts to build one date even as far back as the early 16th century, but they didn't really take off until the middle to late 19th with the industrial and commercial growth of America.
The early machines are large and cumbersome and almost uniformly black with gilt lettering. Famous names like Underwood, Remington Rand and Imperial mingle with less familiar ones such as Sholes and Glidden, Blicksenderfer, Maskelyne and Hammond. Some of the early prototypes featuring cog-wheeled discs seem puzzling as to how they actually worked and when you see a video of them in action seem impossibly slow beside the high speeds later professional typists could reach. More like tapping out Morse Code.
The Sholes and Glidden machine, one of the first, originally came with a treadle, like the Singer sewing-machine my Highland gran had back in the 1950s. The one in the exhibition is decorated with gilt rococo flourishes and coloured flower arrangements, a definite nod to the ladies. The QWERTY keyboard emerged as standard early on, beating off intriguing alternatives like DHIATENSOR. One version has raised keys like the wings of a bird about to take off. Another throws up its keys like a steely stick insect stretching its legs. Some have separate rows of keys for upper and lower case letters rather than using a shift key. There are also examples of 'noiseless' versions, so that you didn't annoy family, landlady or neighbours if you were typing late into the night.
The portables too had their place with their neat carry cases designed for travellers or journalists reporting from far flung corners of the world. While modern journalists tend to report to camera as they duck sniper fire in their hard hats and bullet-proof vests, those who covered former wars might type away in the shelter of an upturned truck while bombs and shrapnel rained down around them.
I've always been fascinated by typewriters, not so much for their mechanical features as for how they both display and validate your writing. Romantically aspirational, you might say. My first typewriter was a Bluebird Ace, dating from at least the 1940s, though possibly earlier. An aunt, who had worked in London from the 1930s and on through the war until she returned to her native Highlands in the mid-1950s, gave it to me in my teens. One of the most welcome gifts anyone has ever given me.
I still have it, a robust but neat black metal portable machine with heavy keys that require strong pressure. It still works, although it needs a new ribbon. It also still has its solid carry case with a little brush to keep it pristine and dust-free. I loved that machine and wrote all my early poems and stories on it. I then bought a light green Olivetti Lettera 32 with the first month's pay check I got from a job I had when I spent some time in London in the early 1970s. That was so elegant and lightweight to use. I still have it as well and would probably still be using it if computers hadn't come in. First the Amstrad and then pcs, laptops and tablets, all of which I've sampled.
The main drawback of manual typewriters was all the faff of correcting mistakes. The messiness of carbon copies and trying to get Tippex to paint on neatly rather than form a crusty blob. Those who still swear by them allege, because of these drawbacks, they make you think more carefully before you type. But that's not the way I function.
Everything I write, even emails, go through a whole series of alterations before I'm satisfied. I was never really interested in being able to type to take up a secretarial job, although I have occasionally done stints at that. It was the writing that drew me. Both Henry James and Mark Twain were early adopters. Jack Kerouac typed On the Road
on a single roll of paper. Sylvia Plath used a portable Olivetti Lettera 22. The exhibition has Compton Mackenzie's electric machine on show.
Since computers have displaced them in the workplace, typewriters have found new functions, like the all-male Boston Typewriter Orchestra, whose exuberant clattery sound surfing most of us might prefer to ration. Then there's Luke Winter, a street storyteller, who will type a tale just for you. And Keira Rathbone, an artist who creates brilliant landscapes. From a distance they look like refined etchings, but when you examine them closely, the images are made up of artfully arranged typed details. How she does it seems miraculous.
And then there's the Hollywood actor, Tom Hanks, who loves typewriters and has quite a collection. Recently, he published a book of short stories called Uncommon Type
, each of which features a typewriter in a starring or supporting role. I haven't sampled them yet, but the concept appeals.
Finally, not to be outdone, there's a Lego version, in a streamlined Olivetti portable style. It took the young curator, who has been working on a PhD on the role of typewriters in mid-20th century Scottish commerce, just under nine hours to put together, following closely the extensively detailed instruction manual. He said the experience taught him a lot about how typewriters are actually constructed. It doesn't actually type to print, but it looks rather good in its exhibition glass case.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh