The dinosaurs when phht… over 60 millions years ago.
And then, someone invented the typewriter.
If, like yours truly, you’re old and decrepit, and you’re afflicted with osteoporosis or a receding hairline—as the case may be—, failing eyesight and/or hearing, then you’ll remember the ruddy contraptions. Of course, the internet generation has no idea.
When I was a kid, we had a German portable Adler. And when I say portable, I really should say transportable. Anyway, it was really a wonderful piece of German grundlich engineering. Solid and stolid, I suspect it was made of cast iron. With some lead in the bottom, for added gravitas. I know where my father got his hernia from. Plus, it was your regular knuckle-bender. Getting any letter on paper required determination, stamina, and a healthy breakfast. Today’s keyboards are for wimps. In actual fact, fifty years on I still strike the keys so hard that more often than not, my Apple keyboard either misses the strike, or forms the letter twice.
The case was really nice, too: some sort of reinforced cardboard, with an imitation fabric imprint, and one of those nice, hand-stitched leather, oblong handles on two swiveling eyelets that you only find on vintage suitcases these days.
Typing (of course, we still typed letters in those days) was a feast, at least for the trained typist. Every time you struck a letter, a little hammer would swing out, and just before it hit the paper, the machine would lift an inked cloth (not inappropriately called the ink ribbon) in the way of the hammer, so that the latter would not strike the paper directly but the ribbon instead, leaving on the paper a mark, with a nice little “tat” sound. If you were good, it would be a readable letter. If you were bad, or just feeble, it would leave a vague smudge. Anyway, lest you continue typing at the same spot, the machine would move the whole carriage one notch to the left, readying the paper for the next impact.
The most fun was when you reached the margin (which you set with a little metal bracket on top of the carriage): the machine would ring a little warning bell. Ding! And that was when you got to do a real carriage return: there was a long lever on the left hand side of the carriage, which you would firmly flip inwards. And lo and behold: the carriage would slide all the way back to the right, and turn the paper one line up, making a wonderful whirring sound, and again ring that little bell. Ding! Mind you: this again required determination and a firm hand. Any hesitation, and your carriage would come to a standstill halfway its journey. But by then, you probably already had moved the paper one line up. Problems, problems, problems.
All this is to say that writing a document was an intellectual, a physical, and a tactile challenge and pleasure.
There were downsides of course. Things would get really messy if you typed too fast, and the hammers would collide in mid-flight, and stay stuck. Or if the ink ribbon had to be changed in the middle of a document. Correcting typos was not easy. And if you wanted extra copies, you made carbon copies (that is what the cc. in your email comes from) by inserting a carbon sheet in between two sheets of paper: Xeroxing was still a pretty expensive proposition.
I remember when I started out in private law practice. You’d have a secretary (we still had secretaries back then) type out a brief, and then you’d revise it. And then she’d re-type it all over. And maybe even a second time if you still didn’t like it. And then you’d send it to the client, and maybe he didn’t like it either. You get my drift? It all was in a day’s work and in the client’s bill of course, so we didn’t particularly worry, but can you imagine? Think of all the literature created on typewriters, until about thirty years ago. Try and picture say, John Steinbeck, struggling away at the Grapes of Wrath. The noise of the “tat, tat, tat, ding, whir, ding, tat, tat, tat, …” and so on and so forth, for hundred of pages. And the re-writing. And then the editor’s twenty page letter would come in, and off he’d go again, to re-type umpteen dozens of pages, and maybe even the whole darn thing. The mind reels… You’d get a case of writer’s block for less than that.
I guess what I really want to say is that writing used to be a struggle, literally a struggle with matter. With the typewriter, with the paper. It exercised not only the mind, but also the body. On the other hand, we still had twenty-four hours in a day, back then.
Of course, we now have Microsoft Word, or should I say Microsoft Word ®, and it’s all much more convenient. It’s a bit like MP3 versus vinyl. Playing an LP involved many steps that had to be performed with precision and in a specific order, before you could sit back in your chair and listen. And after twenty minutes, you’d have to get up to turn over the record. Now, you just tap a few keys on your keyboard, or rather, you tap the screen of your tablet or smartphone a few times, and Spotify, oops!, I mean Spotify ®, starts playing any of the millions songs and tunes it has stored in its server farms somewhere. Convenient. You can feel asleep now without freaking out at the thought of your pick-up needle reaching the end of the record, and going plop ... plop ... plop ... plop ... while you're off to Never-Never Land.
It’ all so convenient.
And a good thing too. Because there is so much more work now. And the days no longer have twenty-four hours.