Kate Gramling Principal consultant Illumineer

Thoughts on a Vintage Typewriter

PostedThursday, September 5, 2019 at 1:16 AM

Thoughts on a Vintage Typewriter

I was recently presented with an old, portable Royal typewriter. My aunt found it cleaning out a storage bin on my grandparents’ farm. It smelled musty and the letters on the keys were hidden under a yellowing scale, but it functioned well. With a good cleaning, a little oil, and a new ribbon, it’s almost good as new.

I like typewriters. I like the satisfying tattoo they make when I’m working. I like the elegant levers and gears of the manual machines and the low humming of the electric ones. I like that ever so brief rest I get as the carriage returns to start a new line.

There is something liberating about using a typewriter. It doesn’t correct my spelling, try to change my grammar, or scold me with double underlines when I use sentence fragments. It doesn’t distract me with notifications. It doesn’t tempt me to look-up things on the Web.

A typewriter is very good at doing the one thing it was designed to do: produce writing in a format similar to what could be achieved with printing press.

I have an old, electric Smith Corona that sits on a little table next to my computer desk. I use it regularly to create drafts of stories and articles. Its hypnotic sound makes it easier for me to focus on writing rather than editing.

Am I willing to give up my computer? Absolutely not.  Do I benefit from occasionally relying on older technology?  Definitely, yes.

I wish I had started writing this piece on my typewriter rather than on my computer. I suspect I would have finished a draft in half the time. I paused in my writing to respond to some emails, look for a photo, and do some “quick” online research on the history of typewriters, multi-tasking, and a car’s driving gears.

Perhaps, it’s worth mentioning again: a typewriter is a tool that’s very good at doing one thing. When I’m using it, I’m focused on one thing. My behaviour adapts to the technology I’m using.

The same thing happens when I sit down to write with an even older communications tool: the fountain pen. Writing stories by hand is slower, but because it’s slower, I am more careful with my word choices. I tend to use more descriptive language rather than simply settling for the first word that comes to mind.  Sometimes, I wonder if I’m not more creative when I’m writing long-hand than I am when I’m clicking away at my computer keyboard.

Silver Fountain pen with cap

In the past few years, smart devices (phones, cars, computers, etc.) have made some tasks so much easier, that we no longer approach them with the same discipline or conscientiousness that we once did. The temptation to multi-task is constant.

You find yourself reviewing the day’s lesson plans on your morning commute while eating a breakfast sandwich and watching the GPS for potential traffic slow-downs.  I find myself distracted by research related to a simple metaphor about shifting into cruising speed that gets edited out of the piece long before a first draft is even finished.

There’s no doubt that new technologies have made parts of our lives easier, safer, and more enjoyable - whether those technologies are computers, plastics, or paved roads.  But all technologies have unintended consequenses. Learning to recognize that is an important part of being technologically literate. 

An interesting exercise might be to ask students to look around the classroom and identify all the technologies they see. Choose one and discuss the related tools and techniques that this technology replaced or is meant to improve upon. Then identify at least one known or possible unintended consequence of using it.

The latest technology may not be best technology for a given task.  Being familiar with tools and techniques of the past not only lets us appreciate our current technology, but also helps us recognize how it affects our behavior.  That can help us make smarter choices and create better technologies in the future.

Technically Speaking, a National Academy of Engineering report, explains what it means to be technologically literate, including historical examples and modern case studies.

The Greatest Achievements of the 20th Century website includes detailed histories and personal essays on the engineering and technologies that reshaped the world during the last century.

Simple Machines and Modern Day Engineering Analogies is a lesson that has students examine how six simple machines used to build the pyramids are still used to build structures today.

Rube Goldberg and the Meaning of Machines a unit that engages students in critical thinking about the way Rube Goldberg inventions make simple tasks even harder to complete. The study of these machines can help students evaluate the importance and usefulness of the many machines in the world around them.

Splash, Pop, Fizz: Rube Goldberg Machines is an activity where student groups receive materials and an allotted amount of time to design and create devices that use a combination of simple machines to complete a task.

Thank you to Greg Pearson for suggesting the classroom exercise.
Fountain pen photo by Antonio Jiménez Alonso; found on
Typewriter photo by the author