diamond geezer

 Monday, October 11, 2004

How we used to write

Before cut and paste, there was the typewriter. I guess if you're much under 30 you may never have used one, but those of us growing up before the advent of the word processor originally knew no better.

I loved our family's typewriter when I was a child. It was grey, it was made by Brother and it lived in a brown carry case in the cupboard under the stairs. I'd set it up on the desk in my bedroom and feed a couple of sheets of paper down behind the platen roller. Tap thwack tap thwack tap thwack - it was a noisy business trying to write in those days, and a messy one too if you managed to get the ink off the ribbon onto your fingers. But with a bit of practice you could produce a printed page which looked sort of professional. Almost. But not quite. Our 'i' key was very slightly out of alignment and so used to print a bit left of centre, whereas capital letters used to appear about half a millimetre higher than their lower case counterparts. It looked good enough to me, but then I also thought nothing of the fact that my typewriter had only one font, nor that it produced writing in only one font size.

The biggest problem with my typewriter was that I had to hit everything exactly right first time. Make even one mistake and there was no easy way to erase it, just an obvious scar left by a giant rubber or some of that new-fangled Tippex stuff. No, if I was seeking typed perfection and made a mistake then my best bet was to curse, rip the paper out and start again. And then, almost as bad, I had to know exactly what I was going to write before I started typing because there was no way to rearrange the sentences on the page afterwards. Backspace, delete, undo and cut and paste make life so much easier these days, as do bold, italic and underline, to say nothing of the massively time-saving "print multiple copies" command.

And yet the computer keyboard owes a great deal to the typewriter. The modern return key is just a replacement for the satisyfying swish of the carriage return lever. The shift button used to physically lift the roller to allow you to select between the two characters on each key. And that nightmarish QWERTY arrangement of letters on the keyboard really was designed to slow typists down so that the metal keys didn't collide and interlock when used too fast.

My grey typewriter was my introduction to the world of word-processing, and I owe it a lot. But I don't miss it, especially that annoying habit the ribbon used to have of running out of ink at the crucial momen

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