Charlie's Diary

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Mon, 17 May 2004

I was a teenage typewriter nerd

One of my long-term regrets is that I was born too early. Too early for computer science to be taught at school early enough for me to take it as an 'O' or 'A' level topic and then go on to do it at University the first time round, anyway -- I suppose if I'd been born any later I wouldn't remember watching Neil Armstrong step off that ladder live on a flickering black and white TV. But I digress: my first acquaintance with the QWERTY keyboard came not from any electronic device, but courtesy of an elderly manual typewriter when I was about 11.

Typing wasn't something that was taught at the boy's school I went to, but I already knew that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. My sister (who's somewhat older than I am) had a very compact Empire Aristocrat, and for no reason that I can remember she gave it to me. I happily beat it to death over the next three or four years, finding that it gave legs to the D&D scenarios (and early, really really bad short stories I was cutting my teeth on) of my mid-teens. It was an all-metal machine with an all-metal case, implying that it was manufactured nearer to 1950 than 1960, and probably aimed at journalists. Eventually it died of metal fatigue: the keys began snapping, and the cost of repairing it annoyed my parents until my mother bought me an Adler 25 for a birthday present. It was another manual typewriter: I'd had my heart set on a Smith-Corona golfball electric, just then coming down in price to a point where it was within the scope of my dreams, but I wasn't to get my hands on an electric machine for another few years. I was a four-fingered self-taught typist, because my little pinkies lacked the strength (and length!) required to hammer the manual keyboard into submission -- it took me years to convert myself into a true touch-typist after I switched to using electric typewriters and word processors.

When I went to university in the early eighties, home computers were still rather pathetic, and PCs were far beyond my budget: the cost of a PC-XT clone, daisywheel printer (9-pin dot matrix printers were Not Acceptable for coursework), and (gasp) disk drives was close to what I had to live on for eight months. However, in my second year I lashed out and, with the proceeds of a vacation job (and a small savings account left by my grandfather) I lashed out and bought myself a frightening Brother CE-70. It was, in a very real way, my first word processor: it had a massive 8K memory, enough to hold almost a page of text, and it has a 20 character LCD display above its daisywheel print head. This was in many ways a class machine, a heavy duty electronic office typewriter that could allow me to edit lines of text before hitting the print button. You could even buy a serial interface for it, if you had a computer and wanted to use it as a printer or a teletype terminal.

That was, of course, my last typewriter. The next year, Amstrad launched the Amstrad PCW8256 all-in-one word processor. Actually, it was a CP/M machine with all the bits, plus a dedicated WP package that could run on the bare metal, but it was also a fully functional computer: I sold the typewriter and bought a PCW with the change, and never looked back.

Incidentally, it was a software omission in the PCW's LocoScript 1.01 word processor that got me interested in programming. The early machine I bought came with a version of LocoScript that lacked a word count feature. As an aspiring fiction writer I needed a word counter badly -- so badly that I began reading the manuals, stumbled across the Mallard BASIC interpreter and the CP/M boot disk, and started using my PCW as a real computer rather than a typewriting appliance. I'd briefly owned a ZX81 previously, but it was insufficiently useful to capture my imagination; in contrast, the PCW was a real computer, with disk drives and printer and serial and parallel ports (and, later, a modem and a hard disk -- yes, I bought a hard disk drive for my PCW after I hit the real world and got a job!). BASIC seemed more trouble than it was worth, but sitting near the top of my bookshelves I still have a Digital Research Pascal/MT+ boxed set for CP/M, complete with the compiler and linker on a 3" floppy disk (no, not a 3.5" disk but a 3" disk, of the weird mutant hybrid type Amstrad adopted). That set me on the path back to academia and a computer science degree, and in some way determined my future; it's probably no coincidence that my first published short stories were written on that machine.

Still, I get a thrill of nostalgia when I see an exotic old manual typewriter. I occasionally pull my copy of Century of the Typewriter (by Wilfred A. Beeching, former Director of the British Typewriter Museum) off the shelf to marvel at its description of the Burbra pneumatic typewriter (consumables: fabric ribbons and cans of compressed air) or the Dobson and Wyn Pocket Typewriter of 1887. And I therefore commend to you Chuck & Rich's Antique Typewriter website and museum if you get a thrill out of weird and wonderful writing machines.

The only problem with being a typewriter geek is that, unlike (say) being a fountain pen geek, the implements are bulky and heavy. Which is why, with some regret, I must admit that I don't currently have a typewriter of any kind. But who knows? Neal Stephenson apparently wrote his Baroque Cycle books using a pen. Maybe if the dieselpunk idea takes off I'll have to go back to an Imperial '66' wide-carriage manual ...

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posted at: 23:11 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Been away ...

In Leeds, seeing family. Normal Service Will Be Resumed shortly ...

posted at: 00:20 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
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Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

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