old technology – typewriter


Smith Corona Stirling

The 400 north began to bog down well before Barrie on a recent sunny Saturday morning. I was cottage bound and not looking for a long skinny parking lot. I could get one easily in Toronto during the week. It’s called the DVP.

So as the molasses slowed, I bailed to visit the 400 Market. I hadn’t been to this overly organized up-a-step-from-a-flea-market sales place in at least five years. God knows what I bought that time. My hopes this day were to pass a half hour, let the traffic ease on the 400, and maybe locate a piece of blue glass something. I collect, but not seriously, blue glass bottles and such. My idea is to get around to putting some glass shelves together and put the blue things on those shelves in front of the right window and let the morning sun cut through them. It is a project without a deadline. The funding is there. Requirements defined well enough. I need only please my eye and sense of whimsy.

Whoever designed the looping road into the 400 Market obviously had a tough night out the night before drawing it up. As the crow flies it is a short distance from the highway; silly and surprisingly longer on four wheels. There were fresh vegetables and meat, t-shirts, toys, plants, rugs, and what-all for sale. And that was all before you finished crossing from the rain holed gravel parking lot to the main door. Inside you could buy CDs, videos, DVDs, flags, more t-shirts, sweaters, wooden things, some fudge, baked goods, more rugs, lamps, and other good stuff. No blue glass.

There was a separate section of the Market, the 400 Antique Mall, a separate entrance to that. So I exited, walked down to it, hoping that I looked less like riff-raff than usual. It was a treat and a half. Hardly anybody was there. I walked slowly through and found a refreshing range of goods. For $25.00 I could have walked away with some old fishing reel that looked remarkably like a spider coated reel in the cottage boat house. Even kids’ fishing reels, toy reels were out for sale. All cleaned up. Looking fresh and not a day under forty years old. Boomer bait. Furniture, kitchen gear, dishes, cutlery, some silver, pictures and prints. What caught my eye that was in my price range was an old piece of technology.

Sitting on a couch was the case and its occupant, a Smith Corona portable typewriter. I walked past a few times. It was set back in that particular vendor’s zone of stuff. The typewriter had a matte black finish. The case was a solid black affair with silver locks. Reminded me of an old sewing machine case, but flatter. Finally, I went over and looked at the price tag. $25.00. I backed away. Something must be wrong with it. There were two other typewriters for sale by other vendors. The way this mall worked, the vendors were not actually there. However, there were four or five people there to handle the stuff and ring in the sales. All told there were about twenty-five vendor zones. It was a little hard to tell exactly where one zone stopped and the next began. The other two typewriters were different. One was a full business manual typewriter, a large piece of writing machinery, an Underwood, grey metal and looked to be 50s or 60s vintage. The eye-catching matte black Smith Corona looked older. The flat round keys alone made it seem much older, 40s, perhaps even 30s. The grey Underwood was tagged at $60.00 with a bag of typewriter ribbons, about six of them, and the note that it was “in excellent working condition.” This made me worry. The other typewriter was a somewhat flimsy, portable, also Smith Corona, but a 60s vintage, lighter colours, and its case altogether much flimsier looking than the black case with the silver locks. This one was tagged $29.00. I walked around the three of them. They were some distance apart and I tried to figure out just how bad a condition the $25.00 machine was in to gain such a slight price. There was no real way to tell. No one to ask. So I stared at. Walked away once, then came back and closed it, carried it to the sales desk.

I know about typewriters only from the typing that I did starting before high school. My high school did not teach typing. It was a factory to produce lawyers and doctors. My Mother decided that my older sister and I should know how to touch type. Mother had been to secretarial school and shortly after graduating met my Father. She worked as a secretary to a Bank president in Montreal. After her death we found her business school final marks report. They were all very high marks. Totally unrelated, but one cool thing about her, during the war she helped make 20mm anti-aircraft shells in a munitions plant. Her war plant identity card also surfaced after her death. But back to my sister and I and our embarkation into typewriting.

So we were enrolled in a typing class for beginners at the Shaw Business School, located on Yonge Street a few blocks north of Eglinton Avenue. The school is long gone now from there. Classrooms were on the second floor. I was the only male. I must have been in Grade eight, because when I got to Grade nine I was immediately pressed into service for typing the school student newspaper. A task I did for four years. Since I typed most of it, they finally picked me to be editor when I got to Grade twelve. The Shaw class was a bit nerve wracking, since it was full of women and was taught by a woman. They found me a little amusing. I found them all basically terrifying. The teacher was kind enough. You built strong fingers hitting those keys on a business manual. The physical distance that the key lever travels is much greater than what experience with computer keyboards today. When you stretch to reach and hit “p” with your baby finger and try to hit it hard enough so that all your typing looks even, which is to say, all the same shade of darkness, not “j” and “f” darkest since they are hit by the first fingers, the strongest fingers.

My parents bought an Olympia portable, a handsome bauhaus clean lined machine made in West Germany. It is still around. My sister and I typed lots of essays on it. When I got to university, not exactly mimicking Dylan, I went electric, with a Smith Coronamatic 2200 (at least that is the model number that surfaces from the oily depths of my memory). It was a good machine.

The question of how well would it work came out pretty well. The only hitch with it is that after about three pages of typing I must stop, lift the lid and manually rewind the ribbon from right to left. The automatic reversing of the ribbon back and forth no longer works. Takes about a minute or two and I get to day dream while I do it. Everything else is fine. So I am delighted with it.

It is great fun to type on. Very different from working on the PC. It is difficult to describe. It is nostalgic and that is ony secondary to the main feel of it. It is direct. Much more satisfyingly direct. To strike a key and watch the key fly up and strike the ribbon and leave ink on the white paper. Somehow I feel closer to the words. There is nothing between me and the page. Perhaps this only applies to someone like myself who has in the past typed many pages on a typewriter. There is another pause that is different as you type. When you make a mistake, and I make lots. Typing on a pc with its easy correction has played hell with my accuracy. You apply liquid paper, correcting fluid. You have to wait for it to dry. Then you hit the backspace key and strike the correct key and then carry on. It does something to the rhythm of writing that is not what you might first think, that is disrupt that rhythm. Instead of that, it actually slows my brain down, calms it down and I think a little more and I think write a little more deliberately. Since I bought the this Smith Corona Stirling, I have typed 12 pages single spaced in a week. No record setting number, but still an interesting experience.

Looking up typewriters on the Internet, I found out that it is a late 40s machine. Someone in the US wanted to sell one for US$125.00, so I got a good deal. There is a small niche of men, mostly men involved in writing and technology and these men are in both Europe and the US, who collect antique typewriters. If you type “typewriters” into the Google search engine, you will find them.

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Author: William J. Gibson

62 year old - writer/photographer Canadian, survived open heart surgery, received kidney transplant, sometimes dour, sometimes amusing, over six feet in height, severely follicle challemged

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