The Typewriter Century

The Typewriter Century coverThe Typewriter Century: A Cultural History of Writing Practices
Martyn Lyons
University of Toronto Press (February 2, 2021), 275 pages
Kindle edition $18.12, Amazon paperback $32.95

I have a long history with the typewriter. When I was in elementary school I asked Mrs. Werner next door to teach me to type on her manual upright typewriter. I guess I was a poor student because I never did learn to touch type. Over the next few years I whined enough that my grandparents finally got me a typewriter for my birthday. It was a small Royal portable. It wasn’t well made, and it kept going back to the stationery store for repair. Eventually, the very patient owner, Mr. Hubb, replaced it with a newer and slightly better model.

For some reason that typewriter never made it to Pitzer College in Claremont with me. Instead, I took an old manual portable, perhaps an Underwood. It too had its problems, and it frequently visited the typewriter repair shop in Pomona. But it got me through college. After college, unable to bear the thought of leaving Claremont, I shared an apartment with my friend George. He let me use his electric typewriter, but objected to my frequent use of liquid paper, which he called “bird shit.” It must have been after I moved to Oklahoma City that I got a portable SCM typewriter, which I loved because I could effortlessly swap out the ink cartridge for the correction cartridge. My final typewriter was a fairly fancy one that had a memory of several hundred characters.

It was with interest, then, that I saw an ad in the New York Review of Books for The Typewriter Century. The book presents a unique viewpoint as author Martyn Lyons is an Australian educated at Oxford, and the University of Toronto Press published the book. We certainly read more about Australian writers than we might find in a book on the same subject by another author.

Lyons writes both about the history of the machine and the people who used it. It is interesting to read about the various iterations and attempts at creating a mechanical system for writing. The author points out that the QWERTY keyboard was not necessarily the best option to keep fast typists from jamming keys (the reason Christopher Latham Sholes invented it); it was simply the design that won out. And, as we all experience every day, it still dominates the market despite the occasional attempt to replace it.

I found the discussions about the relationships that writers had with their typewriters fascinating. Lyon writes that the typewriter was essential for T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. He notes, “The machine was inseparable from their creative work.” Of course, I suspect that Hemmingway’s terse style was inherent to his character and not strictly the result of his using the typewriter.

Lyons dispels the myth of Jack Kerouac and his scrolls. Yes, Kerouac did write early drafts on scrolls, sheets of paper taped together. However, he submitted his manuscripts to his publishers in the conventional manner.

The author spends considerable space discussing Erle Stanley Gardner and the writing factory he set up on a ranch outside Temecula, California, just half an hour south of where I sit composing this review. Gardner had a staff of typists to shape his considerable output into a form suitable for submission to publishers. Gardner didn’t especially love writing, however. Lyons reports Gardner told an interviewer, “I’m in the game for money, and if I have any talent I haven’t prostituted, and find it out, I’ll start her out on the streets tonight.”

Lyons devotes a chapter to women authors of the twentieth century, from Agatha Christie to Barbara Taylor Bradford. He provides some interesting insight into their lives and work, but his treatment comes off as just a tad sexist.

The treatment Lyons gives to the transition from the typewriter to the word processor is weak from my perspective. He fails to discuss that there was something of a battle as to whether word processing should be done on a separate machine or be incorporated into a multi-function computer. When I was living in Oklahoma and visited my college friend Sue in Santa Monica in the early 1980s she was working for the RAND Corporation. She said that she believed that word processing was splitting off from computing. As late as 1990 or so, my friend Don, a retired schoolteacher, wanted to write his memoir for his family. He was debating whether to buy a word processor or a computer. I recommended a computer; he bought a dedicated word processor. Several months later we had a conversation that went like this:

Don: “Maybe I should have bought a computer.”
Me: “Don, I told you that.”
Don: (sheepishly) “I know.”

Today one would be hard pressed to find a dedicated word processor, and I’m not sure why someone would want one.

The Typewriter Century is enjoyable reading for anyone interested in writing and its associated technologies.

One Comment on “The Typewriter Century”

  1. oneday310 says:

    I was so happy working for years as a secretary using a word processor. What I don’t miss about it is having to take time fixing the errors.

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