• Otter Views: Typewriters

    by Tom Stevens

    Among the 24 images on the Trader Joe’s advent calendar this year is a classic Underwood typewriter, the icon for Dec. 15. It stands out from its colorful yuletide neighbors because it is coal black, the only color in which the sober, sensible Underwood No. 5 came.

    I recognize the model because I worked for several poorly capitalized little newspapers back in the pre-computer era. Their equipment plan – and a sober, sensible one it was – dictated that if something worked well, keep on using it.

    And so we did – for years. Each time I was hired by a paper and shown my new work station, an Underwood sat on the desk. From the surrounding debris pattern of cigarette burns, coffee spills, ink stains and eraser dust, it was clear the machine hadn’t moved in years. Anyone who has tried to lift one will understand why. The Underwood No. 5 is the grand sumotori of typewriters.

    While I didn’t actually use one until my mid-20s, I had seen Underwoods on the silver screen for years. They populated every vintage newspaper movie from the 1920s onward and provided the clattery soundtrack for cheerful Hollywood newsrooms. But when I finally confronted an Underwood, it made several impressions.

    As I drew up my cub reporter’s creaky swivel chair, the tall black machine seemed to loom over me. I was 23, perhaps half the typewriter’s age. With its lofty frame and cantilevered Victorian architecture, the Underwood seemed as darkly mysterious as some Dickensian widow’s mansion. From where I sat, I could imagine a ghostly Miss Havisham peering palely from some hidden recess.

    But once I started typing, I realized the No. 5 was a mechanism for the rapid and efficient transfer of information onto paper. Its four tiers of keys and “single shift” levers put all 84 characters within easy reach of the typist’s nimble fingers. As each key was struck, a slender steel arm would snap out onto an inked ribbon that traveled between two spools, stamping a sharp, clean character onto the paper beneath the ribbon. The springy keys would snap back just as swiftly, readying the paper for the next strike.

    A well-oiled, well-maintained No. 5 was so tensile and responsive it made typing fun. At one point, I get up to 75 words a minute, but I was humbled by the sports editor. He could do 140 a minute. When he hit his stride, the individual keystrokes blended, and his Underwood sounded like a sewing machine.

    Even at lower velocities, the Underwood seemed a marvelous throwback to the Age of Steam. It was a sort of literary locomotive, its carriage rolling on metal tracks, the keys clicking and clattering, the carriage return banging, the bell chiming, the shift lever thumping, and a slender black train of sentences lengthening across the page.

    I don’t mean to give the impression the Underwood produced faultless copy. It was only a machine, after all, in a time before machines were self-correcting. At the small dailies where I and my colleagues toiled, speed usually trumped spelling. Thus, we used carbon paper to produce two copies of everything. The “carbon” was a strong but tissue-thin paper heavily inked on one side. When properly inserted between two sheets of typing paper, the carbon would produce a blue ghost of the original. This gave the reporter a slightly smeary copy for the records, while the better version went to “mark up.”

    This marking up was the job of chain-smoking editors who kept pints of whiskey in their desks. While we reporters hastened to our next stories, the editors would slash their stubby number one pencils across the mess they had just been handed. Working at light speed, the editors covered each page with secret glyphic symbols – arrows, squiggles, circles, carets, re-spellings and other corrective marginalia.

    These heavily annotated pages would next be snatched up by a “copy boy” or “copy girl” for speedy delivery to the “type cutters.” These ancient worthies plied “linotype” machines so massive and complex they made the Underwood seem rudimentary. Feeding soft “slugs” into their machines, they would ply their keyboards to fashion metallic letters, numbers and punctuation that clinked into wooden racks and boxes to create wording.

    The next stop would be the “compositors,” an even more druidic group whose specialty was assembling the many racks of cut type into pages that could be locked into flats for the press gang. Because the press would reverse and invert the type, the compositors had to be able to compose and read the pages backwards and upside down. Leonardo da Vinci would have made a good compositor.

    In closing, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the 14-ton Underwood created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. A lovely model sat atop every key.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on December 7, 2012

    Topics: Otter Views


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