Sunday, 7 September 2008

Susan Price: Writing in the Olden Days


On the day I was born, my parents told me, a neighbour gave them an old, upright, cast iron typewriter. Not seeing it for the omen it was, they chose to leave it behind when they moved to their new council house. So, for my twelfth Christmas present, they had to go out and search junk shops until they found another old typewriter. A good present: I was still using it seven years later. I started my career on it, even though I could hardly lift it and was constantly having to move it (to make way for meals). Just bashing the keys down was a work-out.

For those who've never seen or used such a thing:- bashing a key levered up a long metal stem, on the end of which was a metal stamp forged in the shape of a letter. This slammed an inked ribbon against the sheet of paper rolled into the machine, thus transferring an image of the letter to the paper. There was a whole nest of these metal stamps on stems - one for every letter, plus punctuation marks. When you typed fast and raised more than one stem at a time, they'd mesh together, and you had to stop and dislodge them.

If you wanted a copy of your work, you had to layer a sheet of carbon paper between your two sheets of plain paper, and roll this flimsy sandwich into the machine. If you needed two copies, then you had to add another sheet of carbon, and another sheet of plain to your sandwich. Then you had to align all these flimsy, floppy sheets, and persuade them to be rolled into the typewriter without becoming creased or misaligned. This seldom happened.

But what I dreaded about the typewriter was changing the ribbon. The inky ribbon, black above and red below, wound backwards and forwards between two reels on top of the machine. At the middle, it passed through a clip, which held it in place for the keys to strike. It was a simple, uncomplicated system, and worked very well, except that, eventually, the ink in the ribbon ran out. So much did I hate changing the ribbon that I would keep using the old one until people thought I was using some kind of MI5 designed machine for spies, with special invisible-ink ribbons.

Removing the old ribbon was easy and clean - there was no ink left on it to make a mess. You opened the spools, took out the ribbon, and threw it away.

But as soon as you opened the new ribbon's packet, you were smothered in ink. You still had to unwind it, tether one end to a spool, thread it through the little clip, and fasten it to the other spool. A fiddly business, all of it. By the end, you needed a change of clothes and a bath.

I'll draw a veil over the rug-biting rage that came on me when I discovered I'd put the ribbon in upsidedown, and would have to type everything in red unless I took it out and started again.

And then, one day, a friend showed me his Amstrad computer...

7 comments:

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I had a typewriter and then an Amstrad!! That says a lot about our age!

Lucy Coats said...

I started on an Imperial called 'The Good Companion'. And it was. It now sits in a place of honour on its case, in my office. My computer is humbled before its beauty.

Nick Green said...

When we were children, my brother and I inherited my grandfather's old typewriter (on which I'm sure I wrote my first one-act play, to be performed in the front room). The thought of it fills me with nostalgia. The enormous force needed to depress each key: spla-ka-chunk-tic. Spla-ka-chunk-tic. Margin release: pat-ting!
Carriage return (manual): Fuzzzzzzzeeerrp!

And incidentally, I think the ribbons were several years old, for we never did work out how to change them, even if we could have found a replacement.

Farah said...

I still remember the joy of using my mother's first electric. It was the first time I'd ever been able to depress the A key with my little finger.

Susan Price said...

Nick, your sound effects are spot on. And I'd forgotten carriage return! Ah, how soon we forget...

Lee said...

And I remember the joys of my first electric in what was my first job after university - until the return carriage met my cup of coffee.

Candy Gourlay said...

love this post! i adored my old sit up and beg typewriter - it might seem like an anachronism now but if you were coming from writing things out by hand, it was a marvel. but i do admit discovering computers was a real rush!