Tim’s Museum of Obsolete Technology – Part 1 – Introduction

In which Tim Remembers his Typewriters from the 1980s

A couple of years after graduating from high school, I took a night school class to learn how to use a typewriter. I had vague ambitions of wanting to write and/or going to university, and reasoned that learning to type would help. More practically, it was a job skill, back when office job advertisements stated the expected words-per-minute typing for candidates. My tested speed was 40, the minimum required for entry-level positions.

I learned to type on an IBM Selectric II, a wonderful machine that was far out of my price range. When I eventually started college, I purchased a basic Eaton’s manual (probably this one), but soon acquired a used Olympia electric (watch a video of this machine). This was a large, heavy, and full-featured office machine that had been used in a high school typing class. The school was selling dozens of them, to make way for computers.

OIder electric typewriters are heavy because they are mechanical, not electronic. They are essentially manual machines with a spinning drum that adds power to each keystroke, and a stronger frame to support the extra components. The motor and drum assembly means as soon as you turn the typewriter on, it hums. On my old Olympia electric, the hum was almost a growl, needing only a caress on the keys to set the writing beast free. I loved it.

The motor and drum assembly also means that when the revolution or apocalypse comes, you can still use old electric typewriters by hooking them up to treadles. This is not a new idea – an early Remington typewriter used a treadle for the carriage return.

Sholes & Glidden typewriter, ca. 1874. Made by Remington, which also made sewing machines. In this image, the wire from the treadle to the typewriter is missing. It is visible in other pictures at the source link. Photo copyright Milwaukee Public Museum. Source: https://archive.mpm.edu/null/keobject/12026

A cross-country move meant leaving the Olympia behind. For a few years I met my typing requirements by using computers or typewriters at work, and in the late 1980s I bought my last new typewriter, a Smith-Corona portable electronic with a small LCD screen and an interchangeable daisy wheel printing element.

The Smith-Corona electronic was functional but uninspiring, and the typewriter with computer elements was soon replaced by an actual computer. I’ve gone through several computers, and while they are great for producing and consuming content, the machines themselves remain uninspiring (and yes, I have a couple of Apple devices).

A few years ago, someone left an old office manual typewriter in the basement hall of my apartment building, an area which functioned as an informal free store. I assumed it had been left as it was too heavy to move, remembered my old Olympia, and picked it up (no easy task).

I now have five typewriters: that office manual, a small office electric, and three portable manuals. The oldest is the office manual, from the early 1960s, while the others are newer, up to the late 1970s. In other words, they are the typewriters of my youth, so there’s a strong nostalgia element here. However, he said, somewhat defensively, there’s something to be said for distraction-free dedicated writing machines. Which brings me to another item in my collection of obsolete technology, and the one I use the most – my Alphasmart Neo.

In future blogs I’ll write about the typewriters I have acquired, the AlphaSmart, and other goodies like my LaserDisc player. If you have fond (or less-than-fond) memories of typewriters, please share in the comments.

Published
Categorized as Writing

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

2 comments

  1. Hi Tim, I loved this post and could identify with it. I, too, learned on an IBM (green) Selectric typewriter. I took the class in High School to improve hand dexterity and because I was both a Business and College major. Sorry, but I could type 80 wpm without error. Best wishes,
    Frances

    Liked by 1 person

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