Fall 2002

Bang the Keys Swiftly: Type-Writers and Their Discontents

Barry Sanders

It may be mere accident, but one moment in the history of mechanization in this country makes clear the great hold that death has on writing. That’s one reason—unconscious, no doubt—that Christopher Latham Sholes, a Milwaukee businessman and Wisconsin legislator, took his design for a typing machine directly to Philo Remington, the president of E. Remington and Sons and son of the founder, Eliphalet. The convergence between rifles and writing machines proved a natural one for Remington, for the firm could easily utilize its rifle-stamping equipment to make the linking and tripping mechanisms for the new typewriter.1 They signed a contract on the spot on 1 March 1873.

A year and a half later, in September 1874, E. Remington and Sons, one of America’s premier firearms manufacturers, offered for sale the first American, not wholly practical, Type-Writer. That partnership, between Remington and Sholes, brought together the first two amendments to the Constitution—the freedom to express oneself, and the right to bear arms—and delivered them to the marketplace as one integrated commodity. Remington Typewriters and Remington Firearms separated operations in 1886.

Despite all the hype, Remington did poorly with its new product. Out of an initial run of some one thousand machines, the company sold only four hundred. For one thing, people found the new invention too odd, too cumbersome, and too disorienting for daily use. But what turned most people away had to do with its most curious feature: The keys struck the bottom of the platen, on the underside of the paper, preventing the writer from seeing what he or she had just written. Here was blindness piled upon blindness, for while the author, under the best of conditions, can never see the reader, he or she could at least survey the sentences as each word came into view.2 Reading is, after all, an essential part of writing. It took an astonishingly long time, almost twenty-five years, after the Remington II, for typists to be able to see what they had written at the moment they wrote it. Underwood made that possible with a revolutionary change in technology in 1897.

But how well the Type-Writer functioned mattered little to a real lover of Yankee ingenuity like Mark Twain, who always found the new-fangled fascinating. In fact, he loved the idea of mechanization so much that he invested an enormous sum, over two hundred thousand dollars, in a commercial venture called the Paige Typesetting Machine. A dismal failure, the scheme left Twain nearly broke.

But definitely not broken. When he lost his way with Paige, Twain grabbed hold of the Remington Type-Writer, buying one of the new machines the moment they went on sale. A few months later, on 2 December 1874, he typed his first letter, to his brother, Orion. The letter is marked by many errors—I don’t know if it’s fair to call them typos quite yet—but as a document in the history of writing in America the letter pays homage to a new, modern ingredient—speed:

I am trying to get the hang of this new-fangled writing machine, but I am not making a shining success of it. However, this is the first attempt I have ever made and yet I perceive I shall soon and easily acquire a fine facility in its use. ...
 One chiefly needs swiftness in banging the keys. … I believe it will print faster than I can write. One may lean back in his chair and work it. It piles an awful stack of words on one page. It don’t muss things or scatter ink blots around. Of course it saves paper.3

Four years later, in 1883, Twain delivered the first typescript for publication in America, Life on the Mississippi.4

A Sholes & Glidden typewriter from the 1870s, the model used by Mark Twain. Courtesy Darryl Rehr.

Twain bangs the keys—swiftly. For Remington’s levers, links, and triggers had made the typewriter resemble in kinetic spirit a kind of machine gun. Making writing rapid-fire, Remington turned a rather staid and quiet activity—writing—into one dominated by force and noise and physical effort. Sharp, metal characters smashed themselves against a platen, hitting with enough percussive force so that each letter impressed itself deeply into the paper. By 1881, with the introduction of the Remington II, a faster machine than its predecessor, sales exploded. From 1881 to 1890, typists increased in number from 5,000 to 33,400; and by 1900, according to census figures, America could boast 112,600 typists and stenographers. A good typist developed a distinctive rhythm, clacking out line after continuous line. A truly fast typist commanded attention. And respect. And sometimes even suspicion. At the Rosenberg spy trial, in 1952, the prosecuting attorney sharpened the government’s case against Ethel Rosenberg by asking the jury to visualize the female, Jewish suspect sitting behind her typewriter, “hitting the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interest of the Soviets.”5

Remington and Sons expanded into writing machines at the very moment when America began developing a true gun culture. Guns simply became commonplace, selling so well, in fact, that Remington did not really need the extra business. No gun manufacturer did. Between 1860 and 1871, Remington, Colt, and a few other firms filed nearly five hundred patents for firearms-related innovations. In an even more perverse bit of timing, Remington pushed mechanized writing in the midst of this country’s craze for standardized handwriting.6

In the decades following the Civil War, penmanship manuals, devised by so-called experts like A. N. Palmer and Platt Rogers Spencer, made their way into virtually every public and private school. These primers directed elementary school pupils to inscribe line after line of circles, ovals, loops, inverse curls and curves, requiring students to break down each letter into its aesthetic, constituent parts and learn those strokes by heart before they could ever execute one single, unified letter.

Against a backdrop of increasing mechanization, with flywheels and table lathes spinning at ever faster rpms, nineteenth-century pedagogy viewed handwriting, a painstakingly slow process, as one certain way of uplifting the soul and disciplining the mind of America’s youth. Forming alphabetic characters helped form one’s own character by providing moral self-improvement and physical self-control. Though he believed “the sublime and beautiful in nature” provided the shapes for every writing system, Spencer conceptualized the letters in the most arcane and convoluted terms. Consider his instruction to the teacher for making the letter Q: “This letter is made up of parts of Element IV, Fourth Principle, and Elements I, II, and IV, its length below the base line exactly three-fourths the length of the G below its base line.”7

These systems persisted into the 1950s when I was at school. In the end, though, despite all the highfalutin language and technical jargon, penmanship was handwork—subject to sloppiness, illegibility, tending toward cramped and crabbed scribbles and smudges. Like many other youngsters in America, while reproducing those endless strings of perfect loops and curves, I decided that when I grew up my maturity would be reflected in a distinctive, and therefore altogether illegible, handwriting. In secret, I practiced my signature until it looked sufficiently odd, wholly idiosyncratic, and more important, totally and absolutely indecipherable. I use it to this day.

When a child dropped the pencil box and took up the typewriter, all that disorder and disarray vanished. On its way to becoming what Marshall McLuhan called a machine that “fuses composition and publication, [the typewriter prompted] … an entirely new attitude to the written and printed word.”8 As each key drew an exact bead on an exact spot on a blank piece of paper, writing took on the clarity of a kill—every letter landing fully formed, leaving a dark, permanent trace like a powder burn. In cursive, one saw something of the writer revealed in his or her hand. Typing wiped all that out—killed it off. Immediately.9

The typewriter was a machine in a way that the pencil or the pen was obviously not. No one would ever ask an author, “How many words a minute do you write?” But people do, as a matter of course, ask that question about typing. For typing is a skill in itself, requiring manual dexterity, and a degree of hand/eye coordination. One can refine and master it through practice. The typewriter, by definition, mechanizes writing, the way the rifle mechanizes killing. The cold metal of a rifle or a typewriter insinuates itself between a person and his or her passion. A pen and a knife both have a distinctive immediacy. Both can be deadly. With his usual Dust Bowl brilliance, Woody Guthrie warned that in an America already in deep Depression, you’ve got to watch your back and front, for “some men will kill you with a shotgun, and some with a fountain pen.”

While it may not be handheld, the typewriter is still a gutsy machine—noisy and noticeable. You can see damned near all its innards at work: in a 1950s Underwood or an Olivetti, say, about two thousand moving parts. Talk about it, and you find yourself having to use words like hitting and striking. A portable is particularly tough and rugged, just right for someone like Ernie Pyle, the World War II correspondent sending word back home from his gritty foxhole in Africa, Europe, or the South Pacific.

Compared with the typewriter, the word processor is a machine for the pacific and faint-of-heart—so quiet, so plastic, so good at concealing its internal workings, so iMac-stylish with its streamlined, pastel-colored carcass. The PC is not mechanical. The keys hook up to nothing. No striking. No hitting. No resistance. A genteel, eviscerated experience. The screen’s the thing, designed for writing with light, for making entire paragraphs vanish instantaneously. The PC conjures a world so ghostly, so ethereal, that it renders moot the whole idea of death and writing. It’s as if one were already depressing keys from the other side. While displacement and rearrangement are PC hallmarks, the most feeble function, by far, is the key marked Delete. Oh sure, one can delete every letter on the screen in a millisecond, but the really tough problem, the real stickler, centers on how to get rid of the machine itself, the entire electronic corpse. Disposal has turned into a toxic nightmare. America sends 50 to 80 percent of its electronic waste to China, India, Pakistan, or other so-called developing nations. (The EPA estimates that between 1997 and 2004, 315 million computers will end up on some country’s scrap-heap, generating toxic waste.) Each color computer contains four to eight pounds of lead that leaches into drinking water. An EPA report, “Exporting Harm: The Techno-Trashing of Asia,” tells of young children dismantling electronic gear, burning plastic wires, using acid to retrieve gold, opening toner cartridges, melting soldered circuit boards, and cracking and dumping cathode tubes loaded with lead, to extract the small bits of copper. The Basel Convention, a 1989 United Nations treaty, tries to limit the amount of exported hazardous waste. The United States remains the only developed nation that has continually refused to sign.

Of course, something is gained with word processing, but one thing lost is the Remington charge of writing—the banging out, like Twain, of letters—a b c—so matter of fact they refuse to be nudged out of place. Thus Henry James, dictating to his secretary, Mrs. Theodora Bosanquet, could boast of writing “Remingtonese” and, on his deathbed, would ask for the typewriter to be brought close by so he could hear its reassuring rat-a-tat-tat.10

Nietzsche's typewriter, an 1867 Malling Hansen Writing Ball. Courtesy Stifung Weimarer Klassik, Goethe-Schiller-Archiv.

The typewriter pushed writing in a new direction by creating words at some remove from the hand. Friedrich Kittler describes that displacement as “the irruption of the mechanism in the realm of the word.”11 The “irruption” is wholesale, affecting not just the writing, but the person pushing the keys, as well. When women began to enter the office, typing the words crafted by others, most notably men, the word typewriter referred to both the person and the machine—a sport of language, perhaps, but also rather telling, for every tool shapes the hand. Nietzsche takes the idea one step further or deeper: “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts.”12

In 1882, in almost total blindness, Nietzsche knew he needed such a device if he were to continue writing. After some research, he settled on an early European typewriter, the Malling Hansen Writing Ball, so named because of its circular array of keys. As with Remington’s machine, the arrangement of the keys on the Malling Hansen blocked the writer’s view of the writing. Nietzsche did not care. In fact, it offered him a choice—either to learn the keyboard, or hire a secretary. Like Henry James, he chose to become a dictator. In his blindness, Nietzsche takes us truly close to what we might call the disembodied word. Because he could not see his own words—not during or after composition—or his secretary, or the machine itself, Kittler says of him that he introduced “a writing that is solely the materiality of its medium.”13 It’s as if his own secretary, Lou von Salomé, became adept at snatching Nietzsche’s sounds out of the air—from speech—and holding them fast as words on paper, his rhythms made visible through her punctuation. Was Nietzsche writing? Surely he was, but not in the same way as one who composes on the typewriter, and certainly not as one who composes by hand. But what wonderful levels he reveals here—from full sight, to mechanical blindness, to actual blindness. Levels of thinking, too; levels of inking thought.

The typewriter is a coyote contraption, elusive and unpredictable. It can put your eyes out, eradicate your personality, persuade with its polish. Those qualities suited master tricksters like Twain, Nietzsche, and even Henry James just fine. Twain’s second effort on the machine in March 1875 is a testimonial requested by the Remington Company, in which he lies, in fairly presentable fashion, about nearly everything. In fact, typing looks so damned official, provides such good cover, I wager it made Twain stretch the truth even more:

Gentlemen: Please do not use my name in any way. Please do not even divulge the fact that I own a machine. I have entirely stopped using the Type-Writer, for the reason that I never could write a letter with it to anybody without receiving a request by return mail that I would not only describe the machine but state what progress I had made in the use of it, etc., etc. I don’t like to write letters, and so I don’t want people to know that I own this curiosity breeding little joker.14

Just a decade after the Civil War, a giant of the Industrial Revolution, E. Remington and Sons, offered Americans a constitutional choice—a rifle or a writing machine. I do not know how many people bought both. More of them, I know, bought rifles. But the typewriter, for a time, outstripped the gun. The manual typewriter gave way, of course, to the electric, the Correcting Selectric, and finally to the ubiquitous word processor. Nowadays, the manual is a relic of a forgotten world, recognizable and appreciated only by older people and antique dealers. The writer Larry McMurtry discovered just how archaic a machine it had become when he recently tried to board a plane with his old portable. The security guard, having never seen such an oddity, believed his x-ray monitor (the height of “seeing”) had turned up a lethal weapon, perhaps a bomb, and asked him to step out of line for questioning.

I have written this essay on an IBM Correcting Selectric III, with a Prestige Elite 96 element. I bought it for twenty-five dollars some ten years ago when a law firm went out of business. There are typos, I am sure [Yes, there were, but we retyped the piece and hopefully fixed all the typos. Sorry. Eds.]. Even after proofreading it several times, I am certain some typos remain [Alas, no more. Eds.]. That’s the nature of typing—my typing. Even though I have done it a long time. I got my first typewriter when I turned thirteen, an Underwood Portable with carrying case. Over the years, I have owned quite a few of them—all manuals. The manual is to the Selectric as the acoustic guitar is to the Stratocaster. They booed Dylan when he went electric. Sometimes, I, too, think I made a mistake.

Barry Sanders’s “Bang the Keys Swiftly: Type-Writers and Their Discontents” was reprinted in Courier, an exhibition catalogue from the University Art Museum at the State University of New York in Albany.

  1. Friedrich A. Kittler points out that weapons manufacturers such as Mauser, Manufacture d’Armes de Paris, and the German Weapons and Ammunitions Factory (DWF) all turned to producing “civil writing instruments.” See his Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 190.

  2. The earliest European inventors of typewriters intended their machines for the blind or deaf.

  3. Quoted in Bruce Bliven, Jr., The Wonderful Writing Machine (New York: Random House, 1954), p. 61. Emphasis added.

  4. According to Twain’s autobiography, he typed the manuscript of Tom Sawyer (1876) but the Herkimer County Historical Society in New York maintains that Twain confused Tom Sawyer with Life on the Mississippi. See Bliven, The Wonderful Writing Machine, p. 62.

  5. In a 1941 Jean Cocteau play, a detective pursues a woman who calls herself “the typewriter.” The detective “imagines the culprit at work at her typewriter, aiming and operating the machine gun.”

  6. For a general history of gun manufacture and ownership in this country, see Michael Bellesilles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000). On the history of handwriting, see Tamara Plakins Thorntin, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).

  7. See Thorntin, Handwriting in America, p. 42.

  8. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964), p. 228.

  9. In 1889, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published “A Case of Identity,” in which Sherlock Holmes solves a crime by determining that a series of love letters all came from the same typewriter. He does this by noticing that certain characters seem to have worn differently from others: The 1 had a slight nick, say, the e a tiny crack, and so on. He concludes that a “typewriter has really quite as much individuality as a man’s handwriting.” See The Best of Sherlock Holmes, ed. H. R. F. Keating (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1992), p. 32. Pleased by his discovery, Holmes tells Watson that he may in fact write a monograph “on the typewriter and its relation to crime.” I can only assume he would have typed it out.

  10. See H. Montgomery Hyde, Henry James at Home (London: Oxford University Press, 1996).

  11. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, p. 199.

  12. I rely on Kittler for details about Nietzsche and his affairs with the typing machine.

  13. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, p. 208.

  14. Quoted in Bliven, The Wonderful Writing Machine, p. 62.

Barry Sanders is professor of the history of ideas at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA. His new book, Alienable Rights, co-authored with Francis Adams, will be published next year by Harper Collins.