No power cords. No cables. No software updates. No software crashes. No uploads. No downloads. No anti-virus installation. No printer problems. No login name. No password. No “low battery” message. No WiFI issues. No eye strain. No distractions. No spinning wheel.
It symbolizes the durable over the throwaway; the physical over the digital. It is solid feel of the keys. The clacking of keys striking platen. The ding of the bell.
The manual typewriter.
Last year, the PTA generously donated 700-chf towards “The Typewriter Project,” a project to source 24 manual typewriters (and ribbons!) for use in English classes and beyond. As an avid user and collector of typewriters, I also wanted students to appreciate typewriters as beautiful examples of design, and as machines that have played an influential role in society starting from all the way back when Scholes & Glidden developed the first mass-produced, and commercially successful, “Type Writer” in the 1870s, with its then-novel QWERTY keyboard.
Why return to this apparent obsolete technology in today’s classroom?
Well, in an era of high-speed everything, typewriters make us slow down a bit, make us think about our words. They allow us to make mistakes again. And there is no red squiggly line demanding our attention, interrupting our flow of ideas. (Not to mention the green squiggly line, which is often incorrect.) Editing becomes a second stage again. Computers, on the other hand, can easily hinder student productivity, presenting many distractions: the allure of new email messages, Skype chats, YouTube, video games, cat photos, memes, yesterday’s 27 still-open tabs, and so on.
Typewriters are for doing one thing and they do it just about perfectly–writing. They can also help with focus and productivity. For many people, the tactile and aural (ding!) experience of typewriters helps them concentrate and get in the flow of the writing experience; it is immensely satisfying in a real-world way. And fun.
Typewriters can also help students connect with the literary past. When using the Olivetti Lettera32, for example, a student is echoing writers like Philip Roth, Sylvia Plath, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Bob Dylan, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy (whose own Lettera 32 sold at auction a few years back for over $200 000). The same goes for the classic Swiss-made Hermes 3000, a favorite of Tom Hanks, Sam Shepard, and Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Brokeback Mountain), who thanked his Hermes 3000 in his 2006 Golden Globe acceptance speech). Even Lady Gaga uses a typewriter now, having composed a song from her last album on a vintage Underwood portable!
Our collection ranges from pre-World War II typewriters (with glass keys) to early-1980s Brother portables. Some notable models include the Olivetti Lettera 22 and 32; Hermes Baby, several Hermes 3000 (1st, 2nd, and 3rd generations); Olympia “Splendid” and “Monica”; and a late-1930s Royal KMM.
Last June we celebrated international typewriter day, which included having a few students set up outside the cafeteria as écrivains publics, typing poetry or letters on demand. Since introducing the typewriters last year, many students have enthusiastically embraced these wonderful machines, with some reporting that they have never written more than when on a typewriter. Unsurprisingly, a number of students have now bought their own typewriter, with many more keen to find one at their next local brocante or marché aux puces.
Thank you again to the PTA for supporting this successful project.
By Christopher Hambley
If you would like more information about typewriters, perhaps where to get one for your child, or if you have an old typewriter gathering dust that you could donate to this project, please contact Mr Hambley in the secondary English department at: firstname.lastname@example.org