Strike The Keys, Bang Out Prose: The Noisy, Masculine History of Typewriters December 6th, 2011 English contains loud metaphors to describe the act of writing: we bang out manuscripts, we hit keys, we hammer out words. But for most of recorded history, the act of writing has been silent: pens make little noise gliding over paper; word processors tamp the sound of keys. The era of noisy writing was relatively short-lived, from about 1874, when the typewriter was invented, to the day awhile back when you put your Brother Selectric in the attic. The history of the typewriter is largely forgotten, including the surprising fact that novelists—not scientists or businessmen—were the early adopters of the first writing machine. The invention of the typewriter began when the Remington company figured how to beat rifles into typewriters. In post-Civil War America, sales of weapons were waning. In 1874, Remington marketed a new product: a heavy, loud metal machine, mounted upon a table with a treadle at the bottom, looking somewhat like a sewing machine. They called it “The Sholes & Glidden Type Writer,” and it cost $125.00. It didn’t sell. The machine was cumbersome, the noise it made cacophonous (“it sounded like distant thunder or some one breaking up the furniture,” writes Jack London in John Barleycorn) Even worse, you had to write blind: the keys hit the underside of the paper, and the only way you could see letters was by lifting the carriage up and peering inside. . Businesses wouldn’t accept printed correspondence: only letters penned by the sender were legitimate. Only 400 of the initial 1000 typewriters sold. But one of those 400 was bought by a man always eager to get the latest gadget: Mark Twain. Twain saw his first typewriter in the shop window in 1874. He went in and asked to see how it worked. The salesman told him it could do fifty-seven words a minute, which Twain thought impossible (it must have been foreign to Twain to even speculate how many words per minute one could write). A type-girl demonstrated the machine. Twain was astonished. As he later wrote: “we timed the girl over and over again—with the same result always: she won out. She did her work on narrow slips of paper, and we pocketed them as fast as she turned them out, to show as curiosities.” Twain bought the machine, but afterwards, when he looked at those slips of paper, he was disappointed to read the same words over and over: the type girl had mechanized what she wrote as well as how she wrote, “economiz[izing] time and labor by using a formula which she knew by heart.” Following her cue, Twain starting playing with his new toy by typing the “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck” over and over again until he “could turn that boy’s adventure out at the rate of 12 words a minute.” But he considered his new purchase a quaint contrivance: he “only worked the machine to astonish visitors,” reverting to pen and paper for all other writing. Twain eventually composed on the machine, and would brag in his autobiography that he was the “first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature” when he submitted a typed manuscript of Adventures of Tom Sawyer to his publisher in 1874 (there is some debate on whether this claim is accurate; more likely it was Life on the Mississippi). Twain soon tired of the awkward pedals, capital letters and blind typing afforded by the first Remington model, though. When the company asked him to shill for the product, Twain refused to allow name to be used in reference to the “curiosity-breeding little joker” that was “full of caprices.” He claimed that, as the machine made him swear, it was ruining his morals. He gave his Remington away to his friend William Dean Howells, the eminent Atlantic editor and novelist (who, he joked, had no morals anyway), but Howells returned it, uninterested, six months later. In 1896, Remington added a carriage return, and by 1897, Underwood rolled out a model whose keys struck the top of the page.. The writing machine was improving, and sales were picking up. After Twain published his reminiscences of his first writing machine in 1905, Remington again asked to use his name to push product. In 1905, Harpers magazine ran an add that featured a picture the 1875 model alongside Twain’s snarky review of it, and, below that, a picture of the 1905 model, alongside Twain’s more recent endorsement: now, he wrote, it’s a curiosity not to own a typewriter. Mark Twain and Henry James were contemporaries, but the two didn’t much like each other. The writers did, however, share an ahead-of-the-curve affinity for the typewriter. Henry James took up the typewriter in the 1880s, perhaps because he had poor handwriting. By the 1890s, with physical ailments potentially stemming from his bouts with the typewriter (as the hero of John Barleycorn writes of his first Remington: “I had to hit the keys so hard that I strained my first fingers to the elbows, while the ends of my fingers were blisters burst and blistered again.”), James was dictating all his novels to a secretary who typed the author’s words. Some claim that the difference between “early” and “middle” Jamesian style stems from this move to dictation enabled by the typewriter. James became addicted to his typewriter: “he…reached a state at which the click of a Remington machine acted as a positive spur…During a fortnight when the Remington was out of order he dictated to an Oliver typewriter with evident discomfort, and he found it almost disconcerting to speak to something that made no responsive sound at all.” At the end of his life, confined to bed, James requested that a Remington typewriter be worked in his room at all times. The sound of the keys soothed him. While Twain and James both dictated to secretaries, poor aspiring writers had to figure out how to work the machine themselves. In Jack London’s 1909 fictionalized autobiography Martin Eden, the eponymous hero tries to break into magazines, but the typewriter—and its expense—stymies him. At first, Martin handwrites short stories, which are rejected by editors and returned with “printed rejection slips.” Then he learns that editors prefer to receive typewritten manuscripts. So Martin rents a typewriter and spends a day learning how to use it, leading to some acceptances. Still broke, though, Martin starts a buying a typewriter when his work sells, then pawning it when he needs money, only to buy it back again when the next story is accepted. Machine writing and the inevitably printed correspondence from editors alienates Martin from writing, though. He imagines editors as “cogs in a machine.” As he learns to mechanize his writing process, he learns that fiction must be mechanical, too, and he starts following the advice of writers’ magazines to produce “machine-made storyettes.” As the examples of Twain, James and London attest, the typewriter did more than add another tool to a writers’ arsenal: it changed what we write, too. It disembodied writing from writer, altered how writers composed and transformed style: as media theorist Marshall McLuhan says, “The rhythms of typing favor short, concise sentences.” Or, as Frederick Nietzsche put it, “our writing tools are also working on our thoughts.” Typewriting also democratized writing; by allowing authors to simultaneously compose and publish, the typewriter was an early form of desktop publishing. That first Remington also introduced a system that has rewired the brains of touch-typists ever since: the QWERTY keyboard. Idiosyncratic and unergonomic, QWERTY was invented to separate common letter pairs, preventing type bars from sticking together when struck sequentially. Although others have developed more efficient, user-friendly layouts, they have not caught on. We seem stubbornly wed to QWERTY, proving that our quest for the next new thing often accompanies a tenacious desire to hold on to the familiar. By the 1900s, the laggards had joined the innovators, and typewriting had become ubiquitous. Handwritten manuscripts and business letters quickly became a mark of amateurism. And a scant one hundred years later, the era of the typewriter ended—around the day when it became a mark of amateurism to submit a document with traces of white-out on it, the digital age began. We may not miss the days of running out of ribbon or forgetting to move the carriage return, but it’s just not as fun, or satisfying, to hit Control-P as it was to strike that period and remove the last page from the machine with balletic flourish. And when we pick up a novel by Twain, James, London, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner—even Kerouac, of whose novel On the Road Truman Capote quipped “it’s not writing, it’s typing” we should recall the staccato sounds that accompanied their production, and that the terse, short prose style of mid-century America sounds not unlike the rhythm of the keys. In the age of the typewriter, authorship was noisy, physical, masculine. You never forgot you were operating a machine. Today, while we type on dainty purring laptops, something of that history remains in our vestigial metaphors and in the odd dance of our fingers on the touchpad. Twain would probably find our writing machines devilish contrivances. He would certainly upgrade. 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