Students in my freshman-level technical communication course were intrigued by our discussion today of document design during the “typewriter era.”
We were examining some memos from the early Microsoft Windows period, right about the time that people were beginning to understand how the new features available in Word (allowing for easy switching among font styles and sizes, for example) could open up document design possibilities far beyond what typewriters could afford, which was basically little more than capital letters, underlining, indentation, and numbered/bulleted lists. What prompted our discussion of the “typewriter era” was an example of supposedly “good” document design, in which a memo’s subject line was a string of all-caps words that were practically unreadable thanks to this “design” element.
The class moved on to other topics related to report structure and document design. Eventually we were looking at first-level, second-level, etc., headings and subheadings. The document we were looking at, I told them, was from a really old business writing textbook. It was clearly typewritten, but I liked the strategies it gave for differentiating among the various levels of headings.
When there was a lull in the conversation, one student raised his hand. How, he wondered, did someone center a heading on the page using a typewriter? In Word, you can just click on the “center” button to position the text in the middle of the page. (Or press Ctrl + E. Remember those shortcuts? Remember how, before the mouse, those “shortcut” codes were your only recourse?) If you were using a typewriter, my student asked, would you have to measure?
Why yes! I realized. You would.
In fact, typewriters came with built-in rulers.
To create a title (or first-level heading) on a page, as I recalled, first you’d have to count how many characters it contained, including spaces. Then you’d position the typewriter carriage to align the space where the keys struck with the center of the paper. You’d backspace half the total number of characters and then type the complete title or heading. Voila! Perfectly centered!
I haven’t used a typewriter in 30+ years, but it was amazing how it all came back in a flash. Like remembering how to ride a bike, I guess. And it occurs to me that typewriters may have all the potential for hipster cachet that vinyl records carry. 🙂
[UPDATE, December 11, 2021: I just learned that Michael Nesmith (of Monkees fame) died yesterday. Link to the Variety article HERE. I’m leaving this update here because in the comments following this post I mentioned that Nesmith’s mother invented Liquid Paper, a paint-based correction fluid used by typists to white-out mistakes. It’s so weird that his name would have come up in my life just a week before he died when I haven’t thought about him at all in years. I guess that’s how it happens sometimes. RIP to a man who made my childhood brighter❤️]
Well, there’s only one way to end a post on typewriters. And so, without further ado, here is the incomparable Liberace (West Allis/metro-Milwaukee native!) performing “The Typewriter Song” on his “other keyboard,” complete with a mini-candelabra 🙂