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Manual typewriter

Thuup, thuup, thuup. Blooop.

Typewriting class. It was a right of passage for many high school students who sat down in front of a keyboard to learn how to manipulate an alphabet that wasn’t in the correct order. But it was a tactile experience and the clatter of keys was welcomed by some who found success and despised by others who couldn’t quite make their fingers walk the keys in a proper manner.

Such was my experience. My typewriter teacher would circle the room as we typed “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” and point out improper digit movement. I never did master the full technique despite finding later in life I really did need that skill to meet deadlines and produce clean pages of typewritten cohesive sentences and paragraphs.

Tom Hanks, yes, that Tom Hanks, has a thing about typewriters. Seems he owns upwards of a 100 of the machines and extols the virtues of mechanical typing. “The sound, the physical quality of touch, the report and action of type-bell-return, the carriage and the satisfaction of pulling a completed page out of the machine,” he entones. “Raaaappp!” I agree the sound provides comfort and solace in an otherwise strange world of chirps and burps that come from various handheld devices where the QWERTY keyboard (look that one up if it doesn’t look familiar) is useless for those using two thumbs to create written communication. Two thumbs! Imagine that, my old typewriter instructor! And you thought my three-finger method was strange. Thuup, thuup, thuup. Blooop.

I longed for the tangible experience of typing when technology forced us into using something called an IBM Selectric that had this odd little ball that twirled and whirled, smacking a ribbon to make an impression on a sheet of paper. It just wasn’t quite the same as the cacophonous click-clack of type bars, the smack of a carriage return lever and the thunk of a shift key.

But IBM had even bigger ideas and the Selectric was soon replaced by a keyboard that, when struck, placed a letter on a darkened screen — in bright green! Oh, the humanity! I still used the same finger technique as, fortunately, the keyboard format matched my memorized typewriter keys. And there was a bit of a mechanical sound from punching the keys as those earliest computer keyboards were somewhat mechanical themselves with tiny buckling springs holding up each key constructed of hardened plastic that seemed to handle my rougher than normal treatment.Of course, technology marched on and keyboards became smaller, which made my ham-fisted poking and punching more difficult. The keys were little soft Chiclets that soothed your fingertips, placed on top of silent pieces of film that somehow transferred your tap into some sort of electronic neverland to magically appear on a computer screen. And some of those keyboards (available in your choice of heartwarming colors) didn’t even have wires attached to anything. What is this world coming to?

Fortunately, these rubber-dome keyboards were somewhat inexpensive (and disposable) so as I wore out one after another, I was resolved that I would never again experience that joyous sound of pounding out copy (a journalistic lexicon).

But wait! There’s hope for those of us who want to feel something under our fingertips and let our fingers know they’ve had a true workout. In 1996 Lexmark International was preparing to close its keyboard factory in Lexington, Kentucky, because its primary customer, IBM, decided to move to cheaper Asian-made rubber-dome keyboards and no longer wanted the older style buckling-spring keyboards.

But employees simply could not let that keyboard die and a group of them purchased the licensing, tooling and design rights, reestablishing the company as Unicomp. The classic Model M buckling-spring keyboard was back in business, and today the company sells that classic version along with dozens of variations around the world to people who want to, at the very least, still experience that physical thump.

And yes, they still come with wires. There’s hope for us yet.

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Jim Volgarino is a Waterloo native, retired business owner, and former teacher and freelance writer.


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