Typewriters relegated to the museum

by Ruth Griffiths

I enjoyed touring the Prince Albert Historical Museum following a guided walk on the Rotary Trail beside the North Saskatchewan River.  A display of old business machines elicited memories of compact portable typewriters that my friend and I had used as young adults. During these Covid times we spend a lot of time using electronic keyboards, but we rarely think about how the standard keyboard came to be.

The first mechanical machine for writing letters was introduced 300 years ago. The typewriter was invented and reinvented several times. By about 1910, a more or less standardized version had emerged. Electric typewriters were introduced about a century ago but when I started work at The Daily Herald in 1981, we were still using manual typewriters in the newsroom. The noise was deafening! We switched to an electronic typesetting machine and soon after that personal computers, linked to a common memory storage area.

The most common keyboard configuration today is QWERTY. The name comes from the first six keys on the top letter row of the keyboard from left to right: Q-W-E-R-T-Y. The arrangement of letters is neither logical nor intuitive. In fact, the letters are arranged on the keyboard so they slow down the typist. Typewriter operators were able to strike the keys so quickly that the type bars became wedged together as they struck the typewriter ribbon in rapid succession.

In an episode of the TV series Downton Abbey, a maid upgrades her lot in life by learning to type. She becomes a typewriter. (“Typewriter” that time applied both to the machine and the operator of it.)

Operating business machines offered employment for a whole generation of women around the middle of the last century. For example, my mother was fresh out of high school when she was trained by an Edmonton gas company to operate a comptometer… the first key-driven mechanical calculator. By the 1960s, electronic calculators were already replacing manual calculators, but by then, women were well established in business offices everywhere.

I wouldn’t like to go back to using a manual typewriter with its messy ribbons, carbon paper and correcting fluid. But at least you weren’t squinting at a screen all day when you used one of those old clunkers.