"No idea is so antiquated that it was not once modern."
- Ellen Glasgow
For all his accomplishments, the secessionist governor of South Carolina,
James Henry Hammond, is remembered most for his pre-Civil War speech when he
declared: "Cotton is King, and no one would dare wage war on cotton!" Though
history proved the man and his passion wrong, no one could doubt that, at
the time, Hammond, and much of the South, believed what he said.
With the rising population of personal computers, it won't be long before
the humble typewriter will be found only in attics and museums - right
beside razor straps, kerosene lamps, long-playing records and Henry Ford's
"Model T." The crude little machine that taught half of today's computing
world to turn their labor-intensive handwriting into neatly printed prose
has all but vanished from the public scene.
But, like cotton, once upon a time the typewriter was king of the block,
too, and the little invention with its letters way out of alphabetical order
changed our lives forever.
Maybe it was because I was settling into a new computer about the time I
uncovered my mother's old, manual Smith-Corona, that the Newsweek article,
"Requiem for the Typewriter," caught my eye. No matter how hard I tried, I
couldn't even interest my mother in my old electric typewriter - "goes too
fast," she said - let alone my old computer. "Requiem..." author Robert
Samuelson would understand. By his own admission he was typing that very
article on his trusted Royal to mourn the bankruptcy of the last great
typewriter giant, the maker of my mother's Smith-Corona, a few months
According to Samuelson, in its time the typewriter was every bit as
revolutionary as today's computer. Besides transforming the workplace, it
changed the role of women forever. Before the invention of the typewriter,
98 percent of all clerical work was performed by men. But the typewriter
created a demand for literate workers, and that meant women who greatly
outnumbered men among high school graduates 80-100 years ago.
Typing schools sprang up everywhere and women, who once could only work as
maids or in factories if they weren't educated, or as teachers if they were,
now had a more lucrative means of earning a living. A typist could make 2-4
times the wage of her factory worker counterpart.
As much as I like (adore) my upgraded computer, I understand what Samuelson
means when he speaks of the typewriter not just as an important instrument
in its time, but of its features that no amount of speed or gadgetry will
replace. We writers, especially, need to "save our blunders" and do the
forced rewriting that mistake-ridden pages and poor first drafts require.
With a computer and self-polishing printer, Samuelson says, "even gibberish
can be made to look neat and impressive." I know what he means. I remember
how shocked I was to find typos on that first, beautifully printed page on
my new printer. It looked too pretty to have flaws.
Like literal kings, rulers, commodities and technologies may change with
circumstances and time, and the new may justly be heralded for its
improvement over the old. But like members of our ancestral tree, the old
served a purpose, too. Mainly they became stepping-stones to the new.
In case you haven't noticed, the same quirky, "q-w-e-r-t-y" keyboard used on
the first typewriter in 1867 adorns the top letter row of every computer
made today, no matter how technologically advanced it is.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.