Over the Easter break, one of the more cultured things I did was to visit a typewriter exhibition. In complete honesty, the typewriters were pretty captivating, with tens of lovingly restored American, British, French and Swiss models dating from the 1870s onwards.
Apart from admiring the handiwork of makers such as Hermes, Oliver, Remington and Underwood, it was a great opportunity to compare and contrast their features at close quarters. What surprised me was the sheer variety of mechanisms to type letters onto paper prior to mass production. Some were the result of patent infringement avoidance rather than any noticeable design progress, but many were the products of some highly innovative minds – a great example being the unusual Lambert 1, designed by Frank Lambert, reputedly over a seventeen-year period (take a look at http://www.typewritermuseum.org/collection/index.php3?machine=lambert&cat=ks).
Of course, mass production quickly led to design standardisation, with ease of production and maintenance often winning the battle over ease of use. For example, the QWERTY keyboard (devised in 1874 by Sholes & Glidden), is not the most efficient layout from a typist's perspective, but was designed to ensure that the most commonly used letters were as far away from each other as possible, to minimise the chance of type bars clashing together.
What was interesting to see was how many of those very same design decisions have been sweated over decades later in our digital age. For example, there's the debate over the merits of curved versus straight keyboards. Indeed, Blackberry's characteristic curved keyboards are strangely reminiscent of the Williams 1 or the Imperial A or B. There were innovations such as the noiseless typewriter, which apparently wasn't that popular initially, not simply because it wasn't actually noiseless. And one factor that user interface designers have since come to recognise is that many people like the somewhat reassuring clickety clack of the keys.
In the age of the 'pocket computer', let alone portable computer, when many will have never used an electric typewriter let alone a manual version, it is easy to forget how strong our links to the mechanical process still are. There's the language – for example, the 'shift' key refers to the action of shifting the print carriage to print uppercase letters or different symbols. And the fonts we use are another enduring link to the past. I realised that I rarely deviate from Times New Roman, developed for the Times of London by the Monotype Corporation under Stanley Morris in 1931. Meanwhile, much official correspondence is still wedded to Courier New, created by Howard Kettler for IBM in 1955.
The progress from mechanical to electric typewriters, and from there to modern computers, is utterly irrefutable. However, returning to slouch in front of my laptop (no slouching possible on the manual versions if you hoped to see what you were writing) there are one or two advantages to the manual versions that spring to mind. They required no electricity, were relatively easy to fix, involved no software licenses debatably, all relevant design considerations today. Whilst the cost of initial purchase was undeniably steep (a Remington cost around $100 when the average wage of the operator was in the region of $5 a week), when it came to changing the ribbon, I wonder whether people felt quite as out of pocket as I do when replacing a branded printer cartridge? And was the process of fixing the odd type lever jam ever as odious as some automatic software updates?
Though I won't be trading my laptop for a manual typewriter just yet (my typewriting is far too error-prone!), covetable machines they are, and with perhaps more relevance to today's design dilemmas than you might initially think.