The Last Typewriter In Britain

20 Nov

This morning it was announced that the last typewriter to be manufactured in Britain had been made and donated to London’s Science Museum. This got me thinking about how much things have changed since I first started using machines to help me write. My hand-writing has always been very poor, and I saw the advantage of such machines very early. I started off on a really old-fashioned mechanical typewriter, one of the ones with the letters on individual hammers, that I found lying around the house. It was a style of machine that hadn’t really changed much in over a century and thinking back on this now makes me feel old (I’m not that old, honest).  If I made a mistake, there was no way to fix it, I either had to lived with it or start the page again (for some reason, correction fluid wasn’t common in Britain at the time, or maybe it was just frowned upon in our house). However, it was fast. If you had an idea, you could have it down in black and white in seconds, regardless of its quality.

Next came an electric typewriter, one with a daisy wheel, and the option to delete things (well scrub them off the page at any rate).  From there, I moved onto an Apple Classic. This was in my school’s computer lab and I was sent there at the insistence of my biology teacher since she was fed up trying to decipher the rather appalling scribbles that I call writing. From there is was on to my first home computer, a disk-operated Atari ST. That was fun. You had to load up the word-processor from a disk every time you wanted to use it. That was about the time I started trying to write for fun rather than just for school, mostly some pretty awful adolescent poetry, little of which, thankfully, survives to embarrass me now. As technology grew, I moved on to a Power Mac, the machine I wrote my first attempt at a book on (very bad but probably still floating around somewhere on an unreadable 3.5 inch diskette), and then various lap tops (used to write lots of short stories) until we reach the one I’m using today (and the one I wrote my first my proper book on). I’ve moved away from Macs, not because I wanted to, but because of the specialist little programs I need for work that, rather infuriatingly, only run on the Windows operating system.

So through all this technological evolution, what’s actually changed?  The art of writing is still just as difficult, although I feel I might finally be getting the hang of it. Editing is easier, since you no longer have to literally cut and paste blocks of text using scissors and glue (I wonder how many people realise that this is the decidedly low-tech origin for terms we now primarily associate with computers?), but it’s also easier to rely on automated tools like spell-checkers and grammar checkers that can miss glaring mistakes. For some reason, I’ve always found editing from a screen difficult and I tend to miss a lot more mistakes when doing that. This means that for final error-checking and editing, or when I’m struggling with a particular piece, I’ll still resort to a print out and a red pen.

I’ve also found that modern technology can slow down the writing process. Frequently, I’ll have a flash of inspiration just as I’ve closed a bit of work (and usually just after I’ve started to power down my computer). On an old mechanical typewriter, I could have sat down and hammered it out there and then. On my laptop, I have to wait for the power down to finish (including the slow, and apparently never-ending, stream of automatic Windows Updates), power it up again, then open my word processing software before I can write anything down.  By this time, the thought may well have been lost because I’ll have become distracted by something else. This means that even with all the advances technology available to me now, I still end up scrawling ideas down in my indecipherable script on scraps of paper that then litter the floor until I can incorporate them into my work (much to my girlfriend’s despair). Yes, technology has advanced beyond all recognition in the last few decades, but it’s hardly the paper-free nirvana we were promised by the Kings of Silicon Valley back in the days when the mechanical typewriter still ruled every would-be writer’s universe.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

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