California Typewriter – QWERTY Shines in Important Documentary

Olympia GrayDespite the abundance of digital software applications available to web designers, many prefer to sketch out their initial ideas with pen and paper. It’s faster than using digital tools and forces your brain to think in a different way. Even if you know the designing program well, a significant part of your brain’s energy is used up remembering commands, menus and locations of the software interface. With a pencil hand your brain sends creative signals directly to it without interference. The result is you get more bang for your creative synapse.

The same approach can be applied to writing on a typewriter vs. computer keyboard. But none of us do that because pencils and paper are plentiful in every home or corporate office while typewriters are completely absent. It is highly likely that anyone reading this post has never used a typewriter. Or if they have it was decades ago. And that’s a darn shame.

This week I caught up with a wonderful little documentary called California Typewriter, directed, photographed and edited by Grammy winner Doug Nichol. Mr. Nichol centers his story around a small typewriter repair shop in Berkley, California owned by Herbert L. Permillion, III, a former IBM employee who serviced the brand’s Selectric typewriters for over twenty years. He bought the store – called California Typewriter – about the time computers were starting their rise in offices and homes, but has always remained steadfast for the typewriter as an important cultural tool.

We get to know Herb, his daughter Carmen and Ken Alexander, a master typewriter repairman over the course of the film. They have lots of ups and downs economically, but their love of this machine always wins the day, and somehow they mange to keep the business going.

Herb, Carmen, Ken
Carmen, Herb and Ken

The film’s other story is how the typewriter has sunk very deep roots in American society and are cared for not only by this team, but by thousands of other enthusiasts across the country.

The film opens with a dramatization of the American artist Ed Ruscha’s photo book Royal Road Test from 1967. In this spiral bound publication Mr. Ruscha carefully documented in black and white photographs and short prose the roadside remains of a Royal typewriter tossed from a speeding 1963 Buick LeSabre, California plate FUP 744. At the time the car was hurtling west on U.S. Highway 91 outside of Las Vegas when the deed was done. They turned the car around and went back to photograph the wreckage as well as the three men who committed the act. This and other books he created at the time paid tribute to the romantic vision of being on the road in the American West.

Royal Road Test
Royal Road Trip Recreation

Mr. Nichol includes four accomplished artists in the telling of this story. Each incorporates the typewriter into their daily lives. These profiles are critical to helping us understand that for over a hundred years, analog was how work got done in the U.S. It gave meaning to traditions and even how happiness was experienced in the pre-digital age.

Tom Hanks has 250+ typewriters in his personal collection. He is passionate about the typewriter and when asked which of his machines he would take if stranded on a desert island he chose the Smith Corona Silent (circa 1950’s).

The rise on the keys is almost perfect. Going from an “n” to a “y” requires almost nothing. The size of the type is not too big and not too small. But listen to the solidity of the action. This is a solid piece of machinery. It’s got beautiful highlights… With a good case this would be thee one typewriter I would take if stranded on an island.

— Tom Hanks

David McCullough is the brilliant writer of The Wright Brothers, 1776, Truman and other critically acclaimed works. Every morning after breakfast he enters a small stand alone structure behind his home and goes to work on his second hand Royal Standard typewriter he paid $25 for it in White Plains, NY. He has written his entire body of work on this machine.

People tell me that I could do much better. I could go faster and have less to contend with if I were to use a computer. A word processor. But I don’t want to go faster. If anything I prefer to go slower. To me it’s understandable. I press a key and another key comes up and prints a letter on a piece of paper… It’s tangible. It’s real.

— David McCullough

American singer-songwriter John Mayer has opted out of digital tools for writing his songs, doing it now on a typewriter.

I’m not picking the typewriter because I think it’s hip. It’s the best version of the idea that’s ever come around. For me I think the best way to live is to incorporate the best of the last 100 years into a hybrid that works. Write a book on a typewriter and promote it on Twitter. Use the spectrum.

— John Mayer

Pulitzer winning playwright and author Mr. Sam Shepherd would prefer to ride horses than drive a car. He describes in great detail why he prefers a typewriter. Here’s a snippet.

You have to feed a typewriter paper. There’s a percussion about it. You can see the ink flying onto the surface of the paper. So a letter will go bam, but along with it the ink flies into the paper.

— Sam Shepherd (1943 – 2017)

More elements of the story begin to emerge. Devoted typewriter collector Martin Howard, whose license plate is QWERTY 1, has studied the invention of the typewriter and its impact on our society for twenty-two years. He loves the beginning of things which explains why he collects typewriters from the 1880’s and 1890’s. He specializes in typewriters of non-standard design.

We’ve now seen typewriter repairmen, collectors, and writers that use them to create their work. But still more protagonists tell their stories. Although we have seen a healthy dose of passion about the typewriter up to this time, these two artists have an almost mystical relationships with the typewriter. Jeremy Mayer is a sculptor who uses parts and materials from typewriters in his work. He studies nature and human anatomy along with typewriter anatomy and combines them to create amazing objects.

Local Artists
Jeremy Mayer and Silvi Alcivar

If the typewriter had a mind as it was being invented, Silvi Alcivar is what it might have conjured up as someone who would use it. Machines were never viewed as a serious threat to humans unlike robots and artificial intelligence warnings of today. There is nothing artificial about a typewriter. But in the hands of Ms. Alcivar typewriting takes on new meaning. She is a poet and occasionally you might find here on a sidewalk or in a museum at her pop-up poetry store. Give her a couple of thoughts and she will type you a poem on the spot. She trusts that the words will always come and hugs her Royal typewriter close, but no one else can use it.

To help balance out the serious and spiritual themes, Mr. Nichol brings in the Boston Typewriter Orchestra. They write and perform songs using typewriters. No lyrics, simply percussion interpretations. They are serious in a Monty Python kind of way. Not too much so, but enough to make us pay attention. Apparently there is no end to the uses of a typewriter.

In the movie we learn that Christopher Latham Sholes invented the first commercially viable typewriter in 1868 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The first keyboard had QWERTY on the top row. Something that has never changed. How did QWERTY get on the keyboard? No one knows for sure. It has been said that it came about to aid salesmen who couldn’t type. They could easily peck out the word typewriter as all of the letters fell on the top row.

Sholes became disinterested in his machine and sold his design. It was made of wood and he sold the rights to the metal gun manufacturer, Remington Arms. They were looking for a new way to keep the factories in operation. Since the Civil War had ended the orders for guns had slowed dramatically. After a year spent on developing a metal typewriter successfully, mass production began.

Thousands were made and sold, but there was a shortage of people who know how to use them. The first typing school was established in New York in 1881. Six women enrolled in the six month class at a YWCA. When they completed the course all immediately had job offers. Better paying jobs than factory workers or school teachers. The introduction of the machine helped women enter the male business. They were called “typewriters.”

I learned to type on a manual typewriter in a high school typing class. Yes, there was a class called typing. I had a choice. Take typing or home economics (HomeEc) which was code for cooking and other household chores. I chose typing. Before I finished I was up to 55 words per minute with almost no errors. A skill I have used my entire life.

Late in the film we hear from Richard Polt, author of The Typewriter Revolution: A typist’s Companion for the 21st Century. A book I just finished. In fact, because of this documentary and the book, I bought a Smith Corona Silent manual typewriter. I’m cleaning it up as I write this and hope to be up and typing very soon. Mr. Polt also wrote The Typewriter Manifesto.

Manefesto

I see a close relationship between the typewriter and the vinyl record resurgence. Music is written and recorded. A record is pressed. It’s a physical representation of the music that springs to life when a diamond needle rests on this sacred platter at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute. True sound. Pure sonic. Emotive. Tribal.

The typewriter is the confluence of mechanics, art and psychology. When embraced they become a tactile paradise for the mind to enjoy. They command one to think. To slow down and not be afraid to stop. There is no stream. However, ink is necessary. Paper is required. You publish while you write. It occupies space. No need for the cloud. Digital forgives. Typewritten pages are chiseled, archival records.

In a way the typewriter acts as a mediator. Everyone in the film speaks about this machine as if it was alive. It speaks to you. Always at the ready to amplify the true nature of your being.

Highly recommended for everyone interested in typewriters, documentary fans, or if you’re looking for something interesting to watch. Official site here.

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