Burton on the Bay:
Ode to the Old Typewriter
It's a quieter world we share with computers

What silent still? and silent all?

Ah! now-the voices of the dead

sound like a distant torrents call.

    -Lord Byron, 1788-1823

Silence. It's in the offices of today, worse still it's in the newsrooms; it's where it's not supposed to be. The workplace - as Milton wrote in Paradise Lost - is as silent as the moon. I don't like it.

Matter of fact, I can't think of a newsman anywhere who likes it - other than the Johnnys Come Lately who weren't around in the good old days when newsroom chatter was drowned out by the clatter of typewriters.

No way to escape it. Go into the back shop, and there was the clacking of linotype machines setting words written on typewriters into hot lead to be racked into frames that made up pages for a noisy press.

Ah, the good old days when the typewriter and its back room counterpart, the linotype, ruled. Why today, even the presses don't make much noise. The silence is deafening. I don't like it.

The computer is to blame, and sheepishly I admit it is via a computer with an apple on the keyboard that I write this. Long neglected and packed away in a storage room is my old Smith Corona portable, now obsolete.

On a shelf in the furnace room is a fancy desk model IBM electric typewriter, equally useless. Both are missed - and missed by necessity. No one in any office, even a home office, wants hard copy - you know, the words printed out on a piece of paper - anymore. No, they want it on a disk, by email or the web.

Hand the editor or the boss a story, report or even a memo on a piece of paper today and they think you are a caveman as they start to punch it into silent computereze. Why, even my fax machine is threatened with obsolescence. My sources badger me with suggestions I get my tidbits from them by Internet.

What's the world coming to, a place where all the information is squeezed into computer chips? Many people don't even have time to read books, and they can track current events written for newspapers and magazines via their PCs.

Already, it's a given; if you don't have a computer, you're out of the loop. And, we all know what a loop is, a thing that goes around and around; sadly there is no end to a loop.


Writing the Old Way

I see big papers like the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal scoop their own hard copy editions with updates on the web. Editors talk about electronic hits in the millions.

I saw it coming nearly two decades ago not long after the Sun became one of the first newspapers in the nation to switch 100 percent to computers. Though I still needed a typewriter for free-lance writing at home, the old Smith Corona could do on the road.

I purchased a Brother typewriter that had a chip in it to remember settings, also to serve as a computer-compatible printer in the event I later switched to a PC. It cost $1,000, but I figured it would last me forever - until I got home. I called my managing editor Phil Heisler and told him of the technology involved in my new acquisition. "It's already obsolete," he piped up. "Within a year or two everybody will want their copy from a computer."

How right he was. Within a year, the Brother was a gift to my daughter Liz heading off to college. Less than two years later she swapped it for a computer.

I think of the procession of Smith-Corona portables that passed through my life, probably five. The last one put words on paper for well over a decade. It fit in a suitcase when I traveled - as I often did - and when it was time to write a story to file with Western Union - or perhaps send via the cranky and unreliable fax machines at the time - it was ready.

No need to find a power outlet to plug it into; no need to worry about a phone or modem, power surges, Y2K, or that a jostling in transit would confuse a silicone chip or darken the screen. I'd just plop it on a log, table or even my lap and start pounding keys, and the results would show on a piece of paper coming off the roller on the carriage. During the most violent of thunderstorms, I could write away without unplugging to save it from being fried. The only accessory needed was an extra ribbon.

Maintenance involved only scrubbing the little letters on the other end of the keys with a solvent every couple of months and every year or two dropping it off at Higdon Brothers in Baltimore for a thorough cleaning at $15 a pop, which won't even get you past the clerk at a computer service center.

No print-outs needed. The paper fed into the carriage handled that, and a piece of carbon paper gave me an instant duplicate. The original went to an editor who made corrections, revisions or whatever with a pencil before sending the finished story to a linotype operator who would copy the whole thing to hot type.

In the remote event of a malfunction, a screwdriver and a pair of needlenose pliers could handle anything. If a key stuck, I could keep on writing and pencil in the missing letter after the story was written. Try that with a balky computer.


Burton to President Bush and Back

Filling out forms was a problem after the Brother went to Liz and the portable was retired. Learning to use a computer to get the right spaces and lines requires classes and more electronic savvy than I could muster. And there was another problem.

I had started a periodic correspondence with then- President George Bush covering our angling and other outdoor pursuits and couldn't figure how to format a letter on stationery on the Apple. One can't write the president in longhand or on a portable typewriter with a key or two that doesn't always make a clear impression. So what else to do than buy at a ridiculously low price (everyone was getting rid of them) a used and sophisticated IBM with the neat and clean type electrics were known for - and with built-in correction tape.

My letters were neat. So were his, though obviously typed by him with an occasional correction via fountain pen. Then came the day more than a year after he left Washington for Texas, I got a letter from him, all written by hand - a practically illegible scrawl, as mine is - and I figured his typewriter finally gave out, and rather than switch to a computer, he chose the old fashioned way.

I followed suit once the curious ribbon on the IBM wore out and I couldn't figure how to install a new one, which was as difficult to locate as someone who remembered the days of typewriters and could lend a hand. So the IBM was retired and my correspondence to anyone is by hand - or without formatting from a sometimes uncooperative computer printer.

But how I miss that old Smith Corona.

| Issue 36 |

Volume VII Number 36
September 9-15, 1999
New Bay Times

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