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Saturday 21 July 2018
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Riding the board


MY FIRST technology skill was learning to type.

I didn’t see it that way then, but it was clear that if I was going to do anything useful in journalism, I needed to be mindful of the growing annoyance of subeditors who were demonstrably tired of my crapaud-foot handwriting.

Typing, as it turned out, has become a core skill for anyone doing journalism in the digital era and my own decision to tackle the learning curve with driven industry turned out to be quite sensible.

I used an incredibly old Smith-Corona for my lessons, which consisted of banging away at the keys while referencing an equally old and tattered Pitman’s handbook.

I eventually retired that typewriter because the subeditors who had complained about my handwriting were now making fun of my typed copy, which punched holes clean through the paper with every “p”and “o.”

The new typewriter was a SilverReed, a “portable” in pastel blue a third of the size of its monster predecessor.

I still own that typewriter, though I haven’t lifted its neat, moulded plastic cover in more than a decade. In some ways, it was the writing tool that most sealed my commitment to the craft of writing and tossing it out just seemed like a sour mix of disrespect and ingratitude.

The IBM Selectric was the end of the physicality of typing, the calculated pressure of fingertips on a lever that brought the typebar, a hammer with an inverse of the character, into the inked ribbon before slamming into the paper.

You could, when using a typewriter, actually get tired of typing, of expending the energy required to push each character’s lever up and across the empty space above the keys and into the document with a distinctive slap.

The Selectric translated a keypress into an electronic command to a plastic ball covered with embossed characters that spun it into position, to hit a special plastic ribbon which transferred a crisp imprint of the character to the paper.

The machine bucked ever so gently as it did its work, and a fast typist would be rewarded with a rhythmic chatter as electronics spun the ball at dizzying speed.

I first used a computer keyboard in 1989. Since then, the experience of typing has become ever more ascetic. The spring-loaded keys of early keyboards have now been replaced by digital actuators as the tactile quality of typing slowly disappears.

There are things you forget about those old typewriters. The way your fingers could slip between the keys and get caught in the gaps between them. The unavoidable messiness of changing ribbons, which left red and black smudges everywhere. The challenge of neat correction. The force required to backspace or hit return to get to another line.

Compared to that, typing on a modern keyboard is like tapping absent-mindedly on little pads of dry chewing gum. Sometimes I feel like an Olympic athlete taking a jog around the neighbourhood park while writing.

I learned speed and accuracy on those old mechanical beasts. I copytype at 80 WPM when I get up to speed. I adjust to new keyboards quickly and barely think about them once my fingers have located the little indentations on the home keys.

Nobody needs to haul out an old typewriter seeking that grail of writing anymore than they need a film camera to take photos, but in the glow of retrospect, I treasure the experience.

The blur of ribbon smears, spilled whiteout and jammed keys recedes now into a rosy glow of fond remembrance.

Mark Lyndersay is the editor of technewstt.com. An expanded version of this column can be found there


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