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NICKY MARR: Typewriters retain a power and beauty

By Nicky Marr

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Corona 3 – the portable typewriter of choice for WWII war correspondents.
Corona 3 – the portable typewriter of choice for WWII war correspondents.

When I was eight, I got a typewriter for my birthday. It was bright orange and was the very best kind of birthday present; a complete surprise, and one I hadn’t even known I wanted, until it was mine. It came with a selection of coloured ink ribbons and a promising ream of crisp, white paper.

My birthday thank you letters took at least four times longer to write than usual because I insisted on tackling them with my new Qwerty keyboard. That ream of paper took a bashing; I refused to allow any mistakes to make it into envelopes.

I never did learn to type properly; I was thrown out of secretarial studies class for talking.

But sitting in front of those typewriter keys made me feel like an eight-year-old writer, determined to dream up the next Nancy Drew.

I’d forgotten all about that typewriter until I saw the exact same model in a new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland.

In a small room on the third floor, the museum has brought together its exceptional collection of these revolutionary machines, and their story charts the history of typed communication over the past 140 years.

From the first American models of the 1870s, to the electronic keyboards of the 1990s, these machines – often beautiful, sometimes unrecognisable, but mostly built to last, changed the lives of lawyers, journalists, writers and, crucially, women, as the 1900s came and went.

Nicky Marr - coach/writer/broadcaster...Picture: Callum Mackay..
Nicky Marr - coach/writer/broadcaster...Picture: Callum Mackay..

Between 1881 and 1911, the number of women working in offices jumped from 1455 to 29,067. Typing jobs offered women better pay and safer working conditions than other work that was available to them.

As they gained knowledge through the sentences they typed, some became legal and medical assistants, translators and office managers; promoted roles that were previously the reserve of men.

Quicker than hand-writing and easier to duplicate, typed campaign documents in support of women’s suffrage allowed more women to be reached and recruited to the cause.

Portable Corona 3s were used by Allied troops in World War I, and reporters in WWII had Remington models parachuted in to the front line so they could type copy from the trenches.

The Glasgow-built Olivetti Lettera 22 won awards for its sleek design, and was favoured by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Sylvia Plath.

Tom Hanks probably has one in his collection of over 120; in his 2017 volume of short stories, each features a typewriter, some as a bit part, others in a starring role. Of course, he wrote that book on his typewriters. His wife edited his pages in blue ink.

The Typewriter Revolution isn’t an earth-shattering exhibition, but it’s wonderfully pleasing and gently thought-provoking.

An advert for the exhibition, which runs in Edinburgh’s Chambers Street museum till next spring.
An advert for the exhibition, which runs in Edinburgh’s Chambers Street museum till next spring.

But the final word is that they’re on their way back. In the 1980s the arrival of the CD heralded the end of vinyl… look what’s happening there. Sales of vintage typewriters are on the increase. So, check your loft.

You could be part of the new wave in slow communication.

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