LIANE HANSEN, host:
On a wall next to my desk is a picture I cut out of a magazine a long time ago. It shows the late journalist Hunter Thompson. He's standing in the snow and aiming his pistol at his IBM Selectric typewriter. I think it captures what many writers feel when they're creatively blocked: blame the machine.
Now, Thompson wasn't known eccentric, but his relationship with his typewriter is not unique. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, there was a wide spread belief that the typewriter was a spiritual medium.
That's just one of the tidbits contained in a book by Darren Wershler-Henry called "The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting." And he joins from the studios of the CBC in Toronto.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. DARREN WERSHLER-HENRY (Author, "The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting"): Thanks, Liane.
HANSEN: This was a doctoral dissertation for you. What attracted you to the subject of the typewriter and typewriting?
Mr. WERSHLER-HENRY: Well, in addition to the various other hats that I wear, I'm also a writer. I write poetry, and I write fiction. And thinking about the tools that we use as writers has always been part of what fascinates me about the process. When you start paying close attention to the ways that the words get onto the page from your brain, all kinds of interesting things start to happen. You start to realize that the tools that you used actually affect what you write and how you write it.
HANSEN: Before we get to typewriting, give us just a brief history of the typewriter. Was there eureka moment when the typewriter was invented?
Mr. WERSHLER-HENRY: Well, like so many other things, you know, we tend to assume that there's this kind of bright and shinning path to, you know, the completed typewriter as we all nostalgically imagined it. But it's really a very messy history that extends back over 200 years and, you know, probably 50 or 60 separate inventors at various times contributing the thing that comes closest to the kind of standard typewriter as the one that Christopher Latham Sholes invented in the late 1860s.
(Soundbite of typewriter)
HANSEN: How do you feel about the old clackity-clack of the typewriter? That sound.
Mr. WERSHLER-HENRY: One of the reasons that I started working on this book in the first place was when I was first entertaining the idea and I would say to people I'm thinking about writing a book about typewriters, they invariably kind of lit up. And nine times out of ten people would say, oh, I love typewriters. I have this old typewriter in my basement. And I realized that cultural we have this kind of incredible nostalgia for old typewriters.
And I think it's partly because that cliched image of the journalist, sitting there with his sleeves rolled up under the bare bulb and, you know, the bottle of whiskey up on the desk, hammering away on the typewriter long into the night is - that's our image of this kind of moment when writing really meant something. And the passage of time has created a kind of sense of longing for maybe a moment when things were simpler, when you didn't have to worry about, you know, talking to your Internet service provider, or making sure you didn't have viruses, or trying to untangled your new software and keep all your versions up-to-date. We didn't have to worry about those kinds of things with typewriters. But typewriting had it's own problems.
(Soundbite of typewriter)
HANSEN: Is there an esthetic to be appreciated with that kind of wore(ph) and click of that IBM Selectric?
Mr. WERSHLER-HENRY: Well, the sound of typewriters, I think, is esthetically interesting and there are dozens and dozens of composers who have worked with the typewriter musically. Probably the most famous one is Leroy Anderson's composition "The Typewriter."
HANSEN: (Singing) Tan, tan, tan.
Mr. WERSHLER-HENRY: Yeah.
HANSEN: Tan, tan.
(Soundbite of song, "The Typewriter")
Mr. WERSHLER-HENRY: But my favorite piece of typewriting music is a - it's a very, very early Janis Joplin piece. She sits down to play "Trouble in Mind," the old blues song on her acoustic guitar and in the background somebody sits down at a typewriter and starts to accompany her.
(Soundbite of song, "Trouble in Mind")
Ms. JANIS JOPLIN (Singer): (Singing) Trouble in mind, I'm blue, but now I won't be blue always. 'Cause that sun is gonna shine in my back door someday.
Mr. WERSHLER-HENRY: People are interested in blues. People are interested in old machines and they, you know, they have tremendous things in their favor, both of them. But it's also partly a reconstruction or something. And there's nothing with that but it's worth thinking about, the fact that we're engaged in as a kind of nostalgia.
HANSEN: The QWERTY keyboard on the typewriter, the top line, Q-W-E-R-T-Y blah, why are the letters arranged that way?
Mr. WERSHLER-HENRY: There are a whole variety of stories about that and I supposed we'll never really know. The closest that anybody has come to try to figure out why Sholes set the keyboard the way that he did was that he had a relative who worked for a school ward(ph). Sholes asked him for a document detailing which letter pairs were most frequent in English language and he attempted to build a keyboard that would keep those common letter pairs from being struck in such a way that the keys would actually jam. So presumably he moved them farther apart. But there are all kinds of sort of weird conspiratorial theories, one of them…
HANSEN: What would be one of those? Yeah.
Mr. WERSHLER-HENRY: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the - all of the letters in the word typewriter are on that top, top row keys for example. So if you didn't know how to type and you were a typewriter salesman, presumably you could hammer out the word typewriter very, very quickly.
HANSEN: Is it true that a silent typewriter once went on the market in the 1940s and nobody wanted it?
Mr. WERSHLER-HENRY: Oh, yeah, the Remington Noiseless typewriter. It's a really kind of interesting moment. This kind of new technology that Remington assumed would be a real boon to typewriter users and ended up not being the case at all. The keys produced this kind of unsatisfying dull thud, not at all that sort of clatter of keys that we hear every time we hear a news bulletin and about to start.
By the point that that typewriter was manufactured, fleet reporters were so used to the sound of keys hitting the platen of their machine that they wouldn't type if they couldn't hear them. And pretty much all writers who have talked about the typewriter, up to and including Henry James, have said, is that they need that kind of audio feedback of listening to the machine in order to actually compose successfully.
HANSEN: Elaborate a little on the fact that Henry James couldn't writer without the sound of the machine. I mean, what did the sound contribute to that relationship between the writer - the typist and the machine - the typewriter?
Mr. WERSHLER-HENRY: Well, James was one of the most fascinating cases in the history of typing and like most writers at the turn of the century, he was actually dictating to a secretary who was sitting there typing for him. It got to the point where, when he was dying, he called for the typewriter to be worked at his bedside. And he actually couldn't writer until he heard the typewriter operating beforehand. It was basically - it had become the trigger that enabled him to writer instead of a kind of side effect of the writing itself.
HANSEN: Was it William Burroughs that posited that perhaps God was a typewriter and begin writing out the stories of our lives?
Mr. WERSHLER-HENRY: Yeah. There's - Burroughs talks about this thing that he calls the soft typewriter and it comes up over and over again in his writing. And the metaphor is that we're like these sort of fleshy sheets that get cranked through the cosmic typewriter and our existence gets typed down on to them.
HANSEN: Do you use a typewriter?
Mr. WERSHLER-HENRY: I am a horrible typist. I'm a hunt-and-peck typist. And I'm fairly fast because I've been doing it for a long time and I've been pretty much doing nothing but writing for my entire adult life but I've always been a computer guy.
HANSEN: Darren Wershler-Henry is the author of "The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting," published by Cornell University Press. He joined us from the CBC studios in Toronto.
Thanks so much.
Mr. WERSHLER-HENRY: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
HANSEN: If you would like to hear some more clever musical applications of the typewriter, visit our Web site, npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
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