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Recalling the artful pleasures of the mechanical typewriter.

One writer's paean to the platen

By John H. Kennedy

Occasionally, a distinctive racket shatters the peace and quiet in my ivory tower. Oddly, I relish it.

Down a hallway and around a corner from my faculty office at Rosemont College comes a burst of rhythmic taps and snaps and a periodic ring.

The outburst puzzles new students, for the sounds are virtually unrecognizable to them. Then they turn that corner and see my colleague, Timothy O'Hara, an associate professor of English, laboring away on his manual typewriter.

He is among the last of the faculty here whose preferred instrument of communication is a Smith-Corona, not a Dell or a Mac. (One other faculty member has no computer in his office, and no typewriter either. My guess is he writes longhand.)

It is graduation season, when the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" trigger immense pride (and some amount of relief) from parents, but O'Hara's typewriter is what I strain to hear. Because, like the warble of a rare songbird, the clatter of his typewriter will go silent soon, at least for the summer and perhaps beyond.

He is about to take a sabbatical that is a prologue to his retirement from full-time teaching. And that means a new batch of students will enter in the fall, greeted by a deathly silence on the third floor of Lawrence Hall.

What's the big deal? Surely typewriters are noisy, messy, unwieldy relics of the Industrial Age?


The rattle of O'Hara's machine (a Smith-Corona Secretarial 76, to be precise) not only evokes my early days as a newspaper reporter, when a roomful of manual typewriters created a din that could rival any garment factory's. The sound reminds me of the portable Smith-Corona that I used in high school, when I first learned "touch typing." The technique didn't take at first; I preferred to enlist one of my friends to type my papers, page by page, as I sat alongside writing on a legal pad.

By the time I entered the working world, I sat down in front of a succession of machines, mostly manual, until the early '80s. When the migration to personal computers began, I joined the stampede.

Yet I was never able to fully shake the feeling that computer keystrokes and their images on a screen were cheating, and produced the sloppy thinking of a "vomit draft." (Rewriting and editing were dramatically simplified, though, so quickly converting drivel into something comprehensible became one of the overlooked marvels of the computer age.) Somehow there wasn't enough suffering here for the craft.

A typewriter forced you to type slower, and think first before you wrote. (If not, your copy required lots of Wite-Out or lots of these: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. If the sentence was hopeless, you ripped the paper from the carriage and started over.)

The tactile process of banging on letter keys to produce ink-laden impressions on paper seemed a more pedestrian version of a musician pounding on a piano. Granted, a Smith-Corona, Royal, Olivetti, Underwood, Remington or Olympia is not a Steinway. Their sounds could never be as lovely, but in my view their product surpassed "Chopsticks" and "Heart and Soul."

I have accepted the fact that there's no turning back for me. Even in the O'Hara household, there's talk of buying a computer. "It's in the offing," he lamented the other day.

But his Smith-Corona will remain in his office, where it's been for about 25 years. The word is, he may teach a course or two next spring.

And then the music will resume.