Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.



This is a another working backwards blog. I want to do one about Space Exploration (Yes, I do) but it seemed sensible to do Computers first – and I couldn’t do Computers without a look at typewriters. You may have guessed from the title. It was only when I started to think about this that I realised that many younger readers will have no idea how a typewriter worked – you may just be imagining a computer keyboard, which is not quite the same thing! This a typewriter: RoyalQuietDeluxe Typewriters Apart from writing (with pens) and printing (as described in [11] Newspapers) the only way of producing anything readable, before the computer age, was the typewriter. Businesses and organisations up and down the country relied on thousands of typists, using their skill to manipulate information and produce letters – and lots more. All typists were women and a large proportion of working women were typists, shorthand typists or secretaries. See [20] Sex Discrimination. Fundamentally, the typewriter was a complex mechanical device, having some similarities with the typesetting process, which printed newspapers and books. Every individual letter or symbol was produced by hitting an inked ribbon hard enough to transfer some of that ink to a piece of paper. Keys2 One of a series of hammers would move in an arc. The complexities of the mechanism meant that each hammer was a slightly different shape, with its head at just the right angle to make a vertically aligned letter. It may sound easy but accurate and fast typing was a skill, which took a lot of learning and a lot of practice. A certain amount of force was needed. Professional typists (like professional pianists) did it without looking at the keys, in a smooth rhythm – touch typing. If were too fast and you kit two keys nearly at the same time, the hammers would meet on the way and jam together. Ribbons The mechanical action of the typewriter did more than just hitting the letter on to the page. It moved the carriage on by the (fixed) width of a letter and it also moved on the ribbon. The ribbon thus unwound itself from one spool and wound itself on to the other one. At the end of the ribbon there was a mechanism to reverse it and re-use it. At the end of a line, you had to move the paper up one line. m_type What could you type? I did try to show you but WordPress won’t let me do this. If you have a PC or laptop, try writing something with Courier font. It’s not like other fonts and it’s very near to an old typewriter font. Every letter has the same width, which makes it look peculiar. So the letters in: ‘iiiiii’ are spaced out to take the same amount of space as: ‘wmwmwm.’ This means that you cannot have lines of text adjusted to align at both ends. No surprise there; you could not align to the right or centre either. (Even the print methods for newspapers used different widths. As well as ‘font’ size, there were measures for ‘em space’ and ‘en space’, using the width of an ‘m’ or ‘n’. Newspapers, as now, generally aligned at both ends.) Typewriters always had the familiar QWERTY layout that you see on modern keyboards. It was designed this way to slow down typing to avoid keys jamming together! The keys, in four rows, were generally as follows:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 – =

Q W E R T Y U I O P [ ]

A S D F G H J K L ; ’

Z X C V B N M , . /

Below this was the space bar at the bottom, operated by either thumb. Letters could print upper or lower case and the numbers on the top line had a few special characters as their ‘upper-case’ versions, typically:-   ! ” £ % & * ( ) _ . [‘Shift’, what we now often call CAPS, meant physically lifting the part of the typewriter with all the keys so that the capital letter hit the area where the ribbon was. You would see a whole chunk of mechanism rise inside the machine.] Upper-case versions of the punctuation symbols [ ] ; ‘ and / gave you { } : @ and ? That was all. Keys1

Notice in this picture the letters t, v, f, r, c with their upper-case versions T, V, F, R, C and the number 5 with its upper-case £.

If you look at a keyboard layout you can trace the order t,v,5,f,r,c from right to left, by interleaving four rows (All appear in reverse.)

[As always, don’t take my definitions as gospel. There were variations, including dozens of variations for non-English use. Originally there were no keys for 0 or 1. Typists had to use the letter O for zero and a lower case letter L for one. Upper-case versions of the number line were not standard. US versions had $ instead of £. My old machine had a symbol for ½ somewhere. I am not sure about ¼ and ¾. But whatever your typewriter, the choice of special characters was very limited.] There were some tricks for a few extra characters. You could make a dollar sign with S and /.You could make a sharp sign # (what we now call hash) by using // and =. But many others were not available. (You could use an apostrophe with a fiddly process to make an acute accent.) There was the mechanism for SHIFT (now often called CAPS) but you did not need the keys for navigation (left, right, up and down) or BACKSPACE or DEL or CTRL or ALT or WINDOWS! (And none of the row of function keys on a laptop, which make up another complete row.) You didn’t even need an ON/ OFF switch! (Now, in a standard word-processing programme – or ‘app’ – you can easily do all sorts of symbols: accents like á, â, ã, and ä; Greek letters like γ, δ, λ, μ, and ξ; and Cyrillic (Russian) Щ, Э, Ю and Я. Then there are Arabic, Hebrew and Japanese characters; mathematical symbols and smiley faces, which WordPress will not do.) It goes without saying that a typewriter had only one font size – and you could not do ITALICS or BOLD or UNDERLINE or STRIKETHROUGH. (Tricks again. For Bold, go back and retype, or type heavily. For Underline, go back and do ______) Your only colour was the colour of the ribbon – black. Actually you could get a ribbon divided along its length into black and red, with a little switch on the typewriter. [Not surprisingly, you could not include JPG pictures in your document and you could not do hyperlinks. This blog would have looked very unexciting on a typewriter. And don’t say it’s unexciting now. I do my best to ľįƔƐȠ it up with formatting and pictures.] What about mistakes? If you typed the wrong letter, there was not much you could do apart from starting again. Typists learned not to make mistakes. You did have a few options. For one letter you might be able to go back and over-type the correct one more heavily. This might work of you wanted ‘p’ over a mistyped ‘o’ but it didn’t often work. Then there was Tipp-ex correction fluid. tippex You wound the paper out for accessibility, then carefully brushed over the error with a sort of liquid paper and waited for it to dry. It dried to a white surface over which you could type again. You would only use Tipp-ex for a few errors; they had to be very small errors; and you had to be able to correct them in the same space. In the early 70s, I used an old typewriter to submit assignments for the Open University. I was not an expert typist and each document would take many hours. If I made a mistake I started the page again. Copies There were three ways to produce more than a single copy of a document. The simplest was to use carbon paper but this would only produce one or two copies of the original. Carbon_paper (I suppose some readers will not know what a carbon copy is. You need a sheet of carbon paper – paper with a hard ink surface on one side only – the same size as the sheets of typing paper. You put two sheets of paper in the typewriter with carbon paper between them. Then, as the hammer strikes, the typewriter ribbon marks the top copy and the ‘carbon’ marks the under copy.) If you wanted more than three or four copies you could use a stencil machine, similar to those described in [15] Highlands School (1) Mimeograph_svg We used this method throughout the seventies when I worked in a government department. By typing on to a special stencil paper, you could produce dozens of copies from the stencil. This took some time and I suspect that this method was too expensive for general use. The third method, photocopying, did not become practical – or economically practical until the seventies or later. Photocopiers were large, complicated, expensive and rare. See: [45] How did we Manage Without … ? ETAOIN ETAOIN SHRDLU Before I ever looked at typing, I read a book about linguistics that used ‘Etaoin’ and ‘Shrdlu’ as dummy words. You may see these words sometimes. They come from the typesetting process used for printing, where letters were arranged in order of frequency. Most common in normal English is the letter ‘E’, then ‘T’, and so on. So ETAOIN SHRDLU were the printing equivalent of the typist’s Qwertyuiop Asdfghjkl. shorthand Typists and Shorthand Typists could copy a handwritten text but generally they typed from dictation. Doing this directly would be time consuming for the man doing the dictation if he had to wait for the typist to generate accurate and complete typing. So generally the typist also learned shorthand, a method of writing down information phonetically in a series of squiggles looking more like Arabic than English. (Apologies to anyone who can read Arabic. It’s probably completely different!) Typists would learn to do shorthand at speed from dictation and then type at speed in order to get more highly paid employment (usually not so well paid as the man doing the dictation!) While higher management may have had their own individual secretaries who also did typing, others had to share the talents of a typing pool, a number of typists who typed for a whole office. The overall process then started by a hand written draft to be submitted to the typing pool. The first draft would be done on typing masters and returned for checking. After some corrections and/ or retyping, and rechecking, the master went for printing. The time taken for this process was more likely to be measured in days than hours. It’s the way I saw things typed all through the seventies. (In the Civil Service, I only produced a typed document of a few pages every month or so, sharing the typing pool with dozens of other staff like me. It took several days to be produced. By the end of my working life I typed on a PC and printed copies myself in a matter of minutes.) Office Work Perhaps this is the place to look, briefly, at some other office work – work that was fundamental to the successful running of businesses and other organisations up and down the country. There was filing. Without computers and spreadsheets and databases, this might be on small filing cards, indexed and sorted by hand, or perhaps just filing documents, alphabetically or in some other logical order, in filing cabinets. It was time consuming, boring and prone to error. Finally, business telephones were all routed via the office switchboard – a manual device which needed the continuous presence of a switchboard operator, who may have simultaneously acted as the office receptionist (and probably also as a secretary and typist.) Most of the boring office jobs – typing, filing and switchboard – were generally for women.

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

9 thoughts on “[55] QWERTYUIOP

  1. Pingback: [63] Not so Grumpy | Remembrance of Things Past

  2. How about a post on Addressograph machines? A huge mechanical monster, encased in its own metal cage about the size of a single wardrobe, with a keyboard. It was for making metal plates with customers addresses on, which were then fixed into a stamp thing, and then you could use the individual metal plates to “print” out the required address without bothering typists.
    I made plates on such a machine in Cardiff in the 60s


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  6. Not quite correct to say all typists were women. I did shorthand and typing at school because it was part of a commercial course. We were a bit of a rarity though and there were only four boys and thirty six girls in my class. I did rather well by it although I was there to learn accountancy and worked in the city and then as a PA to a company secretary. I also used to type Banda masters for the spirit duplicators which had rather a nice smell. I was born in Ilford and grew up there, so many happy memories. Old habits die hard and I still use a typewriter which I find quicker especially if you just want to print an envelope.


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