Different generations of reporters and editors used different generations of typewriters. Into the 1960s, the standard was the old upright Underwoods, which had been around for decades. They had little round keys rimmed with metal.


Old-timers at the The Washington Post like Harold Kneeland (Outlook editor) and Edward T. Folliard (White House reporter) stuck with them, and some took them home when they retired and the machines were being replaced. You could touch-type on them, but the old-timers tended to use the first one or two fingers of each hand. It wasn’t really hunt and peck, because they pretty much knew where the keys were and could type amazingly fast, glancing down now and then, but they didn’t use their pinkies or ring fingers.

Royal typewriters like these came into use in the 1960s:

Royal typewriter


Both designs had QWERTY keyboards resembling the one on your computer. Each time you struck a key, a bar came up and hit a ribbon that would jump up and down in front of the paper you were typing on. The shift key actually shifted where the key struck; a typical key would have both the capital and lower case letter. If you got out of rhythm and hit two keys at once, they would jam together and you would have to pause to pull them apart. Above the keys and to each side were two spools on which the ribbon would automatically wind back and forth. When it got too worn out you would replace it. If you were typing a document whose appearance was important and made a mistake, you would reach into the little space where the ribbon jumped up and down, either to erase the typo with with a gritty hard rubber eraser or to daub in some whiteout and wait for it to dry until you could resume typing. If you were writing a story, though, you would just backspace, xxx out the error, and go on typing.

IBM Selectrics were the next stage of typewriters, and the worst. Unlike back when the old-timers could cling to their Underwoods to the bitter end, we had to give up our Royals and switch to these monstrosities for technological reasons. We would type stories on four-ply or even six-ply no-carbon-required paper, instead of using carbons, and if I recall correctly the originals were being scanned somewhere, somehow, for some reason. It is a painful memory I evidently have been trying to suppress because of how maddeningly the Selectrics behaved. Instead of hammering at the keys like a real newspaperman you had to touch the keys very delicately or they would goooooooooooo crazzzzzzzzzzzzzyyyyyy and repeat letters ad infinitum. There was a whole bank of typists sequestered behind a glass wall who were hired expressly to operate the Selectrics. (To do what? Take dictation? Retype stuff that came in on real paper? Another almost successfully repressed memory.)

After the Selectrics, it was a blessing when computers were introduced, because for the first time you could do the following:
1. Delete your mistakes or infelicitously worded phrasing instead of tearing out that sheet of paper, throwing it away and starting that page all over again
2. Cut and paste missplaced material electronically instead of literally cutting and pasting or throwing the paper away and starting that page all over again
3. Not sit there and curse while your Selectric went madddddddddddddd — then throwing the paper away and starting all over again

I was at the Toronto Star in the late 1970s when the early waves of computerization came, and to his credit the publisher, Beland Honderich, decided to send some of the more experienced hands to newspapers farther along in the process to see how they were doing it and to report back. I was teamed with Keith Branscombe, the graphics designer, and assigned to visit Newsday and one of the Richmond (VA) dailies. I think the latter was farther along in converting from hot type to cold type, but Newsday was more memorable because management there had hit upon exactly the right psychological approach for introducing new technology. Instead of foisting newfangled equipment on surly and resentful reporters and editors, they simply wheeled up computer terminals beside each. These were hooked into a complete system–except that it didn’t produce any output. Reporters could take notes on the terminals, set up files of sources, etc., but then they would have to turn around and retype (or as we say today, rekeyboard) everything on their Royals or Selectrics or whatever. Pretty soon the staff was agitating for the newfangled system to be hooked up. When it was they could turn their backs on their typewriters forever.

Copyright 2010, J.V. Reistrup