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Wednesday, 21 November 2012

1714 Typewriter Model? British Press on Last British Typewriter

(The Daily Telegraph's motto is: Was, is, and will be)
When I worked on Fleet Street 110 years ago, The Telegraph was the newspaper of record, more so than The Times. The Telegraph took an admirable approach to reporting, which was, "Our readers are intelligent, we mustn't stoop down to them. They know exactly what we're on about, we don't need to explain anything."
Not so any more, it seems.
Overnight The Telegraph ran a View piece about the last typewriter made in Britain, headed "Last writes".
"It's worth remembering," The Telegraph wrote, "that without typewriters we wouldn't have computers
The View said:
"In 1714 a waterworks engineer named Henry Mill submitted a patent for a 'machine for transcribing letters', and the typewriter was almost born. It took another 150 years before a machine that we would recognise as a typewriter finally appeared, manufactured and marketed by the sewing machine department of the Remington small arms company. [Actually it was 160 years, but who's quibbling over 10 years?]
"It is hard to believe, but they are still being built – though not, any longer, in this country. Britain’s last typewriter production line, run by Brother in Wrexham, has delivered up its last model, an electric portable. It has been sent to the Science Museum in London to bookend – with a model of Mill’s original device – its 200-strong typewriter collection, spanning almost three centuries. Nowadays they may seem as quaint as sedan chairs or gas lamps, but without them we would not have computers – a salutary thought."
The Telegraph of old would have known better. THERE IS NO MILL MODEL. All there is is a patent, no drawing, no model. If there was a model, it truly would be the Holy Grail of typewriters!
Goodness knows what the last British-made Brother electric portable will bookend, but it won't be anything designed by Henry Mill, that's for sure.
The image which accompanied The Telegraph's View. 
The caption reads: "Memories from the typing pool: Britain’s last typewriter production line has now delivered up its last model."
But if that was bad enough in terms of accuracy - or lack thereof - some of the comments on The (typewriter) View were downright ludicrous. Where has this ridiculous idea come from, all of a sudden, that QWERTY was designed to slow down typists? I've been asked about it myself. Who is responsible for putting this nonsense out there?
The first comment on The View. from a Rob FitzWilliam, is excellent, but the ones which appeared before that are in the main puerile.
"Whatever happened to my last typewriter, a Brother  (but not an electric one)?" wrote FitzWilliam. "How could I have (perhaps), simply ditched it?
"As a young man I wrote so many letters to the newspapers on that typewriter (and I had some not entirely immodest success with their publication, including of course in that cynosure of newspapers of my youth, The Times.) 
"To use a typewriter, as we all remember, was to engage in a discipline of the mind.  Correction and erasion [sic] were difficult and time-consuming. 
"I have grown lazy using this PC keyboard:  it is too easy to erase, delete, correct, and indeed to remove and re-arrange entire sentences and paragraphs.
"Clackety-clackety-clack!  How I must have annoyed my neighbours in the early hours, in the bedsit above me, in London so many decades ago!   I wrote not only letters to the newspapers, but articles also, and essays, research notes, and three novels, on that typewriter.
"Perhaps because I am so much older now, and tired, or because it is so easy now, but it isn't as much fun using this keyboard, as it was to use my typewriter.
"I hear that one little girl of six-years-old has asked for a typewriter from Father Christmas. Bless her, and good luck to her. 
"Let youngsters also learn to write letters, using a fountain pen, and our civilisation might, after all, survive this rule of the Yahoos."
"Shouldn't Y come after T, not Z?"
Earlier comments:
"It's worth remembering that without typewriters we wouldn't have computers. It's also worth remembering that the world's first programmable electronic computer didn't have a keyboard, it was programmed by flipping switches and swapping plugs like a telephone exchange, input was via punched paper tape, so I'd have to conclude that you're typing nonsense."
"What we would not have today without the typewriter is the QWERTY keyboard and variants of it in other cultures - which it is said, emerged to slow down keystrokes on the part of skilled touch-typists which were in fact too high a rate for the machines and were jamming them. We could just as easily have had (as probably was the case) a keyboard ranking the letters in alphabetical order when they decided to make a machine."
"I think you will find one of the early input/output devices for the computer was the teleprinter not the typewriter."
"But without them we would not have computers. That's like saying that without a gearstick we wouldn't have cars."
"The early typewriters were mechanically unreliable and typists using the early keyboards arranged in alphabetical order could type too fast and jam them. Thus was born the Qwerty keyboard, not because it was a superior layout but to slow them down."
"And without the Jews we wouldn't have the Bible, the book that enabled Civilisation to Flourish."
"That's right, and without Lot's wife the Roman army would not have been paid."
"Lucky it was salt and not euros."
* I watched with great interest the BBC TV report on Rob Bowker's blog Typewriter Heaven, and I can't that was much better. What has become of the once high-standard of British journalism?


Rob Bowker said...

What I found slightly annoying about the coverage was the headline, Last UK Typewriter. In a land where charcoal burning is enjoying a renaissance and in a time when you can still get parts for a 1950's Morris Minor 1000, who is to say it was the 'last' typewriter?

Robert Messenger said...

Hi Rob. Agreed. In one way I was pleasantly surprised to find Britain had still been making "typewriters" over all these years. But they're electronic machines, I take it from the BBC footage you posted. A sort of real typewriter-word processor crossover? Possibly the last "real" typewriters made in the UK were the SCMs in West Brom.

Robert Messenger said...

By the way, I haven't been in touch for a while, but were you aware that Facit you put me on to turned out to be a real little treasure - once it had been fixed up by my eldest son's girlfriend's best friend's father?

Rob Bowker said...

Hi Robert, yes, I read the Facit turned out OK, brilliant outcome. And I have one of those SCMs. An Empire Corona. It is a dog. I expect the last UK Brother could at least type well.

Robert Messenger said...

It's a bit sneaky of The Guardian to feature a photo of a Brother typebar portable typewriter - not quite the same thing.

Richard P said...

I too had been unaware that any typewriters were still being manufactured in the UK.

That legend about QWERTY being designed to "slow the typist down" has been around forever and may never die.