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The clickety-clack of a typewriter

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The Beast

Having learned keyboarding on a typewriter, the transition from a Royal Futura 400 to a Macintosh Plus was unsettling. Immediately, I missed the clickety-clack of the typewriter, that distinctive “music” springing from the dance of nine fingers. I even installed a program on my computer to simulate the old typer. But that didn’t last long. The effect simply wasn’t the same. For one, I missed the swing of the typebars. For another, I missed the sudden “snap” of the keys striking the paper. The software-driven “clickety clack” that my Mac produced was frankly anemic. I quickly uninstalled the program.

I’ve read that when “silent” or “noiseless” typewriters were introduced, people sometimes struck the keys more forcefully to produce a louder key strike. Researchers soon discovered that people wanted the tactile response of the old manuals. Ultimately, future typewriters did operate more silently — my 1970s Royal Sprite is significantly softer than my 1941 Royal KMM (what a beast, what a wonderful beast) — but did at least retain the feel of a typewriter.

A more radical shift in typing, of course, is the touch screen, offering no tactile response (except that you are in vibrate mode). Ones finger continually meets an unyielding surface as one types ones thoughts. I don’t know that I’ve ever done any meaningful writing on a touch screen.

This draws me to another observation. When I switched from the Mac Plus to a Windows-based machine, I experienced yet another uncomfortable shift in the typing experience. I missed the “klunkety-klunk” of the old Apple keyboard. If you ever owned a Mac Plus, or typed on one, you know what I’m talking about. That keyboard made a bold sound, and it was not so nearly flat as a typical keyboard; it had greater spring action. This keyboard resonated.

But how important is the tactile response of a keyboard? How essential is the clickety-clack of a manual typer? I’m not entirely certain in my own mind. Consider that, before one learns to type, one writes everything — silently — by hand. So what does the tactile response of a typewriter really add to the experience of writing? I believe it adds something, but what is that something?

© 2013, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Richard P March 23, 2013, 9:27 am

    Ah, I love the feel of my KMM.

    In my opinion, the tactile experience is essential to engaging in the typing activity. The problem with a touch screen is that all the feedback is visual; you feel your finger muscles, of course, but there is no tactile feedback to confirm that you’re hitting the right keys, so touch typing is impossible.

    Handwriting is such a different experience; you’re actually forming the shapes of the letters, and each shape is associated with muscle movements.

    I read in the Wall St. Journal recently that there are various schemes to learn your patterns of typing so that you don’t have to hit particular spots on the screen; you just have to make gestures and the software will take over from there, using predictive algorithms. In a way, this must make typing more like handwriting. But I don’t think I’d like it, if only for the fact that the computer would be “getting inside my mind” too much.

    • Mark Adams March 24, 2013, 10:50 pm

      For me, a typewriter makes a kind of music that cannot be easily replicated. Writing by hand, then, must be a kind of dance. Dragging a finger across a screen is like, well, dragging a finger across a screen. It’s not very organic. But, then again, perhaps I’m old fashioned.

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