Typewriters, Stick Shifts, and Newspapers

Typewriters were as significant in the lives of my generation as computers and cell phones are today. For the beginning of the story about typewriters, see Me And The Blog.

Thanks to my cousin, Barbara, for her comment:

“Too funny! I guess we took our spanking new typewriters for granted. My father used his company discount to purchase them. They became a standard Christmas gift. Like you, though, I learned to type at school on an old standard model. Once that year was over, I swore I would never use one again!!! I did, however, learn to drive a standard shift car. I was always happy I did as I could drive any model car out there.”

Gear shift stick of my Mazda Protege SE 1999.

Stick shift on the floor of a 1999 Mazda Protege. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hurray! In some ways, my siblings and cousins are more versatile, more adaptable, than the smarty-pants younger generation. We can drive a stick shift!

How many 25-y-o computer geniuses can do that? Huh? I double dare computer geeks to get into a car with a manual transmission and  drive it around the block. (Please do not try this at home if small children live in the neighborhood.) I believe a 25-y-o could probably figure out how to use a rotary phone, if locked in a room with one for 24 hours.

Barbara’s comment prompted another memory about the IBM typewriter.  (Most of the words in bold type are no longer in common use in the English language. You’ll only need to know those words if you’re taking a class in Ancient History.)

IBM Selectric typeball

IBM Selectric typeball (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I went to work at Congressional Information Service, Inc., in 1977, we had excellent modern IBMs. Then we  upgraded to the ultimate, the IBM Selectric.

And then (drumroll please), the entire office computerized! They dragged me kicking and screaming away from my typewriter and FORCED me to type on a computer. We used a word processing program called Wordstar!  You can forget about Wordstar. It will not be on the test. You will never hear about Wordstar again!

Typebars in a 1920s typewriter

Typebars in a 1920s typewriter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before long, I learned to live with word processing, but that was not the final act. Eventually, I was an unwilling but nonetheless culpable participant in the conversion ruination of two perfectly good newspapers to “pagination.”

(Backstory:  Before computers, reporters typed news stories on  strips of newsprint. copyboy  fetched the story, “take” by “take,” and delivered it to an editor, who scratched it up without mercy and added a headline. The editor rolled the “take” up and tossed it into a square duct, whence it fell by gravity — talk about primitive technology — to the composing room to be set in “hot type” by printers.  Now you know why the composing room was always at least one floor below the newsroom. Some newspapers also used “pneumatic tubes.”  Pneumatic tubes will not be on the test.

With the advent of word processing, stories were typed and edited on computer, but still sent to printers in the composing room to be set in “cold type” and “pasted up” to make a page.)

With pagination, the entire newspaper page was built in the newsroom by editors or page designers using a computer program such as Quark. I supervised conversion of the copy desk at one small newspaper to pagination using Quark; and was a bit player in conversion of a larger newspaper to pagination using Harris software.

Pagination eliminated the composing room, the printing trade, and many jobs. If you want to know what happened to the American middle class, here is a perfect example. A large part of the middle class was made up of union printers. Editors soon met the same fate. Most so-called newspapers don’t have editors any longer. They have “content managers.”

That about covers the history of the world from typewriters to pagination, and from manual transmission to hybrid cars.

In an emergency, my generation will always be able to drive a stick shift or dial a rotary phone. Of course, when the real emergency comes, I wonder how many of us will remember how to grow our own food? Or cook? Or make a fire? I will be among the first to starve or freeze.

Let’s not think about that anymore. Instead, I’m going to think about acquiring a standard typewriter and a Volkswagen Microbus, and driving off into the sunrise.

— John Hayden