Reports of the typewriter’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Newspapers all over the world might run headlines of their extinction (“Last Typewriter Factory Left in the World Closes Its Doors!”), but hey: newspaper editors love stories about extinction, as long as they’re not about newspapers. Even now, small office supply companies quietly manufacture typewriters, and boutique businesses now devote themselves to restoring the old beasts like prized antiques. As recently as 2009, the New York City Police Department spent close to $1 million on typewriters (though this is more evidence of gross inefficiency, probably), and “type-ins”—special evenings where people gather to tap out hand-typed letters—are becoming big amongst hipsters.
Using typewriters remind us of an era where gentlemen still remembered how to write: in full words, and not just emoticons and shortcuts. With a typewriter, there is no room for CTRL+X or CTRL+V, and less chance to regret what you wrote. Every word, every sentence and every paragraph has to be considered, typed slowly and in logical, sequential order. No room for typos. As Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert A. Caro once said: “One reason I type is it simply makes me feel closer to my words. It’s like being a cabinetmaker. It’s like laying down the planks. This is the way it’s supposed to feel.” Here are some other gentlemen of letters, fond of the hand-typed manuscript.
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973)
Notable works: The Hobbit; The Lord of the Rings
Models: Tolkien’s instrument of choice was the Hammond: a huge, heavy son-of-a-bitch and not at all portable. One benefit: it had interchangable fonts, including italics. Later in life, Tolkien would use portable machines on the advice of his colleagues and secretary.
Love/Hate? Tolkien was a prolific letter-writer, but lived in an age where typing letters to people was sometimes seen as a social faux pas. However, Tolkien suffered from rheumatism in his right arm and would apologise for not handwriting in his correspondence. “I usually type,” he wrote in one letter, “since my ‘hand’ tends to start fair and rapidly fall into picturesque inscrutability.”
Trivia: Tolkien often wrote his encyclopaedic notes about Middle Earth with pen, in longhand, before switching over to the typewriter. He used a typewriter almost solely for The Hobbit, and typed the entire manuscript of The Lord of the Rings twice on his bed in an attic. In a 1964 letter, he wrote to a friend: “I like typewriters; and my dream is of suddenly finding myself rich enough to have an electric typewriter built to my specifications, to type the Fëanorian script.” (For non-Tolkien aficionados, Fëanorian script is written Elvish. What a loveable nerd.)
Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961)
Notable works: The Old Man and the Sea; A Farewell to Arms
Models: It was said that Hemingway was as promiscuous with his typewriters as he was with women. Over his lifetime, Hemingway used a wide range of typewriters: Royal QDL portables; an Underwood Noiseless Portable; Coronas No. 3 and 4; and a Halda Portable.
Love/Hate? Like a lot of writers, Hemingway had a love/hate relationship with the tool of his trade. “There is nothing to writing,” he was once reported to say. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Trivia: In 1921, Hemingway’s future wife Hadley gave him a Corona No. 3. Hemingway immortalised both Hadley and the Corona in a poem called Mitrailliatrice: “The mills of the gods grind slowly / But this mill / Chatters in mechanical staccato. / Ugly short infantry of the mind, / Advancing over difficult terrain, / Make this Corona / Their mitrailleuse.” (Mitrailleuse is a French word, referring to any automatic weapon.) Hemingway often wrote on his typewriters standing up, and kept a typewriter or two in his homes between Florida, Key West, Idaho and Cuba.
John Steinbeck (1902–1968)
Notable works: Of Mice and Men; The Grapes of Wrath; East of Eden; Cannery Row
Model: Before the 1930s, portable typewriters didn’t widely exist, and writers like Steinbeck yearned for something that would be light, and easy to transport and lug around. Upon its 1940s release, the Swiss-designed, ultra lightweight Hermes Baby typewriter became an immediate favourite of Steinbeck’s, and was also adopted by Hemingway.
Love/Hate? In 1948, Steinbeck had already won the Pulitzer Prize and was working on East of Eden. A young reporter who visited him noted what lay on Steinbeck’s desk: cigarettes; a sea-shell ashtray; a cigarette lighter; unopened letters; a pencil; a fountain pen; and Steinbeck’s spiral notebook. Steinbeck’s typewriter didn’t take centre stage on his desk: it was the very last tool Steinbeck pulled out in the writing process. Instead, Steinbeck said that composed everything using a fountain pen first, and then typed and edited his manuscripts for his publishers only later.
Trivia: Even now, the authentic “Steinbeck Typewriter” can be found at the Martha Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies in San Jose University.
George Orwell (1903–1950)
Notable works: Animal Farm; Nineteen Eighty-Four
Models: A prolific journalist, essayist, critic and—of course—dystopian novelist, Orwell’s weapon of choice was a 1930s Remington Home Portable model. Amongst typewriter aficionados, they’re well known for their black compact bodies and trademark gold branding. It’s also the typewriter on which he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Love/Hate? Anyone who encountered Orwell always took away two details about him: the pungent smell of his hand-rolled cigarettes, and the constant clicking of his typewriter that could be heard night and day. Disciplined and dedicated, Orwell also typed on his Remington to the point of exhaustion. After filing Nineteen Eighty-Four to his publishers, Orwell collapsed and wasn’t able to get up, let alone write or type. After a brief recovery, he fell ill again and was admitted into a tuberculosis sanatorium near London. He took his typewriter with him.
Trivia: Even when Orwell was deathly ill with tuberculosis—which would eventually kill him—a junior doctor who administered Orwell’s medication remembered the noise of Orwell’s typewriter in the clinics, gently but constantly tapping right into the evening.
Ian Fleming (1908–1964)
Notable works: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; the James Bond novels
Models: A former Naval Intelligence Officer, Fleming said he wrote the first James Bond novel Casino Royale to simply take his mind off his upcoming wedding. As he would put it later, the novel was written “as a counterirritant or antibody to my hysterical alarm at getting married at the age of 43”. After Casino Royale became a smash hit and his old Imperial typewriter conked out, Fleming rewarded himself by ordering a custom-made Royal QDL (Quiet De Luxe) typewriter from New York, plated in gold.
Love/Hate? Fleming only used his famous golden typewriter to punch out one James Bond book: Live and Let Die. The rest of the time, he used unremarkable portable typewriters that he carried back and forth between England and Jamaica. Fleming would be sometimes mocked for the excess of the gold typewriter’s excess, but having been born into a poor background, it was a source of pride for him.
Trivia: After Fleming’s death, UK auction house Christie’s sold off Fleming’s typewriter for the record price of £56,250 (equivalent to US$89,229 at the time). It made the Guinness World Book of Records for being the World’s Most Valuable Typewriter.
Jack Kerouac (1922–1969)
Notable works: On the Road
Models: A pioneer of the Beat generation, Kerouac could apparently type a whip-speed 120 words per minute and needed a typewriter that could keep up with the pace. He usually swore by sturdy Underwood Portables, but his last typewriter—used from 1966 until he died, coughing up blood from an alcoholism-induced haemorrhage—was a Hermes 3000.
Love/Hate? Kerouac loved the typewriter for its speed but hated having to constantly reload new sheets of paper. Instead, he’d manually tape pages together to form giant uninterrupted scrolls, emulating how old American newspaper newsrooms worked. For all the inconvenience, he loved the by-products of typewriters, saying that one of the fundamental necessities in a writer’s life was “scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy”.
Trivia: On the Road was famously typed up on a single, continuous 120-foot long scroll, during a sustained writing intensive that lasted three weeks in 1951. In that time, Kerouac basically survive on pea soup, coffee and Benzedrine (a brand name amphetamine), typing the entire manuscript free-form and without formatting: single-spaced, no paragraphs. Even now, the scroll—or at least 36 feet of it—is displayed in museums all over the word. The final section of the scroll was literally chewed off by a friend’s dog.
Cormac McCarthy (1933– )
Notable works: Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, The Road
Model: Cormac McCarthy used the same typewriter for 46 years—a scuffed, metallic blue Olivetti Lettera 32—and he didn’t even buy it new. McCarthy was about to go to Europe, and wanted to find the smallest, most portable typewriter available. He found the Olivetti in a Tennessee second-hand shop in 1963, where he paid a sweet $50.
Love/Hate? After four decades with the same model, and typing every book manuscript on the same machine, it’s probably safe to say McCarthy was slightly attached.
Trivia: In 2009, McCarthy said it was time to finally put the Olivetti to rest. He put the typewriter up for auction and decided to donate the proceeds to the Santa Fe Institute, a non-profit multidisciplinary research centre. For the typewriter’s authentication letter, McCarthy typed out one of his last messages with the machine: “It has never been serviced or cleaned other than blowing out the dust with a service station hose. I have typed on this typewriter every book I have written including three not published. Including all drafts and correspondence I would put this at about five million words over a period of 50 years.” Auction house Christie’s expected the typewriter to go for between $15,000 to $20,000. It sold for $254,000.
Woody Allen (1935– )
Notable works: Screenplays (Annie Hall; The Purple Rose of Cairo; Hannah and her Sisters; Vicky Cristina Barcelona), short stories, plays.
Models: When he was still a teenager known as Allen Stewart Konigsberg, Woody Allen bought an Olympia SM3 for $40. Later in life he’d tell a Swiss journalist, “At the time I asked the seller whether this machine would last. He only said that this machine would outlive me by far. And as a matter of fact, it works as perfectly as on Day One, and never needed any repair.” True to the seller’s words, Allen still uses the same typewriter to this day, with the only maintenance involved being a ribbon change from time to time.
Love/Hate? One of the most famous typewriter-related quotes comes courtesy of Woody Allen: “How can I believe in God when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?” He’s only joking, though. Typing is part of Allen’s daily routine. “I just sit down at the typewriter and think funny,” he says.
Trivia: Even now, Allen tends to write most of his work in longhand, before transcribing it on the Olympia. Everything he’s written has passed through the Olympia’s keys. He doesn’t own a computer, but he’s not a total luddite: Woody Allen owns an iPhone.
Hunter S Thompson (1937–2005)
Notable works: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Models: Thompson was devoted to his red IBM Selectric, a nifty semi-electronic model.
Love/Hate? Though Thompson used nothing but typewriters for his work, there is one infamous photo of him aiming a rifle at a typewriter, cigarette dangling out the side of his mouth, about to shoot it to smithereens.
Trivia: When he was young, Thompson worked for Time magazine and used a typewriter to copy The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, word for word, to try to unlock the secret to writing literature. Though he would acquire a Macintosh computer in later life for email, Thompson said he only used a typewriter for work. “There is too much temptation to go over the copy and rewrite,” he said. “I guess I’ve never grown accustomed to the silent, non-clacking of the keys and the temporary words put up on the screen. I like to think that when I type something on [my typewriter], when I’m finished with it, it’s good. Never go back and rewrite while you’re working. Keep on it as if it were final.” In 2005, Thompson was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, in front of a typewriter. Cryptically, there was one word in the centre of the page: ‘counselor’.
Bob Dylan (1941–)
Notable works: Albums (Highway 61 Revisited; Blonde on Blonde; Blood on the Tracks), poetry, memoirs.
Models: Throughout his career, Bob Dylan has been promiscuous with typewriters, having been photographed with countless models and makes. He’s spend time with a Royal Safari, stroked the keys of an Olivetti Lexikon 80 and borrowed an Olympia SG1 on tour with Joan Baez. (In the 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back, you’ll see him tapping away on the Olympia as Joan Baez belts out a number.) Call the man versatile.
Love/Hate? Biographers and friends have often said that Dylan could be lodged in spartan accommodation, as long as his room contained three fundamentals: a bed, a table and a typewriter. When he wasn’t swinging a guitar, he could be found hunched over a typewriter and often carried a portable model on tour.
Trivia: Dylan would always set up the typewriter in the corner of the room, placing it in the middle of the desk, with either an ashtray or a bottle of Coke sitting next to it. In the evenings, he’d drink red wine, smoke and type for hours. Friends would say that in the middle of the night, it was common to see Dylan wake up, grunt, light a cigarette and stumble over to the typewriter again.