Why the Classic Manual Typewriter Still Lives On

by melaniepinola ; Updated October 17, 2017

Vintage 1960s-70s Smith Corona typewriter

Like 35mm still cameras, classic watches and other seemingly anachronistic objects, vintage typewriters are far from obsolete. In fact, the manual typewriter is making a comeback, even among the highly digital among us.

On eBay, vintage typewriters can be had for less than $100 for a 1950s Smith Corona up to several thousands of dollars for rare, restorable 19th century typewriters. It’s a testament to the sturdy, quality mechanical engineering of these machines that over 100 years later, you can still click-clack away to type out a letter or the next best-selling novel.

Sure, these early machines lack the ability to easily edit your words or multitask among a dozen windows and your writing program, but what old-fashioned typewriters lack in modern convenience, they more than make up for in the joy of typing.

Tom Hanks (yes, from Bosom Buddies and Saving Private Ryan) compares the meek experience of tapping away on a modern keyboard with the booming, magnificent effect of pressing typewriter keys in The New York Times:

For less important doodles in text, the kind that go no farther than your desk or refrigerator door, the tactile pleasure of typing old school is incomparable to what you get from a de rigueur laptop. Computer keyboards make a mousy tappy tap tappy tap like ones you hear in a Starbucks — work may be getting done but it sounds cozy and small, like knitting needles creating a pair of socks. Everything you type on a typewriter sounds grand, the words forming in mini-explosions of SHOOK SHOOK SHOOK. A thank-you note resonates with the same heft as a literary masterpiece.

The sound of typing is one reason to own a vintage manual typewriter — alas, there are only three reasons, and none of them are ease or speed. In addition to sound, there is the sheer physical pleasure of typing; it feels just as good as it sounds, the muscles in your hands control the volume and cadence of the aural assault so that the room echoes with the staccato beat of your synapses.

…The physicality of typing engenders the third reason to write with a relic of yesteryear: permanence.

I learned to write letters on an old typewriter: How to position the carriage for addressing envelopes and proper indenting (tricky!), how to pound the key with just enough force to hit the ribbon but not enough to get the keys stuck, and how to type carefully, with intention.

The typewriter forces you to focus — it’s just you and the page, no nagging new email alerts or other distractions to get in your way. And as unforgiving as a typewriter may seem (no delete key!), using one emboldens you. You have to commit to those words or else deal with ugly correcting tape or white-out.

Generations too young to have grown up with a manual typewriter are snapping them up today, partly for the romance and the benefits mentioned. There are modern reasons to adopt one too: the typewriter also keeps government spies and cyberthieves from snooping on your text, and the typewriter will last long after a laptop battery would’ve died.

For those nostalgic for typewriters, but not willing to ditch digital writing, Tom Hanks’ Hanx Writer (iOS, free) combines the look and feel of a manual typewriter with the convenience of the iPad.

Qwerkywriter

There’s also the Qwerkywriter, a USB and Bluetooth mechanical keyboard inspired by typewriters of old ($309 on Kickstarter). Or you can simply install one of the many typewriter fonts available to give the appearance you were typing on an old mechanical typewriter. (Please, just don’t hack a classic typewriter to type in Comic Sans.)

Photo credits: mpclemens on Flickr, Qwerkywriter