Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Everything Old is New Again

Long ago, as the earth was cooling, people used odd machines called “typewriters” to compose notes to one another.
These machines were developed after the discovery of electricity, but they were powered by a different source, human fingers. And they were called “manual” because of this.
They were difficult to use, these first “manual” typewriters. They consisted of a series of letters at the end of long rods, attached to a board, also with letters. When a finger hit a letter on the “keyboard”, the rod that held that letter would move and imprint the letter on a piece of paper, using an inked ribbon.
This was a huge step up from clay tablets, stone carving or foul fowl feathers, and the new technology was embraced by most people.
Not by the folks who wrote the stories you found in your daily newspaper, though.
These guys were lazy, or just conserving energy, so when they typed something other than their story, they used shortcuts.
“Manual” typewriters took a lot of pressure to pound the “keys” on the “keyboard” for that the impression showed up on the paper, so the first thing those guys eliminated was capital letters. To print a capital took an extra “keystroke”. The next thing those guys eliminated was a lot of punctuation. Again, an extra stroke.
Instead, they’d sling the carriage return and just start another paragraph.
So for a time everybody wrote like e.e.cummings.
But that wasn’t enough. It still took extra time to write notes or instructions to the men who actually set the type, using a machine adapted from a typewriter called a “linotype.” This machine produced a line of type (letters) molded from the pot of hot, liquid lead at the side of the machine.
Not incidentally, the molten lead floated around in the air and coated everything, including the coffee we drank.
Writing was getting trimmed, but it sill took more time than was warranted on composing messages to friends or other useless drivel, like notes from your interview, so abbreviations evolved.
c u
u r a pal
And it wasn’t enough to use abbrv., you could also cut whole words out. For instance, if you wanted to say, “I’d appreciate it if you would respond to my question,” you could say “gimme yes or no.”
Invariably, the “I” was dropped also. “hope all is well,” “coming over?”
As things go, this technology went the way of swan feathers, until today lots of people correspond using only their thumbs and a string of seemingly miscellaneous letters. OMG, BFF, ROTHWL, LOL, IMHO.
Gibberish? I think not. Just the evolving result of those memos and notes we typed to each other. I still seldom use caps when I correspond, now by email, with friends still in the business.
When you write email, do you write in complete sentences and use capitals?
I’m tickled to think that the texters believe they’ve discovered something new.
We got there first.

When the earth was cooling, Michele Drier was a staff writer at the San Jose Mercury-News and caught the tail end of manual typewriters and hot lead. The lead is gone but the caps never came back.

Her mystery, Edited for Death, set at a daily newspaper, is getting well-reviewed. The Midwest Book Review calls it, “Riveting and much recommended.”


  1. I'm an old fogie. I write in complete sentences, us capital letters and punctuation, even in emails and text messages. :)

  2. I remember those manual typewriters. Our fingers were so much stronger then. I remember hot lead. Boy, my fingers were singed a lot more then!

  3. Hi Carolyn,
    There ARE times when capital letters are a must.

  4. Eilis, I didn't think anyone remembered hot lead! Tres cool!

  5. Ah, the old manual typewriter. My mom had one of those things. I actually wrote my 1st novel on it as a teenager. Boy, what a pain in the... I couldn't imagine using one of those things now.

  6. I love old typewriters as art. I think I even have a few in my basement. I just don't use them for typing. Good post.