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Return of the typewriter

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Typewriters, like this example of the popular Underwood 5 model, are still very much in use. (Photo courtesy of flickr.com)

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Richard Polt shows off one of his collection of 175 typewriters (Photo courtesy of Richard Polt)

Last year Jim Bouchard, then aged 18, found himself temporarily living in the basement of a friend after his parents had been forced to move away from town. His possessions were all stored in his car. But life as a high school senior had to go on, making for unusual challenges: how, for instance, could he type up a history paper without access to a computer or printer?

Bouchard did not panic; after a three-hour nap, he recalls, he snapped open a Moxie cream soda, popped his old trunk and pulled out a plastic typewriter, treasured hitherto as a quirky artifact. After clickety-clacking away at it until dawn, Bouchard, of West Suffield, Conn., set off for class. “A-, very historic,” his teacher wrote on the margins.

The technology may be antiquated, but the typewriter is enjoying a renaissance among young people like Bouchard. Some are turning to the machine to avoid the time-wasting temptations of the Internet. Others, mainly older enthusiasts, are drawn by a sense of nostalgia. Whatever the reason, the continuing popularity of the technology has created a cottage industry for repair shops and has spawned dozens of typewriter websites and clubs.

Some find the tactile element of using a solid, old machine therapeutic. "I love the sound, the mistakes that you make from using a typewriter, the time it takes to write," said Nick Findlay, 23, of Sydney, Australia. Findlay uses his portable, shoe-box sized Olivetti Lettera 32 model, which he purchased in the last year, for all sorts of literary tasks, from typing up the shopping list to typing a love letter.

Despite the clunky limitations of the medium--keys get stuck and you can’t rewrite without starting over--many users insist they get more done on a typewriter than on a PC. “The only time wasted is thinking of what to type next,” said Michael McGeary, 20, an English student at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, who grew up with the PC. “With computers, you could be typing a paper, but then decide to see if you have any emails.”

That feeling was echoed by Weston Allen, a high school senior in Lawrence, Mass. “I feel when I'm on the typewriter I'm only thinking about one thing,” he said, “writing.”

That doesn't surprise Timothy Pychyl, a psychology professor who has done research on procrastination at Carleton University in Ottawa. Pychyl said social networking sites, in particular, have proved addicting to many young people--and a typewriter offers the chance to go “cold turkey.” Computers “provide immediate social rewards and we prefer the immediate reward over the delayed one,” he said.

Ironically, typewriter fans are using turning to new technology--the Internet--to spread their passion for the old. A forum simply named “Typewriters” on the Yahoo.com Web site, hosting discussions among typewriting enthusiasts, has close to 1,000 members, a number growing by 10 a week, according to the site. The social networking site Facebook also hosts several similar groups.

“I find typewriters superior to computers,” is the name of a 49-member group on Facebook set up by Walter Anton Morris. “My friends used to scoff at the idea of giving up some technological conveniences to make room for the joys of a typewriter,” said Morris, another senior at Lawrence High, “but now I sometimes end up loaning one of my two out to them.” Morris was given one of his typewriters, and bought the other, a West German Olympia Deluxe model, for three dollars at a junk store.

The first commercial typewriter, an ungainly affair with a large, flowery box atop the keyboard, appeared on the American market in 1874. Fewer than 5,000 were sold. But its successors, initially manufactured by the rifle company Remington, became immensely popular. Electronic typewriters were introduced in 1914, and soon mass produced by IBM. The Underwood 5 model was popular in offices and newsrooms around the world, and four million were produced between 1900 and 1930. Word processors only began to encroach on the typewriter’s dominance in the late 1980s.

An increasing number of people who grew up with typewriters but adapted to PCs are also returning to them because the machines are simpler to operate and to understand. “I really enjoyed having something that didn't need time to boot up, do a virus scan or load a program,” said Teri Pittman, 56, a technical support worker in the Cascade Mountains, in south west Washington State. “No tweaking of fonts or worrying about crashes.”

To others, the typewriter is an object of beauty. Richard Polt, 44, a philosophy professor at Xavier University Cincinnati, set up a website called “The Classic Typewriter Page” for the ink-stained collectors of antiquated machines. Polt has acquired 175 typewriters, and although he does not want to reveal the value of his own collection, he says that some models such as the Malling Hansen Writing Ball, an early prototype, sell for as much as $100,000.

Polt uses many of his artifacts for his work: they become especially valuable, he said, in “writing the first draft of some important text.” On his Web site, Polt has published a growing list of over 170 repair shops in the U.S., and many others around the world.

Jim Bouchard, now with a roof over his head and a laptop computer on his desk, remains attached to the typewriter that helped him that day. To show his appreciation he has founded a group on Facebook now 55 members strong, called “I have a typewriter” dedicated to, as he says, “all those diehard typewriter fans out there.”

E-mail: ljw2121@columbia.edu