Slow Type 

The renewed interest in typewriters isn't just a hipster trend. It's also about slowing down, developing focus, and maintaining a measure of digital detachment.

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To find out more about the past and present of QWERTY alternatives, I contacted Bob Teo, a Singapore-based entrepreneur with operations in London and China, and a former educator with the Singapore Ministry of Education, who has been trying for years to gain traction for a more efficient and ergonomic alternative keyboard known as abKey. I asked him how he got started challenging the QWERTY monolith.

"In the late 1980s I was a student in the US, confronted with the requirement that I had to type my assignments — in Singapore we just wrote by hand," Teo said. "Although I had been using a typewriter and keyboard before, I wasn't a proficient touch-typist, so I often had to write my papers 'til late at night. Initially, I blamed myself for not having learned typing. But one day, at the office ... I saw many of my colleagues, some much older and quite experienced, also struggling away at the keyboard — two-finger typing, etc. I then came across a study that showed that up to 85 percent of US computer users had problems with and needed help with keyboarding. Intrigued, and beginning to suspect that it was at least partially the machine and not the user, I began to research QWERTY."

The alternative keyboard layout Teo eventually developed situates most letters in alphabetical order, places A, E, I, O, and U directly under the left hand, and the most common consonants, R, S, and T, along with the most commonly used function keys — space and return — under the right hand, in a natural arc instead of in a straight line, which reduces finger travel and fatigue, and thus, the risk of repetitive stress injuries. The overall keyboard layout is in a V-shape, to prevent ulnar deviation, a significant precursor to many carpal tunnel injuries.

When I asked Teo about the history of resistance to non-QWERTY keyboard layouts, he surprised me by explaining that, during the early days of typewriters, "resistance came from the main users — the secretaries and typists — because QWERTY, being difficult, and requiring special training, gave them an advantage in terms of better pay for themselves and a barrier of entry for those trying to get into their lines of work."

This was also a factor in why the seemingly confounding design of early "up strike" typewriters — which printed text on the bottom, non-visible portion of the platen and paper, requiring great operator precision and considerable short term memory ability — lingered for decades. The thinking was that typing quickly and accurately was a skilled trade, and many managers thought that any typist worth his or her salt shouldn't need to constantly be looking at the page to verify typing accuracy. It's doubtful many people today could type at all on a machine that didn't show them the letters they're typing.

Teo also explained to me that "when IBM introduced the 'golf ball' element in its Selectric typewriters, jamming was no longer a problem, but they kept QWERTY because no viable mass alternative existed. When the computer age arrived, the focus was on semiconductors, CPUs, and disk-drives, and the keyboard just wasn't a major consideration. So QWERTY continues to be the standard, not because of any health- or performance-related advantages, but because of pure inertia and ignorance or neglect of these issues."


California Typewriter had several examples of non-QWERTY typewriters in the store when I visited, mostly late-1800s machines that never caught on. A truly retro-futurist Blickensderfer "single element" machine, one of the first real portables, featured an "Ideal" keyboard layout, an all-mechanical interchangeable typewheel and a complete wrap-around space bar that also serves as a frame. It would look right at home in a Terry Gilliam movie. The home row of keys features the most commonly used English letters — DHIATENSOR. Promoters of the Ideal layout claimed that 70 percent of English words could be typed using just these letters.

Carmen Permillion was the first person I met at the shop. She's the daughter of owner Herb Permillion, and she's worked full-time for the business since 1993, though, as she lightly noted, "I was always around, I just wasn't trying to be here full-time." Everyone at California Typewriter is generous with typewriter-related stories and lore, but it was Carmen's initial generosity that hooked me.

You may be able to find a great deal on an intact, perfectly functional manual typewriter at garage or estate sales, or at thrift shops, but you should reasonably expect to pay $125 or more for a good working manual typewriter from California Typewriter, and, as with any collectible or vintage item, rarity and prestige carry heavy influence over price. If you want an Olivetti, Hermes, Olympia, or, say, a Groma Kolibri, the portable typewriter featured in the movie The Lives of Others, you'll pay, not just for functionality, but for a distinguished brand name. If you're the type who just cares for functionality, considerably cheaper Smith-Coronas and Brothers are easy to find.

"If an Olympia is a Mercedes, a Smith-Corona or Brother's a Chevy: It's good; it's durable; it's simple to work on. It's not as good as the Olympia, but it's not bad at all. And you can pick one of those up for $125, $150," said California Typewriter's main manual repair tech Ken Alexander, an easygoing man in his fifties who's been with the company since the early Nineties, and worked on typewriters for a decade before that.

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