Why I like typewriters

This is my last post as a guest blogger for Savage Minds. I have enjoyed this experience of connecting with so many anthropologists. I want to thank the Savage Minds team for giving me this opportunity to discuss ethnographic writing, and to everyone who offered their thoughts and comments on my posts. Since this is my final contribution, I thought I would end on a personal note and share a short homage to typewriters.

A vintage German business typewriter from the 1930s.
A vintage German business typewriter from the 1930s.

As you may have noticed, many images of old typewriters accompanied my posts on writing this month. These photos are not culled from the Internet, but are pictures of my own growing collection of European manual typewriters, which I now use to write my fieldnotes and my first drafts. I am not a luddite, nor am I paranoid about the NSA reading my fieldnotes. And although I am old enough to have written many early college papers on a typewriter, my trusty Smith Corona was an electric model. I switched to a basic word processor, and eventually to a personal computer as soon as I could afford one. Writing on a manual typewriter is a newly acquired preference.


Over twenty years after I retired my electric Smith Corona, my partner surprised me with a vintage Skywriter as a birthday present. The Skywriter hails from the 1950s and was Smith Corona’s attempt at a portable machine that itinerant writers could use on airplanes. Last spring, I began writing research notes, letters, and first drafts of my work on that typewriter, mostly because I loved the clack of the keys, and the fact that email, social media, and the lures of the World Wide Web couldn’t distract me while I worked.

When I moved to Germany in August last year, I had to leave my Skywriter behind (it was not so portable after all). On my first day in Freiburg, I stumbled upon two inexpensive German typewriters at a thrift shop, which I bought on a whim because I loved the QWERTZ format and the keys with umlauts. Then, over the course of the fall, I acquired four more typewriters at various jumble sales around Baden-Württemberg. When I visited Geneva in early December, I found three French typewriters at the Plainpalais flea market too cheap to resist. I now own ten typewriters, including a twenty-kilo Adler model from the 1930s. I rotate among them each day depending on my mood.

My growing collection of German typewriters.
My growing collection of German typewriters.

When I tell people that I write on a typewriter, the first question they ask is whether I have to retype everything in to my computer later. The answer is: it depends on what it is. For my daily writing pages – used to just clear my mind and get ideas on paper – I leave them in hard copy and scan them as PDFs so that I have electronic backups. For fieldnotes and texts that I want to manipulate later on the computer, I can scan most pages using optical character recognition (OCR) technology to create text documents that I can edit electronically. Although this isn’t perfect, OCR technology is constantly improving. I imagine one day I’ll have perfect electronic text from my typewritten pages. For some things I do retype my prose into the computer, using this as an opportunity to revise and refine my first draft. I have toyed with the idea of building myself a USB typewriter using this device, which would allow me to use my typewriter with an iPad, but I have so far resisted the temptation.

A French QWERTZ Olivetti from the 1980s.
A French QWERTZ Olivetti from the 1980s.

I know that typewriters are inefficient, that they’re noisy, that they’re heavy, and that they require ribbons that aren’t easy to find. Certainly, I’d never dream of taking my Skywriter on an actual plane; my fellow passengers would surely be annoyed by the ruckus of the keys. I love the portability and quiet of my laptop, and because I am an obsessive, and monomaniacal reviser of my own writing (sometimes doing seven or eight full rounds of line edits), I couldn’t live without word processing software. Spell check is a gift from Olympus, and I don’t think a single university press would accept a typewritten manuscript anyway. But for daily writing and fieldnotes, and for producing those raw first drafts, I don’t think anything beats a nice, sturdy, manual typewriter.

So here (in no particular order) are ten reasons why typewriters are better than computers, and why I think Savage Minds readers (and writers) should give them a try:

Typewriters never crash, never need software updates, do not become obsolete every four years, and require no backing up.

Because manual typewriters require no electricity, they’re environmentally friendly.

You can work in full sunlight, and not have to worry about the glare on your screen.

You can spill your drink on the keyboard and nothing terrible will happen to your typewriter.

Typewriters have unlimited battery life, and never overheat.

If something goes wrong with your typewriter, a screwdriver and some WD-40 are usually all you need for the repair.

Typewriters give your fingers a good workout, so it kind of feels like exercise.

Your eyes never hurt from staring too long at your typewriter.

When you write on a typewriter, your friends, family, and colleagues can all hear that you’re working.

You can misspell words and use bad grammar without your word processing program constantly judging you.

Typewriters encourage your writing by providing a celebratory ding at the end of each line written.

Happy Writing!

Kristen Ghodsee
Freiburg, Germany
January 30, 2015

3 thoughts on “Why I like typewriters

  1. I love this ode to the typewriter! Thanks for a great series of posts, Kristen. You’ve given us lots of food for thought, and also planted a seed (with me at least) to think anew about the sounds of writing. What does it mean when your writing is loud? I like the idea.

  2. i’m reminded of italo calvino’s brief homage to the felt tip pen in notebook…thanks!

    after experimenting with making my fieldnotes digital, i also returned to decidedly low tech means (handwritten in spiral notebooks available in the little store around the corner). it would be interesting to see about the relationship between medium and process for other anthropologists out there, particularly on this site. many of us are gadget grrrls or digital boys otherwise but have our analog quirks. what are y’all employing when writing notes and drafts?

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