Saturday, January 14, 2023

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, 1943--1952: Uhm, The Electric Typewriter?


I was going through my folder of ads looking for a typewrite ad specifically when I found this. (Truth in advertising: I was going in alphabetical order, so it didn't exactly take very long to be distracted by an "Atlantic Petroleum" ad.)

The point here, and it is my point, is that it is difficult to pinpoint just when female-friendly ads like this faded away. I thought that the new age of Playboy and male supremacy was going to be signalled by a pickup in cheesecake ads; but while this perception may be influenced by the absence of Fortune from my roundup since the beginning of the pandemic, that hasn't obviously happened, and the main harbinger of the new age has been more editorial, with the increasingly strident anti-communism content of news stories and the McGraw-Hill linewide editorials. 

The one place that women remain prominent and in a leading role in editorial content is in the business machine market, which is  just as prominent on the page as I make it out to be in the postblogging posts. 

NCR might not have made typewriters, but it did spring for colour!

 These do include plenty of typewriter ads, but none as female-centric or as eyecatching as the long series of ads for NCR's accounting machines. The semiotics of the ads vary from all female casts showing off the machine's features to bosses overlooking the operator who can be read as either admiring or patronising --me not being smart enough at that whole "deconstruction" thing to tell the difference-- and this one, which has four vignettes for the price of one. The one male is the white-coated technician, either advising or receiving operator feedback; and so this is the one I went with.

All of this raises the question which has been implicit all along, but which I just twigged to the other day: What about the electric typewriter? We've been hearing a great deal from the frontiers of aviation about the adoption of powered controls, but here is a very old frontier in automation and disintermediation. How did the manual operation of a 120wpm typewriter turn into the operation of an electric appliance at 10 discrete, controlled operations a second? What's the story?

This appears to be the Olivetti Lettera 22, introduced in either 1949 or 1950, with three strike positions (black ribbon, red ribbon, no ribbon for multiple copy feeds); it has a keyboard-controlled tabulator, margin release, and paragraph indentation setter. As with any manual typewriter, there is a heavy emphasis on operator support for the tricky business of ending lines --no handy "Justification" setting! (And thus no annoying Blogspot bug that drops indentation when you drop in an illustration.) It was also the typewriter of choice for, among others, Leonard Cohen, William S. Burroughs, Joan Didion and Jan Morris, probabl because it was so compact. 

Meanwhile, the first  practical electric typewriter was the Smathers design, which went through several ownerships and production arrangements, including with Remington (soon to be Remington Rand) before alighting with IBM in 1933 as the IBM Electromatic. The 01 Model of 1935 was succeeded in 1944 by the "Executive" model, which allowed four escapements, or spacings, for characters and thus "[a] skilled typist, by carefully counting letters on each line, could even produce fully justified layouts on the Executive." Subsequent improvements in the Electromatic are discussed in a timeline format accessible here at the IBM archives, but knowing the Internet's tendency to linkrot, I am going to screencap them here:

It turns out that this version of history has more to do with the accidents of corporate survival than with IBM's role at the forefront of typewriter innovation, although "Electromatic" is a lot fancier than "Electro-Economy." The brief Wikipedia history of Remington Rand is a great deal more interested in its licensed production of the M1911 than the typewriters that did so much more for the war effort, admittedly not hard to accomplish when we're talking about the M1911.  The Britannica notices that "all major manufacturers" made electric typewriters in the Fifties, which isn't surprising, but which is also news to me. Clearly most customers still preferred the manual, but that might have had as much to do with the lack of plugs in older office settings as anything else. 

The big breakthrough came in 1961, with the IBM Selectric, which introduced the typeball, a logic element to tell the ball where to rotate, a mechanical linkage that converts the binary key selection input into the tilt and rotation angles, and a correction key, and, in later models, a limited memory for  automatic correction, a vitally important feature for us sausage-fingered vulgarians. The engineering of the machine sounds bewilderingly complex, even if that is largely the retro-encabulator effect. Still, it is a pretty interesting, forgotten aspect of the history of computing, as the mechanical linkage days have yet to get their due. (As far as I know: I haven't exactly been keeping up with the Annals of the History of Computing in recent times.)

Speaking of which, and this has nothing at all to do with electric typewriters, wow.

Photographers and movie producers are kind of like women in that they don't get into history of technology because technology is not about excluded sets like chicks and artsie-fartsies. And that is why history of technology, as currently practiced, makes no sense. 


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