Technophobes and the nostalgic among us would have had some comforting food for thought last week. The head of the Bundestag’s parliamentary inquiry into NSA activity in Germany, Patrick Sensburg, said that German secret services should revert to using mechanical typewriters. So incensed are some people at the levels of widespread monitoring carried out by the CIA in their country that faith in the most commonplace modern technology has been shattered.
You could say that this disillusionment happens to all of us on a much smaller personal scale every day. With electronic mail has come spam and bugs, crashes and full inboxes. That is accompanied by the feeling of battling to respond to a round-the-clock flow of messages that should be answered promptly wherever you might be or whenever they flash up on your screen. We might all like to look back to a simpler time where the tapping and sliding of the typewriter held sway over modern office life.
This was a time not so long ago when everything from memos and articles to books and minutes would be typed by hand by a legion of adept typists. Typed submissions would often have to be painstakingly retyped as an easily transferable digital version was not an option. Like the invention of the printing press some 400 years before, the typewriter revolutionised the modern world. Scribes or master printers made way for the efficiency of typists who, by the middle of the 20th century, could easily photocopy and distribute their work.
The typewriter also gave what was deemed a very suitable role to women and led in part to a drastic change in the white-collar gender balance. Until the 1970s, millions of young girls would almost automatically take typing courses and undertake rigorous timed typing tests. Typing pools sound so arcane now but they and the women that fuelled them were the backbone of the corporate world.
The typewriter was and still is an object of intriguing beauty. The intricate amphitheatre of slender metal arms, each supporting a separate character, is surely the height of mechanical accomplishment. The 1968 Olivetti Valentine model designed by Ettore Sottsass is as sleek and strikingly ergonomic as anything designed since; the Apple Mac of its day. Culturally too, the impact of the typewriter is profound. From Murder She Wrote to Casablanca, the typewriter is a key part of the visual history of the 20th century.
However, as much as it might have emancipated and liberalised the corporate world, the typewriter also proved itself able to shackle those who had to operate it. Female office workers were too often destined to a career in typing. No self-respecting businessman would type his own letters – this lowly and relatively basic task was reserved almost exclusively for women.
Typing and deleting, copying and pasting is something we take for granted but sometimes it’s worth remembering the elegant grandmother of our modern keyboards – the humble typewriter.
David Plaisant is an associate producer for Monocle 24.