By David Michael Newstead.
I’ve been working to repair my grandfather’s old typewriter for some time now and part of that means learning as much as possible about these classic machines. Not surprisingly then, this led me to Richard Polt’s recent book, The Typewriter Revolution, which is an in-depth guide to the history and resurgence of typewriters. Packed with useful how-to information, what’s distinct about this book is its discussion on reassessing our relationship with technology, taking a step back from being constantly connected, and whether the analog approach is sometimes worth considering – even in the 21st century. Below, author Richard Polt joins me to talk more about these issues. And for the latest updates, check out Richard’s official blog here.
David Newstead: First, I loved the book. In it, you mention that you personally own 287 typewriters now. Is that right? And if so, where do you put all of them?
Richard Polt: By now I’m sure it’s over 300, but I’ve lost count. I have them in my office at work, my study at home, the basement, the attic, and the garage. I need to cut down!
David Newstead: The book highlights that typewriters created some of the first job opportunities for women in the business world that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. Can you expand on this part of typing history?
Richard Polt: It was once assumed that business was a male sphere. Documents were produced by male clerks using pens. But the idea took hold that female dexterity was suited to operating a typewriter, just as women were good at using a sewing machine (Remington made sewing machines too). A big office that invested in a writing machine would also invest in a female writing machine operator—and that was a cheap investment, because early typists were paid little and would be dismissed if they ever got married. Still, this was a way in which women got a toehold in business, and it did eventually have far-reaching social consequences.
David Newstead: In 2013, the Kremlin reportedly reverted to using typewriters instead of computers to prevent hacking. What’s your view on this decision, especially in light of current events? Should the U.S. government return to typewriters as well?
Richard Polt: I’m confident that the U.S. government does use typewriters for top-secret documents. Of course, governments around the world aren’t casting aside their computers, but for truly un-hackable communication, ink on paper is hard to beat.
David Newstead: You mention this multiple times in the book, but it bears repeating for a wider audience. You’re not anti-technology, correct? And neither are typewriter enthusiasts?
Richard Polt: Typewriters themselves are technological. They are sophisticated machines that could not have been mass-produced without modern technology. By using a typewriter, I experiment with establishing a healthy and enjoyable relationship with technological devices. By choosing an “obsolete” and non-digital device, I give myself the opportunity to step back from IT for a while and gain some perspective on our obsession with technical progress. However, I haven’t sworn off IT in general, since I need it for my work and social life, and I enjoy many of its possibilities.
There are a few diehard computer-haters who use typewriters exclusively, but most typewriter lovers, like me, use them in addition to digital technology, not instead of it. What the typewriter insurgency opposes is not computers, but a thoughtless mentality that assumes that digital is necessarily better, and that efficiency is the only consideration.
David Newstead: Is this book really a critique of planned obsolescence and our current throw-away culture more than anything else?
Richard Polt: That’s certainly part of it. As I say in the book, typewriters are an example of technology that was made to last. They are objects that can stay with you and help you for your entire lifetime. That’s a rarity now.
David Newstead: What’s one thing you’d want people to know about typewriters and the people who love them?
Richard Polt: We are generally a helpful, fun-loving, and very diverse bunch of people. If typewriters charm you, join us! If not, look for another thing that can bring balance, enjoyment, and focus to your life.
David Newstead: I don’t suppose you have experience with Cole Steel Portables?
Richard Polt: Yes, I do.
David Newstead: That’s the model I’m repairing that belonged to my grandfather. What’s been your experience with the Cole Steel?
Richard Polt: I remember that the escapement can be tricky. Can’t recall the details of how to adjust it.
David Newstead: That’s the part I have to fix. Or that’s what the repair guy said, at least. I’m thinking of taking it apart and putting it back together myself for my own knowledge. As for replacement parts, I keep thinking 3D printing will be the solution. Have you had much luck with 3D printing parts? Or what’s your view on it?
Richard Polt: I haven’t done it myself. A collector in Australia has successfully 3D-printed a carriage return lever. Right now, the technology is too crude to print delicate parts such as the ones found in an escapement, but I expect that it will improve.
David Newstead: Any closing thoughts?
Richard Polt: Let’s see… Brand-new manual typewriters are selling at Michaels craft stores; Lady Gaga wrote her latest song on her typewriter; Tom Hanks appears in the new documentary California Typewriter (I’m in it too); and a New York Times reporter credits the privacy of “snail mail” for providing Donald Trump’s 1995 tax return. The rebirth of typewriters and paper communication has already happened. Now the revolution is taking strides.