Monday, October 17, 2011

How Typewriters lead me to computers

Now a days, like most sane people, I type on a computer, a laptop typically. I can type quite fast. I can type quite a lot at one sitting. But it wasn't always that way. People, typically writers, who still use a typewriter, and there are some who are further throwbacks and like pencil (or indeed, pen), I don't know what to say.

We've come a long way. One might think that after you have literally had to "cut and paste" a many paged paper, then had to perfectly retype it up to turn it in to someone, you'd be cured of the desire to use a typewriter. But no, some still enjoy that, and carpel tunnel syndrome too I would suspect. I love a computer's capability to soft cut and paste, to copy and paste, rather. I can move paragraphs, whole pages around in seconds and move along. Not like it was in the past using typewriters.

When I was pretty young, we had an old manual typewriter. I was always jamming the keys, in fact, doing that was kind of fun. But that was nothing compared to when I got my hands a few years later on an electric typewriter.

One day my mother brought home an electric script typewriter that I was fascinated with. I used it whenever she let me, until finally no one ever used it and I asked if I could put it in my room. She said yes. I was beside myself with excitement. Then realized I didn't know what in the world I was going to do with it. So I decided I would make a history of the weather I saw every day out my second floor bedroom window. It was a panoramic view of the rooftops of our neighborhood, with the vista of Mt. Rainier far off in the distance, sixty miles away in the distance stood it's 14, 411 feet of magnificence.

After that I got into High School and in tenth grade, I signed up for Typing class. It was one of the hardest things I had ever done in a classroom. I got frustrated doing these typing drills and testing low, so one day I did the drill, then when the teacher timed us, I just kept typing. I got a perfect score, no mistakes and did 80 worlds per minute. She was very surprised and pleased and told the class. It was then that I realized I needed to not ever do that again. I practiced hard. The class got over, I moved on.

Then I signed up for office machines that next semester, and the next, and there was one computer in the class. I always got stuck with the ten key adding machine, or something I couldn't care less about. There was one girl who got to use the computer. I asked about it and was told she was there first. She was extremely good looking and I'm sure that had nothing to do with her getting the computer and my, well, not. Then again, she had a better chance back then getting a good office job and working on an actual computer. It was many years in my future before I could settle down and do the same.

After that I worked at an insurance company, but the business machines I worked on were things like hand trucks (dollies?), a envelope stuffing machine that was about ten feet long and stuffed about eight envelopes at a time and multiple stuffings, a paper cutting machine that could cut literally a sold foot high of paper (it was so powerful you had to push a switch with your foot and have both hands on a button on one either side of the cutting area; seems people had actually cut their hands off with this machines at other companies), a strapping machine where you put in a foot high stack of paper forms and it would wrap the stack four ways from Sunday.

Four years in the Air Force packing parachutes, then odd jobs afterward and college. Just before I got out of the Air Force I sold all my firearms and bought a computer (finally). A Trash80 (TRS-80, a Tandy / Radio Shack model80 personal computer. I took it back a month later and they installed a ten key keypad on the right side, those were new on the computer as a separate component. It had 16k RAM. I remember someone (Bill Gates?) saying that we'd never need more than 640k some years later. One of his more limited moments of thought, perhaps.

I started programming, streaming tape drive storage, no hard drive, no floppy disks, you had to programming EVERY thing yourself. I couldn't even add, subtract, or anything, without software. Whatever I wrote as a program, if I turned off the PC, I'd have to have saved it to a tape recorder (yes, your old fashioned voice tape recorder), then stream it back into the PC when I loaded it (took about five minutes). I had to buy a book from Radio Shack about basic programming language, but that didn't work and I took it back. They said I had to translate it to Radio Shack Basic. A Radio Shack book and I had to translate the programming language it was describing to go on a Radio Shack computer. It made no sense.

The first thing I programmed was a fake artificial intelligence. I showed my wife. I typed a sentence in talking to the computer, and it would respond appropriately. It was a sham though, I know what to say to get what appeared to be an appropriate response. It worked so well that it made my wife jealous and she stormed out of the room. See I was flirting with the computer and it was all concerned about me working too much and called me sweetheart.

I brought her back in and explained it to her. She kind of laughed and said she fully understood what I was saying and what I was doing, but it still made her jealous and she didn't like it and she walked out again. By then we were both laughing.

But that made me realize something, the power of the PC, the power of programming. I got into it. When I started college I took Chemistry, physics and algebra. In Chemistry and Physics we had to memorize the Periodic Table of Elements with, at the time, 104 elements and info to remember. Years later, that same poster was on my son's wall and he learned it the hard way.

I was worried. By this time I was living alone and had split up with my wife. So I would sit at home and drink a beer and stare at the periodic table chart I had purchased and put on the wall above my Trash80.

One night I was sitting there playing a video game (it was super simple, you could get them off a computer magazine, type it in and save it to tape drive) and drinking a beer. I took a break and stared at the Periodic table trying to memorize it. While I did that, I looked at the PC, then the table, then the PC and it dawned on me. I have a computer. I have data I need to learn. Brilliant!

So I programmed a piece of software that would allow me to memorize in two directions. One, I would have to remember and recognize information, the second, I would have to remember and supply the information. Once it was programmed, it took a couple of days, I spent that week playing my software "game". By the end of the week I had memorized all of the periodic table.

I went to class and it became obvious pretty quickly I knew the table. When asked I told the people at my lab table that I programmed a game to teach it to me. One guy was really annoyed and said that I cheated. My very cute, full German, full Catholic school experience, female lab partner said, "Wait a minute. How did he cheat? Think about it. He had to program a computer to teach him the table. Can you program a computer?" Six years later, that girl and I split up after having gotten out B.A. in Psychology and a tempestuous relationship.

The first computer class I took in college was a data processing and a Basic language programming class, the latter taught by one of the top programmers from IBM headquarters in Texas (and IBM got our instructor in a swap for a year). Data processing got me a job at the Data Processing lab, running the computers for the entire school and a work study position that gave me money. The Basic class introduced me to our instructor gave us an assignment to write some code that would allow you to put in some word and kick out a response. I got into it.

I wrote like the wind and was very proud to bring the code to class. Back then we had to print it out and hand it in on paper. We did things called "desk checking" your code before you put in on a computer but really that was for the RemCom that we had that was connected to Wazzu, WSU in Pullman. This was when I was at Pierce College, later I went to Western Washington University and they had their own computer.

The RemCom used IBM computer data cards and required using a keypunch machine which I learned to fix when they jammed. You had to deal with turn around time. I would have students give me a stack of key punched cards, JCL (Job Control Language) needed to have the cards in the right order, I would run the stack of cards through a machine which fed the program to the mainframe, which processed it, and would send back the results. We would print out the results and give it to the student when they asked for it.

Wazzu would tell us what turn around time was, due to a variety of factors. Sometimes, they would have trouble and it could be up to 24 hours. A guy came to me one saying I need this for my class in an hour, what do you MEAN TURN AROUND TIME IS 24 HOURS! Good times....

Back to the program the IBM instructor had us write. I turned in my code and he reviewed it with me at his desk in the front of the class. He smiled and said, "This is very elegant code." I smiled, proudly. Then he said, "But this isn't what I asked for. I would have to say, as beautiful as this code is, you have bells and whistles and everything, but when you are out in the field and your analyst asks for something, you need to give them back exactly what they ask for. If there is only a small amount of room on the mainframe and you give them too big a chunk of code, it simply won't fit. You will be holding work up." I learned a lot that day.

When I was at the University I had an Olivetti Praxis 35, which you could hook up to a computer and make it a printer but I never figured out how. The Praxis was amazing to me because you could hit the backspace up to twelve times and "erase".

Also, I was such a fast typist that I could seldom find a typewriter that could keep up with me without jamming. How did I get so fast? Typing college papers? Typing at jobs? Typing up short stories? No. It was from programming. Thousands of lines of program code. Never thinking about speed, always having to be extremely correct, as even a period in the wrong place will bring even the most robust code to its knees, I had inadvertently learned how to type very fast. Adding in a desire to be a writer, I got very fast and accurate. I tested myself once using some software and it was over 120 wpm. Not bad.

My Praxis 35 Olivetti typewriter had no problems allowing me to type as fast as I wanted. It used a daisy wheel rather than a ball type. The ball and daisy wheel type typewriters wouldn't, couldn't, jam like the old fashioned key typewriters. Plus, you could swap them out for various types of fonts, which I thought was pretty cool.

Before I owned that typewriter, I would have to queue up with anyone else at the University Library to use one of their typewriters. I so hated that.
After I got out of college, the typewriter that I most frequently ran into at jobs was the IBM Selectric, a huge boat anchor of a typewriter. Heavy to move or pickup, I still loved typing on them. When you hit a key and that ball thing hammered into the page against the roller, you KNEW you had typed a character.

I suppose this had to do with it being built for the workplace and a need to type at times with several layers of carbon paper to make duplicates. Not a lot of copying machines back then.

That is my short history with typewriters. After the typewriters I used in the work place, the PC revolution hit and no more typewriter. For a while we still used them in offices because the purported "Paperless office" really never came to be and for a while you still needed a typewriter to hammer out a form. But then all the forms got on the computer and life was just easier. About then the typewriter started to disappear.

A few years later I had a dual 5.25 inch floppy disk drive PC, the Trash80 got sold for a good price after I got out of the service. I started thinking about security on PCs. I wrote a program that would secure the dual floppy disks system and require a password. If you didn't get the password right by the third try, the PC would make a LOT of noise.

In those days the internet was only getting started, a few people could send email. I was able to do it before many because I worked at a University for some years and the Military and Universities had the internet first. But most people would dial up on a modem to a BBS, a bulletin board system. You could meet people there, download software, games, graphics, etc. I took my dual floppy PC security system and uploaded it, gave it a cool name and then searched other BBSs. It seemed that I had put out the only dual floppy system shell program with security on it that was around. And it was available for download for a couple of years on various BBSs. Pretty cool.

Then I got my first hard drive. Ten megabyte hard drive. So awesome, because then you could just turn on your PC and not have to worry about what floppy disk was in what drive. Now I have a laptop, a few desktop PCs, I have a couple of terabyte hard drives, a network at home that connects my TV to my PC and on and on. It's amazing really. The work I can do on a modern PC is unbelievable.

And it all started on and I owe it all to, an old typewriter.


  1. It is apparent that using a computer has done nothing to improve your spelling or grammar.
    Also a "Thesaurus" may prevent you from starting most of your paragraphs with "After that"
    I take it you are American? Thought so!

  2. Better I guess, to be American than a grammar snob, yes? :)

    I found one misspelled word in checking just now and another ("one one" that should have been "one on", a pretty easy mistake to make). There were two paragraphs, one after another opening with "After that" which I agree was unnecessary but really, it was just not that big of a deal now, was it?

    Fabulous how some people (very few really) post things like this anonymously in putting out no threat whatsoever to themselves. No one, trust me, was impressed.

    Wouldn't it have been so much nicer, more friendly, less snobbish and a better representation of your point (and home COUNTry) if you had simply let me know privately what you found so that I could correct it?

    You see, I actually do that for others when I find things in their writings as a professional courtesy (and a friendly comment by a reader to the author). What is important you see, are the readers, not showing off how awesome you are by pointing out publically how cool you are by slamming someone who took the time and effort to put something out there for people to enjoy (hopefully, but obviously not everyone, right?).

    But then, I am an American and I have care and consideration for others whom I don't even know (try hard not to compare me to what my country does around the world or to our own citizens, for that matter; I'm just a person, okay? I don't agree with a lot of what my country does; I was just born here and I've had written plenty about how things need to change).

    We also try our best (bloggers who are unattached without a staff) as we have no one editing other than ourselves, and I am on a busy schedule (unlike people who post randomly on their own schedule which could be wide open as they simply traverse the internet posting anonymously with all the time in the world to do so; and saying now that you are very busy too would mean little as you could easily be lying. So really, why bother at this point?).

    But hey, all the best to you!
    And thank you so very much for your comments.