The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: typewriter

Cormac McCarthy to auction his typewriter

Cormac McCarthy's venerable typing machine
(Cormac McCarthy’s venerable typing machine)

This is a heavily worn Lettera 32 – it’s an Olivetti portable typewriter. It’s clearly seen some heavy use. I find it hard to imagine just how much use it’s seen though — about 5 million words across 7 books and numerous smaller works.

I’ve blogged about my own Olympia SG-3 earlier in the year and this is the absolute opposite end of the scale. The portable typewriter is a smaller, lighter, portable option. It’s not at all dissimilar in its intended use to the laptop of today:

(There’s a really good photo showing how a portable typewriter is used in the same way as a laptop on the BBC News site but it’s a getty image and I’m not going to risk embedding it here – BBC link)

That’s the very good thing about the portable typewriter. They really are portable. They are designed specifically to fit into a bag and be light enough to carry around. You could even get cases which allowed you to carry files, accessories, supplies along with the typewriter etc — very much like a laptop bag.

My big model sits on a desk in my room and stays there until I get someone to help me move it. In return it’s a considerable chunk of springs and gears which can do some amazing things with no more than a cunning use of gears and springs (decimal tabulation anyone?) and is pretty hard to hurt. It’s really up to the user — you wouldn’t say that a laptop is better than a desktop to type documents on. It may have different features but at the expense of portability, for example. If you only need to type notes any typewriter will do that fine.

I can’t possibly afford Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter but I think I’m content with my current typewriter altogether. It’s given me a good few months of reliable, handy service so far and long may it continue.


Obsolete technology lives on

I spotted an article from the 17 July 2009 on the Times website on places where you might not expect obsolete technology to have held on.

For example, says the article, the NYPD spent $432,900 on typewriter maintenance last year (and nearly $1 million the year before).  They use typewriters to fill out forms – for seized property mainly – and for backup in case a catastrophe takes the digital side of the force off-line.

I completely agree with this idea, it’s a very good one.  I’ve got into the habit of often filling out forms on my typewriter because it’s capable of black capitals and it’s neater than I could previously manage.  I also typewrite the addresses on my postal envelopes.

Other technologies in the list include tapes (audio cassettes) which are used in prisons in the US because CDs are often banned because they make such effective weapons if shattered.  The story reports that cassette sales to inmates is one of the few growth areas in a physical media music industry that is in decline.

Another example is the telegram – something I admire as an event more than as a means of communication, just imagine if the Queen sent you a text on your 100th birthday?  This one is very interesting from a legal perspective because in the USA if you send a telegram with some juicy piece of intellectual property to anyone, even yourself, you can use the date and time on the telegram as evidence in a copyright trial.  This is a good stop gap measure while you are waiting for any formal copyright processes to be completed.  It is also a useful means of extremely quick recorded message delivery, useful for contractual purposes.

One final point for me microfiche.  I think microfiche is one of those products that are fun until you have to use it. I quite like, now and again, reading the newspapers from historical events and these are now generally only available on microfiche simply because of the size savings.  That sort of interesting and different way to spend an afternoon in the library would very quickly lose its charm if I needed the information, and particularly if I needed it quickly.  Keyword search may not be perfect but you’d miss it if it was gone.

I think that technology is only obsolete when it is no longer useful to you.  Typewriters, audio cassettes and microfiche are all perfectly effective at what they do, they were replaced because the alternatives had benefits but that doesn’t mean they stopped working at the same time.

Just plain, old fashioned detective work

Part of the reasoning behind my love of typewriters stems from the fact that they can be used, so conclusively, as articles of evidence – this is bad for any criminal enterprises I might have planned but is wonderful from a sense of personality and uniqueness and that’s something I really quite like. The case that I think of most fondly is the Ian Frazier (The Atlantic November 1997) article “Typewriter Man” which included a wonderful anecdote about a single key:

Mrs. Tytell tapped her clear-lacquered fingernail on a key in the upper right-hand corner of the keyboard. The key had a plus sign on top and an equal sign below. “This key on this particular kind of typewriter was the deciding piece of evidence in a multi-million-dollar fraud case I worked on a few years ago,” she said. “A younger son of a wealthy man had been specifically excluded from inheriting some theaters the father had owned. An assignment document, typewritten and with the father’s signature, gave the theaters to the older sons instead. The younger son was twelve when his father died, and he always felt that his father wouldn’t have done that to him, because his father used to take him to these theaters all the time. The younger son grew up and became a lawyer and pursued this question, and finally he came to me with the assignment document, and I found that it was typed on an Underwood of this particular model and year. The assignment document had no plus or equal signs on it, but I was able to prove that the machine that had typed it also typed other documents that did have those signs, and that was the clincher. Underwood didn’t add that particular key to their keyboard until well after the document in question was supposed to have been signed. When I explained all this to the lawyer for the older brothers, he said, ‘So what?’ A few weeks later they settled out of court for a lot of money.”
The Atlantic

There are also stories from the days of the manual telegraph of individuals being identified by their “fist” – the subtle differences in how individual senders use their particular equipment but there is not much in terms of personality in the output from a typical printer. The nearest that happens today is that some laser printers leave some coloured dots on the paper that refer to the serial number of that printer – it’s useful for cases of fraud, ransom demands etc but there’s a huge issue of personal privacy for those times when the printer isn’t used to commit a crime but instead, say, is used to print off a primary school book report. That’s a whole different issue though. There is a method of looking up which computer posted particular methods by comparing the IP address of that particular poster with the records of the ISP that provided the internet connection – it’s the easiest method because the ISP generally possesses a real life name to bill their customers every month.

There’s a vast difference in my eyes between an expert with a loupe identifying the faint wear marks of a typewriter key on a stack of paper documents or a trained ear picking out the subtle differences in pace and pressure involved in using a telegraph key and an expert reading off a faint barcode printed between the lines on a page and cross referencing to a long chart of other codes. It’s also not nearly as interesting as a piece of sleuthing and that’s a sad change, although a much, much cheaper alternative to paying an expert with the technical skill to identify the faint, non scientific details that distinguish each typewriter and telegraph key to a legal standard of proof.

I thought the first sort of sleuthing has died out to be replaced entirely with the second kind – this sort of database and spreadsheet lookup. It’s more efficient but it’s not necessarily nicer, I quite like the old style of doing things.

That’s not necessarily the case – just as recently as early January 2009 there was a signed letter, reportedly written by the late Bob Hayes, which was read out by his sister which talked about his feelings, on 29 October 1999, which may have contributed to his death on 18 September 2002. The letter, which was photographed extensively, was not checked for its faint barcode or a property of the printer that printed it, but its typeface. The letter was typed in Calibri, a font which was invented in 2003 for its use as an internal Microsoft typeface which was then released to the world as part of Microsoft Office 2007, I think it’s a great font and I type a lot of my personal work in it. The problem is that there’s no way that Hayes could have typed out a letter in that style (Calibri) in 1999, it also couldn’t have been stored on disc and printed off on a copy of Microsoft Office 2007 because it was signed. How then could it come to have been printed in this typeface? For more details see Dallas News

Is it a forgery? I can’t say for sure based on the evidence I currently know of, but it’s quite a stretch to say that a blank page was signed and combined with a floppy disc or a CD and then printed off with the text of the letter when Microsoft released a program which contained the right font rather than someone else, who was still alive after 2002, used their new word processor’s default font on their new computer to type a letter and then signed it “Bob Hayes”. Occam’s razor says the simplest answer is usually right, is it in this case?

The letter in question - signed and typed

The letter in question - signed and typed

Typewriters III

I am now the owner of a 1972 Olympia Sg3. This is a gigantic, desk bound typewriter hailing from West Germany. It’s good for sitting at and looking at the words you have typed after the fact but feels exactly like typing in the way that anyone would today associate with a computer, with one notable exception. The backspace key exists on my typewriter but it is not the same as a backspace key on a computer – the carriage moves back one space but the letter does. NOT go away. The general way that I correct my text on this (I’m using the typewriter)is backspacing through the mistake and replacing them with hard typed x’s which serve to delete the mark and then to take a half line gap upwards and retype the particular word.

It produces text which, although completely legible, is also immutable, your notes are written exactly as typed them. My particular model won’t exceed 10pt but that is more than enough for my purposes. The real power of the typewriter, as I’m finding it, is genuinely being able to take the typed page out of the typewriter and to edit it and, then once you start to redraft to actually type the entire page out again, thereby exposing yourself to the words and arguments you’re put¬ting across without being able to cheat (as I often do) and reusing the typing of earlier versions. The fact that each draft is completely new is a useful step to forcing me to actually think about what I’m trying to submit.

It’s possibly a little hopeful to see this as a panacea as far as producing quality work but it is a tool which a) I’m going to want to use and b) one which by nature of its very construction a device that will require each draft to be thoughtfully produced, instead of simply recycled. I hope that will produce a better finished product than simply copy and pasting into different shapes.

Typewriters II

My search for a reasonably priced typewriter continues apace . It’s absolutely incredible seeing the online market for typewriters – anyone who has ever tried to sell a computer they bought brand new for thousands of pounds a few years later will have discovered that computers are not an investment piece. As it happens there is still a huge amount of interest in the humble typewriter (I’m a case in point) and the prices these machines, generally considered to have been made obsolete by the personal computer, can still command is genuinely surprising in the days of the EEE PC netbook. The days of a typewriter costing a week’s wages are admittedly nearly entirely behind us but they can still command a not insubstantial price.

While I’m only looking at the low end of the manual market I’m still trying to buy something that will stand up to me punching away on it for a fair few years to come and some of the models that appear to be quality typing machines that I’m looking at on Ebay have taken a surprising leap past the £50 mark. An astonishing figure considering that a lot of the sellers suggest the typewriter would merely make a “good talking point or ornament” as opposed to a production machine used for typing. I’m particularly interested in machines which come with a reasonable stack of consumables because the global trade in typewriter ribbons is not as rosy as it used to be and I’m not certain of my ability to track down a replacement with nothing more than the spindles on the typewriter as a clue, not to mention the fact that being able to lug the typewriter onto my desk and begin using it immediately is worth a lot to me.

Additionally the courier fees on these huge pieces of cast iron and steel are also high, with the large desktop machines (that I’m admittedly very interested in owning), especially those designed for larger paper sizes, tipping the scales at nearly 20kg and being primarily solid metal. Savings can be made by buying one of the smaller portable models, which still aren’t hugely portable compared to a 638 gram Sony P but remain a portable possibility when moving around the house or on extended trips, which I hear are less able to keep up with fast typists and are somewhat less solid than their big office bound cousins but are perfectly usable.

Since I’m actively moving to a typewriter to slow myself down and force me to take more time with my work this is not necessarily a bad thing but I think I’d still appreciate the bulk of a desktop typewriter as a visual statement. This is simply to appeal to the Cro-Magnon male in me which whole heartedly believes something can’t be serious until it makes your desk creak.

Typewriters I

Few older technologies get quite as much notice and affection as the humble typewriter and it’s become my latest Ebay browsing fascination, that is if I can see an opportunity to pick up a cheap model I think I’m going to dip my toe in these retro waters.

Believe it or not I have thought this through, my work needs to be submitted online and if I could not use the typewriter for this I’m basically looking for a roughly 10kg desk ornament but I have a quick, effective scanner with a copy of speedy and accurate OCR software installed. Therefore, if I feed my scanner typewritten notes I can extract the text from them with no problem whatsoever and great speed. OCR would immediately choke if I made it try to read my handwriting (I’d offer to be a CAPTCHA but I’d be too effective) but if I try to make it read evenly spaced lines of typescript it will run through the documents with aplomb. This means that I get to benefit from the alleged (I have never tried it for myself) advantages of the typewriter – the distraction free writing environment – I’m really interested in this on because I’m very, very easily distracted by computers, frankly because they are my favourite toy, so I often sit down to work on real work and end up on a highly informative but irrelevant quest on Google or by a new email that’s come in – and the increased ability to draft without editing as I go along. I’ve always found it very hard to redraft my work, to be honest and I suspect that any incentive to change this would be fantastic because it’s a recognised beneficial process for writers and the extra coordination that it requires is a positive step in writing carefully and better.  I also think it might come in handy as a quick and easy way to set a typed address onto an envelop for posting.

And if all else fails? Well, maybe I am in the market for a 10kg desk ornament. I’ll keep it with me as long as I can because it’ll make me look very arty and boho and alternative and I’ll just have to learn to live with that. At the very least it’s something I can bring on holiday and use to scare the bejeezus out of the baggage scale.