Thursday, January 31, 2013

Alice vs. The Electric Typewriter

Actual typewriter my grandmother used before she died

The other day I was teaching some undergrad students about email etiquette.  We discussed how Cc works.  I asked them what Cc stood for.

These students knew the Cc meant "carbon copy" but they didn't know why we use that term.  So I got to tell them a pioneer story.

When I was in ninth grade, I took a typing class.  Our class was the last group of students to learn how to type on manual typewriters.  They replaced them the following year.  Our typewriters didn't have letters on the keys so that we would learn to type by touch.

Our typewriters looked something like this.

Imagine black keys with no letters on it.
Something you might not know about manual typewriters is that you have to hit each key with enough force to cause the lever to pop up in order to transfer the ink from the ribbon to the paper.  If you hit the keys too quickly, they can get tangled.

If you hit them too slowly, you don't get the job.

If someone wanted to type the same letter to different people, they could layer papers with a piece of carbon paper.

Don't let the quaint packaging fool you, this stuff was messy and awful.
You could usually type up to four or five copies of a letter at once.  The original was on top, all the other papers were behind each layer of carbon paper.  The force of the key would transfer the carbon onto each paper.

Did you know that carbon paper is reusable?  
One recipient received the top layer (the original) and all other recipients received the carbon copy of the letter.  Now that you know what Cc means, let's begin our story.

When my grandmother was a little girl, she got really sick and when she recovered, her hands would shake.  She didn't let shaky hands stop her from getting an education, teaching school, raising four children, and of course making wonderful bread.  In fact she did more with her shaky hands than I could ever hope to do with my steady ones.

One thing she didn't like to do because of her hands, was write letters.  So she typed them.

I wish I had saved everyone one of those letters from her, but fortunately I saved quite a few.

Actual letters from my grandmother

 I was looking through them the other day and found something that reminded me of a memory I have of Alice.

"I probably told you but once I tried using a new fangled typewriter but gave up in despair.  What a machine but it turned out it was too much for a 82 year old like me.  And I really hate to admit that.  My descendants will have to be glad that I took the one-term class in typing at the BYU away back [sic].  That is if they want to receive correspondence from an ancient forebearer like me."

Here's what happened.

My mother saw the old typewriter that Alice was using and decided to buy her a brand new electric typewriter.

She got her a Smith Corona electric typewriter.

At first Grandma was thrilled with her new present.  I remember her showing me her new typewriter with excitement.

But there was a problem.  She would hit the keys with the same force as she had her manual typewriter.  But electric typewriters don't work the same way.

Instead of levers, electric typewriters have something called a typeball or a daisy wheel.

see how the keys can't get tangled any more?

 This invention was great because it allowed people to type much more quickly.  You didn't have to press the keys very hard and your fingers could fly across the keyboard.

But here's the problem.  Grandma's hands were shaky.  When she would press the letter "D", her finger would shake and before she could move onto the next letter, she would find


had been typed across the page.

By the way, did you know you can adjust the setting on your keyboards to determine how sensitive you want it to be?  Just go to your control panel and to your keyboard properties.

Sadly, this feature wasn't available for my grandmother.  So she regretfully gave the electric typewriter back to my mom.

I still remember when she gave the typewriter back.  I had no idea it was because of her shaky hands.  I thought it was because she just didn't like new technology and wanted to stick to her old ways.  As a cocky college undergraduate student, I was not impressed.  I remember thinking to myself, "No matter how old I get, I'll always be willing to switch to the latest technology.  I'm not going to get stuck in MY ways!"

Little did I know what was waiting for me.

I'd love to have my old phone back.

This post features:

Alice Houston Rasmussen (1913-2001)

My grandmother

me --> Ruth Rasmussen Buchanan --> Alice Houston Rasmussen


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  2. I have my Grandma Dorothy Ward Houston's old typewriter...she was married to Dee Fred Houston and lived in Panguitch.