Dusting Off the Hidden World of Typewriters

November 8, 2011 Updated: April 5, 2014

Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter reeked of brandy and cigarettes. The top cover was missing. Family members told the collector who obtained the typewriter that Hemingway likely tore it off in frustration.

“They said they would not be surprised the reason that cover was missing was because while he was trying to replace a ribbon, he got mad at the machine, ripped off the cover, and threw it,” said documentary filmmaker Gary Nicholson, citing Hemingway’s family members.

Some have polished wood and glass keys, others are lined with silver and gold. Each typewriter is unique, with its own fingerprint, and each grows in character with every keystroke beneath the hands of the writer who wields it.

Although they used to sit on the desk of every writer, typewriters have slowly faded into the liquid crystal glow of the computer age. In May 2010, Nicholson and filmmaker Christopher Lockett came across an article on Wired.com about the last generation of typewriter repairmen.

The two decided to set out and find out whether the typewriter is really dead. This became the premise of their upcoming documentary film, “The Typewriter (In the 21st Century).”

The answer to their question came quickly. “The typewriter is still around. It’s going to stay around for a very long time,” Nicholson said.

What they found was a whole community of people who still use typewriters, from filmmakers and authors, to bloggers and programmers.

“It’s definitely not dead,” Nicholson said. “It was really amazing how many people are still involved with typewriters, especially in this day and age.”

Everyone has their reasons for turning to the old fashioned machines. Some writers use them because there are no distractions—no e-mail, no chatting on Facebook and Twitter. “A lot of people have told us it’s about slowing down,” Nicholson said. “It’s simple. It does one thing: it types.”

Others just enjoy the feel of a typewriter. “They like the feel of the paper, and the smell of the ink, and that ‘tap, tap, tap,’” Nicholson said, adding that many writers believe the loud tap of a typewriter “gets their creative juices flowing, and without that they wouldn’t be able to really write.”

Many others began their work on typewriters and simply never moved on to computers.

They range from all walks of life. Some sit on street benches and type poetry for donations. Some typewriter users are better known, including Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Quentin Tarantino.

Others are simply drawn to the craftsmanship and story each typewriter has to tell.

Hemingway’s typewriter now rests in the home of Steve Soboroff, whose typewriter collection includes those once owned by the likes of John Lennon, Jack London, and Tennessee Williams.

Soboroff is among the many typewriter collectors Nicholson came across while filming. 

“He collects the famous typewriters because for him it’s just fascinating that this person used this typewriter to do such amazing works of art—it’s what got them there,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson and Lockett are still in the process of making their film. They submitted the project to fundraising website Kickstarter to pay for a trip to the East Coast and for the theatrical release.

He hopes to get more on the high-tech typewriter crowd, including the inventor of the USB typewriter who sells a kit that makes typewriters usable as external keyboards for computers.

Nicholson says even the person who holds the patent for Apple’s iPhone touch screen collects typewriters.

The future of typewriters

There are still a few typewriter manufacturers, but they mainly sell to prisons. Much like all forms of modern craftsmanship, today’s typewriters lack the class and feel of the old fashioned ones. Many are built with clear plastic so guards can ensure prisoners aren’t hiding contraband inside them.

“In prisons they don’t allow them to use computers or the Internet. If they want to write letters, they can type on a typewriter,” Nicholson said.

He adds that the Los Angeles county sheriff’s department, which is the largest in the United States, still uses typewriters. Police use them to type out 3×5 cards, and typing them out on a typewriter is faster than formatting the document sizes on a computer. “They’ve tried several times to get rid of them, but they still need typewriters to do their carbon copy forms,” Nicholson said.

But as one street poet told Nicholson, the future of typewriters is going to rest on the younger generations.

While talking about the film, Nicholson said he met some young people who never heard of typewriters, but he notes “I like to turn them on to typewriters … A couple people actually went out and bought typewriters since I told them about making the movie.”

But there is also a growing movement around typewriters—fueled by crowd-based Internet shops like eBay and Craigslist.

“The interesting thing is the younger generation that I’ve talked to has really picked up on typewriters,” Nicholson said, adding “A lot of it is the hipsters.”

At the heart of it all though, what Nicholson and Lockett found is a timeless nature about typewriters that people are still drawn to.

“If you and I have a laptop and that laptop gets old, we think nothing of throwing it away and getting a new one. A typewriter never really gets old. It may fall into disrepair, but it doesn’t really get old,” Nicholson said.

He added, “I think the thing with technology now is it comes out so fast that we don’t actually have much time to appreciate it before something new comes out. Whereas with the typewriter, they’re really beautiful and they’re amazing works of art, and we have time to appreciate the things.”

Follow Joshua on Twitter: @JoshJPhilipp