Long live typewriters

I think Richard Polt’s Classic Typewriter Page was the first proper website I read, way back when. I had an Underwood No. 5 and was keen to learn more about it.

The Classic Typewriter Page : all about typewriters
I’m Richard Polt, the creator and webmaster for The Classic Typewriter Page. I grew up loving typewriters and have been collecting them in earnest since 1994. I’m the editor of ETCetera, the magazine of the Early Typewriter Collectors’ Association. I’ve been blogging with and about typewriters since 2010. And I’m the author of a book, The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century.

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I love the fact that the look of that website hasn’t changed at all over the years. It doesn’t need to. Here are some typewriter-related links, starting with some very odd-looking examples.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s typewriter – a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball
The Hansen writing ball was an outstanding invention. It was simple to use and, unlike the Remington typewriter, worked almost silently. Both the Remington and the Hansen writing ball were exhibited at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1878, and the writing ball received a gold medal, but the Remington typewriter, according to a letter Malling-Hansen wrote that year, received only a silver medal. So, in the jury’s eyes, the writing ball was judged to be of better construction.

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This 1950s Keaton Music Typewriter is the most vintage and wonderfully impractical thing ever
It is estimated that between six and 24 of these machines are left in existence – and we hear that one was recently up for sale on Etsy for $6,000 (£4,290). Thanks to the fine folk at Musical Toronto for bringing this wonderful thing of oh-my-god-I-want-this-now beauty to our attention.

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The Waverley Standard Typewriter, England 1896
The distinguishing aspect of its design is the position of the type bars, which stand vertically behind the platen and swing down towards the typist to strike the top of the platen when typing. This was all about giving visible tying, where one could see what one had just typed. However, with the escape for the paper blocked by the type bars, the carriage design became quite complicated. To get a sheet of paper ready for typing, the bottom edge is pushed back a few inches on the three prongs that are seen under the three hoops of the paper bail in front of the carriage. As one types the paper goes up and around the platen and curls up into a cylinder in the paper bail. The paper is then pulled out sideways.

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Wanting to start your own collection?

Man selling $100,000 collection of 600 vintage Smith-Corona typewriters
My collection consists of over 600 typewriter items including the company’s first typewriter in the 1880’s to one of the company’s last typewriters in 2000’s and all models in between, along with all types of items that correspond to the typewriters, including ads, accessories, displays, documents, manuals, photos, shipping crates, etc. Smith Corona’s products are beautiful, interesting, unique, colorful, and when displayed, fun to look at.

They’re not all what they seem, though.

WWII Enigma machine found at flea market sells for $51,000
While the flea-market vendor thought the machine was a unique typewriter, the mathematician knew exactly what he was buying, and felt “compelled to purchase it.”

I didn’t realise the extent to which they’re still used today…

A prisoner’s only writing machine
I asked Tom Furrier, a typewriter repairman in Arlington, Massachusetts, what he thought of the price of Swintec machines, which he occasionally sells and repairs. “It might as well be a thousand dollars, to some people,” he said. “But I don’t think the cost is outrageous, by any means.” Hundreds of old-fashioned typewriters sit on shelves in Furrier’s shop. I asked him why prisoners couldn’t use refurbished machines like that. “You could almost fashion anything out of these pieces,” he told me, pointing to the steel lever arms of an Underwood. “It would be lethal, I’m sure. Almost any part in this machine.”

… with people doing all sorts of things with them.

Sincerity Machine: the Comic Sans typewriter
“The Comic Sans typewriter was made after viewing a document with a typewriter font present in it; I realized there was nothing stopping me from altering a typewriter to write in a different font.”

A visual history of typewriter art from 1893 to today
Though early typewriter art made its mark, the golden age of the discipline was still decades away — it wasn’t until the concrete poetry movement of the 1950s–1970s, best described as concerned with “poetry that appeals to the eye and not the ear,” that the typewriter became a commonly embraced artistic medium.

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Wanting something a little more modern?

Penna: a vintage typewriter-inspired bluetooth keyboard
Three years in the making, PENNA offers the feeling of a mechanical keyboard with keycaps that let you know if you actually typed that letter or not, helping to reduce mistakes. The keyboard will be available with either Diamond Shape Keycaps (rounded corners give a smooth feeling and aim for more accurate typing) or Retro Chrome Keycaps (more like an old typewriter), depending on your preference.

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It’s strange to see a ‘typewriter’ with a row of Function keys.

Hanx Writer, an iPad app by Tom Hanks that simulates the experience of a typewriter
Hanx Writer is an iPad app by actor Tom Hanks and developer Hitcents that simulates the experience of a typewriter. Hanks wrote in the New York Times in 2013 about his love of typewriters. The app recreates the sounds and general appearance of a typewriter with three models to choose from: the free Hanx Prime Select, the Hanx 707, and the Hanx Golden Touch.

So, in summary, they’re still going strong.

Documentary on the past, present and future of typewriters
There are 3 main stories: one is about a collector of pre-qwerty and rare old typewriters (Martin Howard), another about a struggling typewriter repair shop in Berkeley (California Typewriter), then there’s me and my typewriter vivisection.

Let’s end how we started, with Richard Polt.

The Typewriter Revolution
The Typewriter Revolution documents the movement and provides practical advice on how to choose a typewriter, use it, and care for it—from National Novel Writing Month to letter-writing socials, from type-ins to customized typewriters.

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This book was a great birthday present this week. I especially liked the ribbon bookmark.

The sweet smell of failure

To be filed under ‘just because we can doesn’t mean we should’.

The failed quest to bring smells to the internet
In November of 2001, the smell of success began to fade for Joel Bellenson.

His invention, the iSmell, promised to bring scent to the internet. He’d developed cutting-edge sensory technology, assembled a dream-team of Fortune 500 execs, and raised $20m. Video game companies, Hollywood studios, and internet giants were lining up for partnerships.

But he’d forgotten to ask a crucial question: Did anyone actually want this?

It turned out nobody wanted iSmell, in the same way that no one wanted AromaRama and Smell-O-Vision in the 60s, but that’s not stopping people from still trying with this.

The oPhone is currently trying to convince the world it needs scent-based text messages, and the Cyrano (a “digital scent speaker”) aims to create “smell tracks” with names like “Thai Beach Vacation,” which can be played to the aromas of coconut and suntan lotion.

“Right now, nobody’s waking up at 3 a.m. saying, ‘I really want to send a scent message,’ ” oPhone founder, David Edwards, told The New Yorker. “But one day they will.”

Nah they won’t. It’s a sad, silly story, but the guy behind iSmell still stands by his invention.

Today, Bellenson’s a bit sour looking back on Digiscents’ failure. He insists the idea isn’t dead, but has merely “just been injured.”

“People just wanted to dance on our grave because we were so ridiculous,” he defends. “They were just afraid of our greatness.”

Nearly 20 years after the downfall of the iSmell, that greatness isn’t so apparent. The device is omnipresent on nearly every “worst inventions of all time” list and is universally heralded as a technological feat with no practical application — a paradigm of the dot-com bubble’s ugly bravado.

Blogger’s still here?

TechCrunch has news of an update to Blogger. Nothing newsworthy about the update, really. What’s catching our eye is that Blogger still exists at all.

Blogger gets a spring cleaning
It’s surprising that Blogger is still around. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Blogger site in my searches, and it sure doesn’t have a lot of mindshare. Google also has let the platform linger and hasn’t integrated it with any of its newer services. The same thing could be said for Google+, too, of course. Google cuts some services because they have no users and no traction. That could surely be said for Blogger and Google+, but here they are, still getting periodic updates.

I used to have a blog on Blogger, and prompted by this article I’ve just had a very strange stroll down memory lane to visit it, via the Internet Archive’s marvellous Wayback Machine.

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I really liked the look of that old blog. Very mid-2000s. Are there no blogs that look like this anymore?

PDFs will outlive us all

Here’s an interesting piece on what could be quite a dull topic. As we’ve seen before, PDFs have a habit of catching people out, so it makes sense to learn a little more about this ubiquitous file format.

I like the fact that, given that link to Manafort and Trump, the “killer app” may have been tax forms, of all things.

Why the PDF is secretly the world’s most important file format
Basically, every year just before tax season, the IRS would mail out tax forms to hundreds of millions of people around the United States. This annual mailing was, during non-Census years, the largest annual mailing that the postal service had to deal with—around 110 million individual mailings annually, according a 1991 New York Times article. And the IRS, dealing with a complicated tax code, had to manage and deal with a wide variety of exceptions and differing forms, for both businesses and individual taxpayers.

I can’t begin to estimate what their printing and mailing costs were, each year.

“In terms of employee satisfaction alone, Acrobat pays for itself,” an IRS official told Adobe. “Add to that the benefits of easier document administration and less paper storage, and it’s clear that Acrobat and Adobe PDF provide real returns to the agency and the people we serve.”

Clearly there’s some fluff in that quote, but the IRS was very much a microcosm of the business world at large. The PDF, in a very short amount of time, became one of the most important ways business users shared documents.

And you must watch this Adobe Acrobat 1.0 promotional video, from 1993, perfectly describing office life before PDFs and the net. It looks like a parody at first, but I don’t think it is – that’s just how I remember it.

Introducing Adobe Acrobat 1.0

From mighty oaks, little acorns grew

The hulking, retro computers that made way for your iPhone
His delightful images present every dial, button and screen in exquisite detail. The computers in Guide to Computing are quaint—slow and stodgy by today’s standards—yet fascinating. They are the precursor to the machines so central to your life. Appreciate their importance, but also their beauty.

Beautiful examples of relatively recent objects that we just don’t see any more. They may as well be from the pyramids.

Guide to Computing
This wonderful series of historic computers documents the evolution of design within computing history. Featuring such famous machines as the IBM 1401 and Alan Turing’s Pilot ACE and the Xerox Alto; Guide to Computing showcases a minimalist approach to design that precedes even Apple’s contemporary motifs.

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A time before Excel?

An article from 1984 about these crazy new electronic ledger sheets, or “spreadsheets”.

A spreadsheet way of knowledge
There is no doubt that the electronic spreadsheet saves time and provides insight; there is no doubt that even greater benefits will one day be derived from these grids. Yet all these benefits will be meaningless if the spreadsheet metaphor is taken too much to heart. After all, it is only a metaphor. Fortunately, few would argue that all relations between people can be quantified and manipulated by formulas. Of human behaviour, no faultless assumptions – and so no perfect model — can be made.

I wonder what the author would have made of the Quantified Self movement, that attempts to incorporate data from a person’s daily life into various formulas and models. Spreadsheets are everywhere now, not just in the office of accountants from Cincinnati.

Remembering Geocities, the future

Geocities was arguably where it all began, for me at least. It looks so ugly and ridiculous now – hopeless grammar, frames, silly gifs, pages forever ‘under construction’. So old-fashioned. But the 90s weren’t that long ago, were they? The future dates so fast.

Perhaps a difference between these pages and the blogs and sites of the present day is their lack of professionalism. Or rather, their joy in their amateurism, their spontaneity, their lack of polish.

The web today looks like television, like broadsheets, I can’t tell which is which. It’s all got very boring.

I wish I had kept a record of what I did then, but perhaps this could help. One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age is a Geocities research blog and accompanying tumblr by Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied.

Digging through the Geocities Torrent
The free web hosting service Geocities.com was founded by “Beverly Hills Internet” in July 1995 — exactly the time when the web left academia and started to be made by everyone of us.

Soon it became one of the most popular and inhabited places of the WWW and stayed that way through the second part of 1990′s. In January 1999, on the peak of Dot.com mania, it was bought by Yahoo!.

The new millennium proved Geocities to be a bad investment. Having a page on there became a synonym for dilettantism and bad taste. Furthermore, the time of personal home pages was counted, being replaced with profiles on social networks.

Ten years later, in April 2009, Yahoo! announced that they are going to shut down the service.

On the 26th of October 2009 Geocities seized to exist. In between the announcement and the official date of death a group of people calling themselves Archive Team managed to rescue almost a terabyte of Geocities pages. On the 26th of October 2010, the first anniversary of this Digital Holocaust, the Archive Team started to seed geocities.archiveteam.torrent.

On the 1st of November 2010 Olia and Dragan bought a 2 TB disk and started downloading the biggest torrent of all times.

Gmail’s beginnings and consequences

How Gmail happened: the inside story of its launch 10 years ago
But serious search practically begged for serious storage: It opened up the possibility of keeping all of your email, forever, rather than deleting it frantically to stay under your limit. That led to the eventual decision to give each user 1GB of space, a figure Google settled on after considering capacities that were generous but not preposterous, such as 100MB.

An interesting read about the cautious beginnings of what now seems like such a no brainer. But consider that passage above with this one from Barclay T Blair, information governance expert, in a post entitled “There is no harm in keeping tiny emails”. He had found an article that he thought…

“There is no harm in keeping tiny emails”
… nicely summed up the attitude I encounter from IT and others in our information governance engagements. Ask an attorney sometime if there really is “no harm in keeping tiny emails around in this age of ever-expanding storage space.” The drug dealers of the IG world have really done an incredible job convincing the addicts that the drug has no downside.

The Internet Archive

Still can’t get my head around the scale of these things, the numbers involved.

Internet Archive
Internet Archive is a documentary focused on the future of long-term digital storage, the history of the Internet and attempts to preserve its contents on a massive scale.

Via Webmonkey. Don’t know why it makes me think of this though…

How to preserve an iPhone

We can take photos of them, with them, but how do we keep a record of how they’ve changed everything?

The iPhone and its ilk as museum exhibits for future generations
Putting an iPhone on display in an art museum is an easy, if still unusual, decision to make. Preserving an iPhone in such a way that museum-goers of the 22nd century will be able to appreciate its form and its function, as well as its role in cultural history, becomes somewhat trickier.

What if all these things were invented in the 80s

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After seeing the British BBC show ‘Look around you’, Jo Luijten was inspired by the idea of creating a nonexistent world in the past. Using old software, like QuickBASIC 4.5 and MS-Paint, he created several ’80s and ’90s versions of contemporary social media and video games. Jo Luijten’s girlfriend Kinna McInroe is the voice-over of the ‘Wonders of the World Wide Web’ videos.

http://www.squirrel-monkey.com/

The web we lost – and how to rebuild it

We all know the web’s certainly a different place now than it was ten or fifteen years ago, but Anil Dash points out exactly how — and to what extent — things have changed.

The tech industry and its press have treated the rise of billion-scale social networks and ubiquitous smartphone apps as an unadulterated win for regular people, a triumph of usability and empowerment. They seldom talk about what we’ve lost along the way in this transition, and I find that younger folks may not even know how the web used to be. So here’s a few glimpses of a web that’s mostly faded away:

And then a few days later he writes an update on how to rebuild the web we lost.

Computing’s pioneers

Computer pioneer interactive family tree
BBC News is running a series of articles about pioneering British computers and computer pioneers. To find out about the contribution British scientists made to early computer development and how they were linked, click on the project names below.

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