If you’re young enough that you’ve always done your typing on a laptop or PC keyboard, you might have forgotten – if you ever knew – that typewriters used to be stand-alone machines. Electric typewriters had different “font balls” that needed to be removed and replaced, ink ribbons would tear or run out, and the loud hum of the machine was a constant noise in the office, along with the clacking of the keys.
But even before electric typewriters, the manual typewriter made a lot of noise. There was no electrical hum, but the keys that hit the paper made a lot more noise, and there was no [Enter] or [Return] key. The keys didn’t move, the paper did, because the paper was threaded onto a movable roller bar. In order to move from the end of one line to start the beginning of the next, the typist had to pull a lever (called a “carriage return”) sideways that returned the roller bar from the far-right position back to the left-hand starting position. That lever made a distinctive zzwiiiick! noise that punctuated the regular clicking of the keys. What’s more, most manual typewriters had a little bell that would ring when the typist was approaching the end of the right-hand margin, so that they would know that they were about to run out of paper. Unlike today’s computers, which automatically move the cursor to the next line, a typist using a manual typewriter could end up stuck at the right edge of the page, with all of the keys hitting the same spot, creating a big black smudge of ink instead of individual words.
With all the clicking and clacking, the bells dinging and the carriage return levers making their peculiar buzz, a busy office in the 1950s was definitely a noisy place! But “one person’s noise is another person’s music,” as they say, and there have been people in the past who have taken the sounds of typewriters and made them part of musical compositions.
One of the first was Leroy Anderson, a popular orchestral composer, who wrote the short work called “The Typewriter” in 1950. In 1968 the group The Lovin’ Spoonful used a typewriter as percussion on their single “Money”. And of course, the theme song from that 1980 working woman’s movie “9 to 5” is a natural place for the typewriter to play a musical part!
These days, with manual typewriters and even electric ones ending up more in antique stores than modern office buildings, we’re forgetting about the music that a typist makes. Well, most of us are forgetting anyway – the Boston Typewriter Orchestra is rescuing old machines and making new music. Learn about the BTO here, and the next time you see an old manual typewriter in the window of a vintage shop, remember that you can use it to create more than words!