Meet My Underwood No. 5

First published May 30 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I collect typewriters. I don’t know why — I just do.

As I write this on a Bluetooth keyboard connected to an Apple Macbook, where the words I type appear on a screen through some magic of integrated circuitry and electrochemistry, I can’t help but cast envious glances at the 1923 Underwood No 5. Typewriter that sits on my credenza.

Now that is a piece of technology. It’s jam-packed with mechanical linkages and doodads that hint at wondrous functionality. It’s a machine built to do serious stuff. If I threw my Macbook through a window, there’s a 50/50 chance that no one would notice. It might not even break the glass. There’s a greater chance that no one would care. But if I throw that Underwood through a window, I’d be making a statement.

If you clicked on the link above, you’ll see that the Underwood didn’t want to hide its underbelly. Side windows and plenty of cutaways allow users to fully appreciate the almost 30 pounds of metallic integration that drove this particular typewriter. Nothing was hidden under the hood; it was all out there for everyone to see.  When you hit the carriage return, you unleashed a string of mechanical causes and effects that reminded you of a Rube Goldberg machine — like playing Mousetrap when you were a kid. There was no nuance about the Underwood. It was full-on industrial cleverness.

There was also no obsolescence built into this machine.  The heart of the mechanical workings came from a design introduced in 1896 that defined what typewriters would look like and how they would work for the next six decades, until the introduction of the IBM Selectric in the ‘60s.

Can you imagine introducing a new product today that would enjoy a 60-year run? Most of us would be happy with a 60-month run.  By the way, my typewriter, which has just turned 90, still works like a charm, thank you.  As far as I know, my typewriter and Betty White are the only two things that are still working at that age.

As I write this column on my more modern keyboard, the only outward sign that I’m working on anything is the muted “Apple-tick” of the keyboard, a discreet repetitive sound that falls somewhere between a quiet thud and a click.  It’s certainly nothing that would annoy the person in the next cubicle. Even with an office full of them, it sounds more like a gentle pattering of rain on a rooftop.

But fire up a steno pool full of Underwoods and you have a cacophony that literally screams productivity.  Typing a century ago was not for the faint of heart. It was a full-on sensory experience that you had to warm up for.  I, for one, remember typing class where the proper technique had to be drilled into you, preparing you for the sheer physicality required to effectively operate one of these machines. It was more basic training than user experience.

Why do I love typewriters? It’s certainly no practical reason. It’s pretty hard to file an online column written on an Underwood. I think, rather, that I love them because they remind me of a different time — a time when we were more muscular in our approach to technology. We were brasher, cockier and strived for permanence. We wanted to leaver a footprint that would last for decades, rather than cash out our startup in five years. We were not afraid to sweat a little bit to get ahead.

Or maybe it’s because it’s the only thing in my office older than I am.

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