Vintage newsroom

Amsterdam News in New York in 1936. Photo by Lucien Aigne

I’ve always loved manual typewriters and I have a collection from the 1930s on up. I especially love my big old Underwood and a very small portable from 1932. It started from my Mom, who during her career was a legal secretary and could really fly across those hard to press keys.

I’ve read that Tom Hanks owns more than 200 and the man I bought my favorite Underwood from in Charlottesville, Virginia said that he sold several to the late author Peter Taylor.

According to the typewriter salesman, Taylor, who won the 1986 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for “The Old Forest and Other Stories,” the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “A Summons to Memphis,” and the 1993 PEN/Malamud Award for short story excellence, had to have the perfect typewriter for each project.

And I was fascinated to realize that after Edward Snowden revealed National Security Agency spying on other countries, Russia and Germany reverted to using typewriters for enhanced security. They didn't want the U.S. to be able to hack into their most secret information.

I am reminded of my first job at WGAL, a TV station in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They still used manual typewriters for the on-air news scripts well into the late 1980s. I would often have to write news stories for anchors, typing them onto carbonized sheets of paper with various colored copies for each anchor and the director. So many times I was ripping the script from the typewriter and running it down to the studio, minutes before air time.

By the late 1980s most newsrooms had made the switch to computers.

While still an undergrad, I was freelancing for the Style section of the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal and my editor said, “you’ll have to come in to learn these new computers.”

I was not happy, I loved my typewriter (it was one I had purchased from my landlord for $35) and it took a while to get used to the new feel and touch of the keyboard.

I think most writers feel the words in their finger tips and so it stalled creativity for a bit. And according to some, using a typewriter taps a different part of the brain.

In the mid-1990s, I was a general assignment reporter for The Reading Eagle Reading Times, a newspaper in Reading, Pennsylvania. And while they no longer had typewriters, they still had the telex clanking away as wire stories came in from around the world. And every time there was a big breaking story, like the Oklahoma City bombing, a loud alarm would go off. I was in the newsroom when that story came across the wire and by that afternoon I had discovered a local tie to Timothy McVeigh among a group of Aryan Nations leaders i had been investigating.

We didn’t have cell phones back then. Watch old episodes of Seinfeld and they're using those clunky suitcase phones that first came out. Reporters carried Walkie Talkies with police scanners. And if covering a late school board meeting — deadlines were at Midnight — editors would be saving the space that was still laid out by hand in a room off the newsroom.

But sometimes we were too far away to make it back to the newsroom by deadline, so we had these very bulky computers to type our stories on and then we carried a set of acoustic couplers to send the story over a landline.

Finding a landline meant looking for a pay phone, often in a bar along the way.  I can't even say the number of bars I frequented on that late night beat. We attached two rubber cups to the old-fashioned phone handset and hitting send, we hoped the story went through. So often it would get broken in transmission. Try again. Try again. If deadline was too close, we'd call into the newsroom from that same pay phone and the night cops reporter transcribed our stories as we read them to him.

It was a different time and technology has made access so much easier with volumes of information available instantly, but there are some who think there is merit in the old ways.

In 2014, The London Times decided to start piping typewriter sounds through speakers into the newsroom to help reporters meet deadline, the closer it got to deadline, the more furious the piped-in typing. 

And according to several reports, typewriter sales are making a comeback among millennials, like at Gramercy Typewriter Co., in New York City where sales of manual typewriters have gone from a dismal 10 a month to nearly 115. 

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Kathleen Phalen-Tomaselli covers Washington County government and other county news and events.


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