Belfast Telegraph

Why the Russians are reverting to type

It was responsible for creating some of the 20th century's greatest literature. Now the typewriter is getting a second lease of life – thanks to Vladimir Putin. Paul Hopkins reports

When I was a young – struggling and desperate – correspondent covering the Rhodesia war in the late-1970s, I banged out my daily dispatches to Dublin, Glasgow and elsewhere using my proudly possessed portable Remington typewriter.

It was black and amber in colour and, though sturdy and generally reliable, the odd key – the letter Z for Zimbabwe, I recall – oft-times stuck.

When finished my report, I would take the wad of typed paper to the general post office in Salisbury (now Harare) and, using my international telex card, would send the story on to to the GPO in Dublin, say, who would then pass it on to Des Kavanagh in the wire room of the Irish Press and eventually it would land on foreign editor Julian de Kassel's desk.

How outdated and antiquated the whole process was back then. Nowadays, with e-mail and instant messaging, Twitter and its ilk, any one of us can send a story to any far-flung corner of the globe and all in an instant.

Ask any young person today what 'Qwerty' is and they'll tell you it's the virtual keyboard on their smartphone, or tablet: ask them have they ever seen a typewriter, let alone used one, and they'll look at you like you were some alien species.

To those born in the computer age, or those with short memories, typewriters were those machines which had a keyboard like computers but, instead of a screen, had a roller into which paper was slid. When you banged on the keyboard, the mechanical arms, each carrying a letter, banged on the paper and the intervening inked tape, called a ribbon, impregnated it. And, hey presto, the printed word.

Now virtually obsolete, typewriters are back in the news. Almost every media outlet made at least one mention in the past week of this former must-have for any office. Russia has decided to bring them back into operation so its secrets can remain on paper instead of floating around cyberspace to be peeped into – as whistleblower Edward Snowden has done with US secrets.

It all seems a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. Typed documents can be stolen, photographed and are easier to access and their contents memorised.

If the sender wants to remember what was sent out, a carbon copy is mandatory. That means two copies are available for snooping. And Vladimir Putin's offices may now need to stock up on paper shredders, whose numbers are now declining. Most diplomatic and defence-related communications have always been in code, anyhow. During the two World Wars, it involved someone encrypting a mail in code and someone else reading it in code.

Another headache for Russia is it may have to create space for stocking these paper files, while computers need only a small chip to store gigabytes of information.

Christopher Sholes, an American mechanical engineer, invented the modern typewriter in 1866. It had taken him five years, dozens of experiments and two patents.

A business associate of Sholes, James Densmore, suggested splitting up the keys for letters commonly used together to speed up the typing. This became today's standard Qwerty keyboard.

Sholes convinced one Philo Remington (the infamous rifle manufacturer) to market the device and the first typewriter was offered for sale in 1874.

A few years later, improvements made by Remington engineers gave the typewriter its market appeal, with George K Anderson, of Memphis, Tennessee, patenting the typewriter ribbon in 1886.

History has it that Mark Twain was the first author to submit a typewritten manuscript – Huckleberry Finn – to a publisher.

There's something rather magical about catching an old photographic glimpse of one of your favourite authors at work – the hint of seeing literary genius in flow. Even better if they're working on a typewriter. Maybe it's the vintage and nostalgic charm, or perhaps the physicality the noisy machine lends to the writing process.

William Faulkner (The Sound And The Fury, As I Lay Dying) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Though he normally wrote by hand, he wrote so fast that he typed up his day's work to read the next morning.

Ernest Hemingway used, at various times, a Corona, an Underwood 'noiseless portable' and a Royal to forge his literary masterpieces, while James Bond creator Ian Fleming used various Royal portables, including a gold-plated Royal Quiet Deluxe. Songsmiths Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen used typewriters to transcribe their hand-written works.

Now, alas, its seems only the Russians (again) are going it alone with their decision to turn back time to the halcyon days of the typewriter.

But back to my days in Rhodesia. After a report by me – on torture techniques used on captured guerrillas by Ian Smith's Selous Scouts – appeared in the Sunday Press, I was visited at my flat by a couple of Smith's thugs. I had sent the report out by courier and requested the byline to be my Irish one – Pol O hAibicin.

Smith's men questioned me as to whether I and this O hAibicin were one and the same. I denied it vehemently. They left almost as abruptly as they had arrived, but took away my Remington.

Two days later, on returning to my flat from having used a colleague's typewriter, I found my old friend deposited outside the apartment door.

Thank goodness those old typewriters did not possess the luxury of a hard drive.

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