Richard Polt, a philosophy professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati specializing in Heidegger, has a serious obsession with typewriters, and he has written a very philosophical article (with great illustrations) called Typology: A Phenomenology of Early Typewriters (“The metaphysical significance of writing machines”):

The typewriter is in the process of becoming a thing of the past, along with dial phones and vinyl records. “Things of the past” are still present, of course — it’s their world that is absent (as Heidegger says somewhere about museum pieces). The context in which these things once fit, which gave them their appropriateness and integrated them into human lives, has slipped away — disappearing, piece by imperceptible piece, until one day we recognize that the Gestalt has already changed, that we live in a new world. …

… My own interest in early typewriters — writing machines of the 1870s through the 1930s — is primarily imaginative: these survivors draw me, both as conduits for written signs and as signs themselves of a lost world. In this talk I will try to use my imaginative interest as a basis for phenomenological reflection. I am going to focus especially on the question of “typing”: that is, both our acts of identifying types or forms of things, and the process by which types are themselves generated. What I think I see in typewriters is the finitude of typing.

If that’s too metaphysical for you, check out his Classic Typewriter Page; if you have even the slightest interest in typewriters, I guarantee you there’s something for you there, from the Brief History of Typewriters to the Typewriter Parts page (“What to call the whatchamacallits”) to ETCetera, the journal of the Early Typewriter Collectors Association (edited, of course, by Polk).

Previous LH typewriter posts: History of the Russian Typewriter and Polyglot Typewriting; I see that in the latter I linked to Polk’s list of typewriter repair shops worldwide. You can’t escape the guy! (Typology link via wood s lot.)


  1. Richard Hershberger says

    Typewriters are still current office tools. Any office of any size has one, for filling out forms and other occasional odd jobs. They are no longer used for writing letters and many other documents, but they still have their niche. The day may come when this is no longer true, but it isn’t here yet.

  2. rootlesscosmo says

    Around 50 years ago there was a Manhattan typewriter repair shop–I remember it as being on Astor Place but I could be mistaken–that for a long time displayed an old machine in the window, with a sheet of paper in the roller and all the symbols typed out. An accompanying sign said the typewriter had been abandoned by a customer and offered a small reward (possibly the typewriter itself) to anyone who could identify the alphabet. From the thickness of the dust layer on the paper, this challenge had defeated all comers for some time.

  3. Damn, I wish someone had a photo of that sheet of paper they could post! What a challenge!

  4. I have a simply horrid Brother word processor from the 1980s — not a typewriter in its truest sense, nor yet a computer.

  5. Oh man, I remember those. My boss got one and was inordinately proud of it, but I thought it was, as you say, horrid.

  6. When I clicked on the links and got 404’s, I feared the worst, but it turns out he’s just moved everything to a more up-to-date website, so all I had to do was update the links; all the typewriter goodness is still there for everyone to enjoy.

  7. Lars Mathiesen says

    13 years have gone by, but even in 2008 I don’t think we had access to an honest-to-god typewriter at work. If you really really needed printed letters on a paper form, you’d cut and paste(*) lines from a printout of a nonce word processor document. That was in Sweden. And now we get annoyed if the form is not editable PDF.
    (*) Remember scissors? And glue sticks?

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