Mechanical Typewriter Explained: How Typewriters Work

Friday, November 27, 2015

It seems the advent of modern computers has cast typewriters to the pages of history, but has it really? I, for one, am a die-hard for all things retro and yes, I do own a typewriter (a 1929 Royal 10). Nobody can argue there's something nostalgic (almost magical) about pressing one key at a time, doing Tipp-Ex corrections and re-inking ribbons! Best of all, with a typewriter the printer is integrated in it, and you won't require electricity to run, nor will you have to worry about being hacked, or spied on.

How Typewriters work & parts
A typewriter works by means of metal slugs cast with letters of the alphabet (usually two letters per metal slug) striking a ribbon to transfer ink onto paper. As the metal slug is about to strike the paper, the ribbon lifts up and squeezes itself between the metal slug and the paper, making a printed impression as it strikes the paper. A spring mechanism allows the pressed key to return to its natural position, while the roller mechanism holding the paper moves one space to the left for the next character impression until the right edge of the paper is reached. A bell sounds, once the end is reached, alerting you to press the carriage return lever, which turns the paper up and moves the carriage back to the start of the next line.

The nylon ribbon was typically 1/2-inch and came in either solid red, solid black, or two-tone red-black.

The workings of a typewriter are very simple, and the main parts of a typewriter included a ribbon spool cover, Ribbon reverse, paper release lever, left/right platen knob, right/left carriage release, right/left paper finger, type guide, aligning scale and line spacing regulator. As far as typewriter keys, they come up to a total of 49 typing keys including the function keys, which include tabulator key, right shift key, margin release key, back space key and left shift key. It is also interesting to note that 1-keys, !-keys and 0-keys were not incorporated to typewriters until the 1960's.

Another interesting fact is that traditional typewriters such as the one used by Jessica Lansbury on "Murder, She Wrote" only became standardized by 1910. Before then, typewriters had all kinds of peculiar designs such as the 1870's Hansen Writing Ball, which was the first typewriter manufactured commercially.

Types of Typewriters & designs
Aside from the manual typewriter, there is also an electric version of the typewriter (which came out in 1902), which wasn't as popular but worked very similarly to the manual typewriter. The electric typewriter had to be plugged in and used ink tape cartridge, instead of an ink ribbon on two wheels.

If you have handled a typewriter before, you will know how heavy these devices really are (between 30lbs and upwards 60lbs). And, just like computers do, typewriters come in desktop (like Royal 10 and Underwood) and portable versions, which were great but were not as practical.
As far as typewriter bodies and slug keys, bodies were made of cast iron and came in Black-letters-on-white, or white-letters-on-black keys capped with glass, and bordered with fancy and shiny chrome rings. Glass-capped slug keys were hugely popular during WWI, though by the end of WWII the slug keys and bodies of typewriters were made out of plastic.

If you are actually looking to get your hands on a typewriter, you can pick Olivetti typewriters fairly cheap (~£20). Alternatively, you could get your hands on a typewriter-inspired Qwerkywriter, which works similarly to an old-fashioned typewriter but instead of paper, you place your tablet where the paper would normally go.

Imagine now an integrated laptop-printer where by the push of a button, the page you have typed comes right out of the top of the screen. I tell you, a manufacturer coming out with such invention would take the tech world by storm!

I leave you now with some nostalgic typewriting:

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