The Curse of the Typewriter

The last typewriter was made in Britain yesterday at a factory in Wales. But has the stigma of typing for women really been lost? This was originally written earlier this year to look at how far the QWERTY keyboard might be replaced by new technology.

As new technology promises voice recognition typing software, and icon based texting, could the traditional QWERTY keyboard finally losing its dominance? Taken for granted, the keyboard has played a central role in the empancipation of women, but also in their entrapment in the “typing pool” of secretarial handmaidens. From the Victorian Lady typist, like Laura Lyons in The Hound of the Baskervilles, to Tess McGill in the 80s film Working Girl, I explored the intimate and ambivalent relationship between women and the typewriter for The Guardian (link here) and in a discussion on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour.(listen here)

“Did you learn to touch type? Where and why?” A simple question. But when I ask it I am struck by how many people say they learned in secret. Some former grammar school girls over 35, said they were expressly told not to learn. They were supposed to become executives with secretaries. Teaching in schools remains haphazard. Apart from the men who said they learned in the army, many claimed they could “touch type” with 2 fingers, or had taught themselves under a tea towel. One said he was permanently scarred after being forced to type to Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl in ICT. How did we end up with such an odd relationship with the instrument at the heart of most modern jobs and communication? Especially one that was a tool of female emancipation?

In Sherlock Holmes’ most famous adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles, a mysterious and exciting new independent woman was captured in print: The Lady Typist. The character Laura Lyons, had been helped to set up a typing business after escaping an unhappy marriage.

The modern typewriter Christopher Sholes invented in his  Milwaukee workshop in 1866 was transformed by his associate, James Densmore, who designed the letter arrangement of the QWERTY keyboard. Laid out to prevent keys jamming and improve flow rate, it remains the standard today, seeing off its only serious rival the 1930s Dvorak. Women’s expected accomplishment at piano playing was linked from the start to the typewriter’s ten finger flow.

Historian Anna Davin has pointed out that when the British civil service took over operating telegraph and postal offices in the 1870s, the official in charge, Frank Scudamore, sought out women clerks for their typing speed and dexterity. But crucially Scudamore said the wages:“which will draw male operators from but an inferior class of the community, will draw female operators from a superior class.” Women would spell and type better, raise the tone of the office, then marry and leave without requiring pensions.

So the trap of the over-educated, but low-status secretary was born; the typing pool. The BBC’s typing pool may have been the entry point for some breakthrough female broadcasters and executives, (Esther Rantzen trained as a clerk, as well as a studio manager) but in Rona Jaffe’s Mad Men era novel, The Best of Everything, sexual predators prowl its perimeter.  In the BBC 50s-set newsroom drama The Hour, a veteran producer pointed out to me that the female producer, young and glamorous, would really have been about 50. No matter how educated, young women were condescendingly regarded as typing pool fodder only and spent years trying to escape it, while young men from the right school were fast tracked.  In the seminal 80s film, Working Girl, the secretaries play with the jargon: “I prefer personal assistant”, but the only way to be taken seriously is to pretend to be an executive.

Future-technology entrepreneur, Elizabeth Varley, the CEO and co-founder of TechHub, didn’t see the keyboard as a trap. Her mother, a single parent, used to work from home in Melbourne, Australia as a legal secretary, typing up often complex Dictaphone audio tapes: “I saw it as a tool of empowerment. And it was a fun thing to play with.”

A badly designed keyboard could help kill a computer – most notably IBM’s PCJr in 1983 — IBM’s first foray into the home computer market.  But at the same time IBM office PC researchers found male executives hostile to the “secretarial” word processor image of PCs. (The advent of spread sheet software is what made office PCs acceptable to them.)

Like generations of women before me I learned on a black, spider-like manual machine in a typing school. (Like a manual car, compared to the lazy “automatic” ease of an electric or PC). With headphones to listen to the audio exercises, the letters embedded themselves into my finger muscle memory, ready for a life time of typing scripts and news copy. But for many women, it was a skill not to express one’s own thoughts, but to take down and shape those of one’s boss – usually a man. The “take a letter, Miss Jones” culture that dominated office life till the 1990s also shaped a literary culture in which men thought, and women took down and gave discipline and structure to their ideas.  How many anti-Establishment writers relied on women who could touch type to make their groovy ideas publishable?

Varley temped when she first moved to England in 1999. By then, she says, executives were doing most of their own emails, but were challenged in expressing themselves in the new visual formats, like the dreaded Power Point. “This BBC executive would say, I need to communicate my idea, but I don’t know how to make it look nice.” She felt there was accorded a certain status to secretaries who were  tech savvy.

British tech entrepreneur, Ed Maklouf, arrived at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley in the mid 1990s to study communication and linguistics. “If I had any lingering idea about the supposed secretarial nature of touch typing,” he says, “it disappeared the moment I walked into a room full of coders all attacking the keys like they were in battle.”

With the personal sec a thing of the past for many executives, is the new roll out of voice recognition typing technology, an attempt to recapture the compliant female for the smart phone generation? Apple’s Siri has a female voice in the US, but a male voice here in the UK. It’s recognition is still pretty crude. And Google’s Majel, due out this year, is affectionately named after Majel Barrett, the actress who provided the voice of the computer in the original Star Trek TV series.

Maklouf, who is marketing the SIINE – a symbol based keyboard app for Android phones — says they’re more about helping people with a lack of time, working mothers as much as young singles. “We’re now expected to respond immediately to emails, wherever we are,” he points out. “People want to be able to reply back from a phone without worrying about being rude or impersonal.” SIINE enables people to programme personal phrases onto keys: “Best wishes” as much as “Whasssssupp”.

Other new technology to try and improve the experience of using keyboards includes  laser-projected keyboards that can be generated onto a hard surface anywhere for instant typing. And Microsoft was 2 years ago experimenting with a touchscreen extension along the top of the QWERTY keyboard, to enable users to scroll through different documents as they worked, without having to open many windows on the master screen.

RSI, notably carpel tunnel syndrome, continues to be reported in much larger numbers by women (Is that because it affects women more, or because they’re better at reporting it than men?)

But until anyone comes up with a genuine alternative to the QWERTY it remains at the heart of our ambivalent relationship with words and work.

Further reading/links

The Early Office Museum — Great online resource on the history of typewriters and other office equipment

Thoroughly Modern Millie — 1967 film parodying the 1920 Stenographer. The Baby Face number features Julie Andrews sitting a shorthand and typing test using a variety of heavy black Edwardian office gadgets.

Historian Anna Davin’s paper City Girls: Young Women, New Employment, and the City 1880-1910 is an excellent resource on Victorian women typists. (You can find it on Google)

IBM Archives History of the Personal Computer

The 10 Worst PC Keyboards of all time (PC Magazine)

Lovely Al Jazeera report on Delhi’s manual law court typists 

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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