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Dead medium: Pneumatic Typewriters
From: (Charles Stross)
Source(s): Century of the Typewriter by Wilfred A Beeching,
ISBN 0 9516790 0 7

While bumming around my local remainders shop I came across a fascinating book: "Century of the Typewriter", by Wilfred A. Beeching (Director, British Typewriter Museum). It's an edited re-release of an earlier edition (1972) which was considered one of the definitive texts on typewriters. Is the typewriter a dead medium? Arguably, yes. They're still around, but they no longer occupy a central role in the office, or even in society at large, and the humble manual portable has all but been killed by cheap dot-matrix print heads. And some varieties of typewriter are *definitely* dead: PNEUMATIC TYPEWRITERS "Various attempts were made from 1891 onwards when Marshall A. Wier in London, produced a typewriter with a pneumatic action. The object of such a machine was to eliminate the hard work involved in typing and to reduce the noise and increase the speed. It was also thought to be a substitute for such power as electricity. "One of the disadvantages of pneumatic machines has always been typebars that did not return fast enough, and although this problem could most likely have been overcome the fact is, it just seemed to present insurmountable difficulties. "It would appear that the last real attempt to manufacture a pneumatic machine was made in 1914, by a man called Juan Gualberto Holguin in Mexico. This machine was known as the 'Burbra', and used compressed air cylinders as a source of power. In spite of much time and money spent on the production of compressed air typewriters, very little result of any importance has ever been achieved. "There are reports of various designs of pneumatic typewriters having been produced by large organizations, both in American and in Germany in recent years. Most of these consisted of an electrically propelled plunger which compressed oil in a tube, fired the typebar forward in a sharp thrust, had the advantage of being very quiet and also eliminating most of the moving parts of the conventional machine. The idea seems to have been abandoned due to the high cost and probably to lack of interest.

Charlie Stross

While Wilf Beeching is an admirable old gent, his book is not considered "definitive" by typewriter collectors. It has a lot of good stuff such as serial number lists, and a multitude of photos (many from the massive collection at the Milwaukee Public Museum), but it is frought with inaccuracies. Much more "definitive" is "The Writing Machine," by Michael Adler, written in 1973. Adler is about to release a revised edition. My own book on typewriters ("Antique Typewriters and Office Collectibles") should be on the street next spring. It will feature 100% color photos (many from the Milwaukee Public Museum collection). Is the typewriter dead? Hmmm, I suppose so. But as you compose your next computer message, be aware that the QWERTY keyboard under your fingertips was there at the birth of the typewriter industry. QWERTY has been with us since 1872 (next year is the 125th anniversary!).