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When Older Tech Is Better | K. E. Colombini

In an age when every piece of writing shared on the internet requires a visual image, generic stock photography comes in handy. When one reads articles online about the subject of writing, for example, one often sees glamour shots of old tools now seldom used, like a typewriter or a fountain pen—as if one wrote a blog post or tweet with an Olivetti or Mont Blanc.

These images always evoke happy memories for me as a traditionalist. In my college days, I started with a manual portable typewriter I had acquired in high school, a serviceable machine that had seen me through two hectic years as the high school’s newspaper editor. I think my parents picked it up for me at Sears or J.C. Penney.

When it finally broke down, I switched to a Brother electronic dot-matrix typewriter with a small screen that showed a few words and allowed corrections before printing them on the sheet. It did not last long, and as I started graduate school I found a decades-old Remington, heavy and built to survive aerial bombardment—which it probably had at some far-off bivouac during World War II. In one semester of graduate-level English courses I knocked out more papers than in my previous four years combined. The Remington also punched out a few angry letters to the editor and my first freelance articles.

When I became a newspaper reporter a short time later, I got my first laptop: the classic Tandy TRS-80 “Trash 80” from Radio Shack. It ran on standard AA batteries and could transfer stories via phone modem from anywhere to the newsroom.

That was then. I may be a traditionalist, but I’m no Luddite. I love gadgets, especially the sleek rectangular touchscreens on tablets and smartphones. Once, seeking a promotion, I was forced by my cruel boss to take a typing speed test—on an old electric typewriter, years after I had abandoned them for computers and keyboards. I failed miserably, but got the promotion. I would have done better had I taken my first editor’s advice when I was a young reporter, and learned how to touch type. Yet typewriters still hold a fascination for me—and for others, apparently, as they are ubiquitous props in cafes and bookstores.

Tom Hanks collects typewriters, having more than 250, and wrote a well-received collection of short stories around the typewriter theme (2017’s Uncommon Type: Some Stories). Hanks and a few other enthusiasts, such as the musician John Mayer, the historian David McCullough, and the actor and playwright Sam Shepard, were featured in a documentary that year, California Typewriter. Hanks has written that there are several reasons to own a typewriter, though “none of them are ease or speed.”

In my early days of writing, I preferred to write in long-hand before typing out the final product. Somewhere in a box in my garage is a thick manila envelope with the hand-written manuscript of my long-forgotten and easily-forgettable bachelor’s degree thesis. It is a sheaf of yellow-legal-pad paper scrawled about with ink from a small selection of fountain pens I had at the time.

In a 2015 essay in The Atlantic, Josh Giesbrecht wrote about “How the Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive.” Just as Hanks asserts that the IBM Selectric killed the manual typewriter, it’s easy to conclude that the Bic killed the fountain pen, as well as cursive. “Perhaps it’s not digital technology that hindered my handwriting, but the technology that I was holding as I put pen to paper,” Giesbrecht writes. “Fountain pens want to connect letters. Ballpoint pens need to be convinced to write, need to be pushed into the paper rather than merely touch it.”

It’s easy to understand dislike of the fountain pen, especially with a lot of good alternatives beyond the Bic. For years, I used my father-in-law’s Parker Sonnet rollerball, and it was terrific. Fountain pens leak, they dry up, their ink smears, gets on your fingers and runs out. The ink also soaks through paper, even in the trendy Moleskine notebooks.

Despite these downsides, fountain pens force one to slow down and write more thoughtfully. When I use a fountain pen, my horrid handwriting improves. A great discovery was Pilot’s inexpensive line of disposable fountain pens, called the Varsity, and its Metropolitan series of less expensive metal fountain pens. Both the typewriter and the fountain pen slow writers down, which can be a good thing.

I was at a professional development conference a few years back when the keynote speaker, a woman in her early fifties, remarked on how younger adults differed from those a little older. She invited a twentysomething up on stage and asked her a simple question. “What time is it?” The girl was perplexed and embarrassed. She had left her phone back at her seat.

The speaker was arguing in favor of wristwatches, and the victim’s generation had pretty much stopped wearing them at that point, relying instead on their smartphones. A few years later, the young professionals would all be wearing health-tracking watches such as the FitBit, or the fancier smartwatches from Apple or Android.

One year in college, my girlfriend (now my wife) generously gave me a pocket watch. It was a great gift, and years later she gave me a second one. The pocket watch provides the right perspective in a fast-paced world. You will always have the correct time available to you, but it will take a little more work than tapping a screen or flicking your wrist.

Like the typewriter and the fountain pen, the pocket watch slows us down a little and ritualizes a mundane moment. All of these tools are often designed with a focus on real beauty. A laptop is more practical than a typewriter, but it is less beautiful. The same could be said for a ballpoint pen and an Apple Watch. Interestingly, wristwatches have recently gotten larger, closer to the traditional size of a pocket watch.

To use Tom Hanks’s words, human life today is all about ease and speed. These three old things—the typewriter, the fountain pen, and the pocket watch—rebel against this utilitarian mindset. They each force us, to a point, to pause rather than react; to think, rather than do. In a world fixated on mindfulness and enjoying life more slowly, they beckon us to realize that not all newer inventions are better in all ways.

K.E. Colombini writes from St. Louis.

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