The kindergartners and first-graders couldn't quite name the object I delivered to their room on Monday, a gift from my mother to the class. It had keys like a laptop, but no screen. It had a plug, and you had to put paper into it before you could see the letters. If you flipped the switch to "on," it hummed.
But I did not hear anyone utter the word "typewriter." Apparently, it was a distant artifact for 5- and 6-year-olds. And this was an IBM Selectric typewriter, the Cadillac Eldorado of typewriters in its day.
Soon, kids were vying for the chance to locate the right letters and type their first word: H-A-N-N-A-H, or B-E-N, or T-Y-L-E-R. Such magic in making your name appear! Then they wrote a thank-you note to Mrs. Nelson.
To those of us who have not grown up with laptops and word processors, a manual writing machine is about more than just typing words. The big, black Royal typewriter I have on my desk at home (to keep me honest about the origin of my typing abilities) is still my symbol of writing.
Its staccato printing sounds, diminutive bell, hefty carriage, bulky metal shoulders, ratcheting paper roller, and keys in rows more like a church organ than my current iBook give it gravitas.
It has several octaves, compared with the sterile clatter of the molded plastic keys of the iBook I'm writing on this minute. And it was designed for immobility.
It is a word engine, more like a factory of printing than this featherweight silicon marvel. It hammers letters directly onto paper winding down below its shiny hood where the levers, rods, connecting pulleys, and metal type lurk. It has a hood like a 1955 Buick and the innards of a slant six power plant.
In my mind, the sounds of those keys striking paper are the cadence of thoughts turning into writing. Every 10 or 15 words, the little bell sends its carriage zipping back to the start line, ready to drag a new line of words across the page.