Tuesday 15th November
When I first started working in that little engineering firm, I remember clearing out an old filing cupboard, and coming across several sheets of lined foolscap covered in some strange markings, almost hieroglyphics, but more like squiggles and dashes. At first I thought they might have been in Urdu or Arabic, but Wendy, a much older woman in the office, put me straight. “Oh, that is shorthand, that is. I don’t think anyone here uses it anymore.” Apparently there was a whole language, which secretaries used, to write as speedily as a letter was being dictated by their boss. And then they would sit down at a typewriter and type up the letter, making sure to insert a sheet of carbon paper between two sheets, one flimsy, being the office copy, and a piece of stiffer letter-headed paper in front. And the typewriter may well have been mechanical or an early electric one with some sort of automated paragraph stops and a return key, rather than sliding that big chrome lever all the way across the platen bar, often making a ringing sound. I am suddenly reminded now of another favorite on childhood radio, “The Typewriter Symphony” which I used to love, but I digress.
For years typewriters were the norm, and armies of women became typists as a career. In large organizations there would be whole rooms full of typists – ‘The Typing Pool’, and even quite small firms would often employ someone just to type up not only letters, but contracts, orders and invoices and receipts. There were precious few photocopiers, and typists used to always have a bottle of tippex, or little leaves of correcting paper to overtype on mistakes. If you made a mistake, there was no backspace and change facility, and no spellcheck either, you had to get it right first time, or go back and manually correct it, or worst of all, start over again.
Then, wonder of wonders the electronic word processor arrived, which had the simple facility of remembering the order of the keys typed, and so standardized letters could be remembered along with all the Tabs and spacings and paragraphs and bullet points, and better still amended before pressing print, and just like a mechanical piano off it went and typed, well – golf-balled most likely, a whole document on its’ own.
Pretty soon even this too became obsolete, as the PC with Word and cheap printers became pretty ubiquitous everywhere. And now, we do not need those armies of typists, with all their specialist knowledge. Everyone can type their own letters, and thanks to spellcheck no-one even needs to know how to spell, and judging by the hasty entries one sees on facebook all the time even cares how bad their spelling is. Mobile phones now come with keyboards, or touch screen versions and there is even software available for disabled people to be able to type, just by using a pointer or looking at the screen keyboard and blinking. And voice command technology is so good nowadays that you pretty soon will not even need a keyboard at all. I wonder how long before we will be able to just think our letters and out the cursor on the screen will roll the words, all spelled correctly and with orthodox syntax and any font you want too. Or maybe we will see the death of the printed word completely – all communication being straight from person to person with no interface at all – much like talking once was.