My first experiences typing as a child was with a cast-iron Underwood. It weighed what seemed to be over a hundred pounds and had ebony black keys that were circular and each sat on their own metal pedestal. The typewriter was more an expression of form than function at time. Don’t let it’s monolithic girth fool you. Those beautifully lacquered keys could spell doom for any typing novice. One miscalculated keystroke could easily send your unsuspecting finger deep into the cavernous divide between the keys, only to be mangled by the inner working of the machine.
My brother and I would sacrifice the skin on our fingers to use this wonderful typing device. Our favorite use for the typewriter for was to formally type up our last will and testament. Being forward-looking children, we thought that it would make sense to spell out what provisions we wanted with regard to our worldly possessions and funereal needs. I could only imagine what our mother thought with her two young sons fighting over who got to use the typewriter next because they needed to make amendments to their will. Maybe she just kept quiet for fear of being cut out of her share of stuffed animals and Sgt. Rock comics.
The typewriter played an important role in my life early on. In my adolescent and teen years, I used our Underwood to type letters to friends who lived far away and many love letters were written on that big, black beast. Somehow the words on the typewriter felt more heartfelt and official. The stabbing strokes hitting the pristine white page gave a dramatic finality to my words, leaving a black scar on the page behind as evidence.
Next gen in typing
When I got to college, the personal computer became more widespread. The Underwood was too bulky and heavy to make the trip to college so I needed to opt for another solution. Friends had word processors and even one friend was rich enough to have her own Mac Classic with matching dot matrix printer. I would barter goods and services to use these machines, but nothing felt as good as typing my thoughts out on a manual typewriter. Computers and word processors felt impersonal and not an ally in the creative process like my old Underwood. A lot of times, I would end up writing all of my papers by hand and then just using a computer to create a final version for the professor to grade. The relationships that I developed with my new typing devices were impersonal and a means for creating cosmetically acceptable looking work. There was no longer a collaborative bond like the one between myself and the typewriter.
I always missed that rapid and violent slapping of the keys and typebars. The loud sound of keys clacking was a motivating sound while writing. It would make me want to maintain a consistent rhythm , giving life to my words and inspiring me to keep writing.
Years later I was at an auction and came across a Smith & Corona portable typewriter. It was like the one that Christopher Reeve used in Deathtrap. I was able to buy it for only twenty bucks. My father took it into his care and refurbished it—oiling the machine, replacing the ribbons, and giving it a polished spit shine.
The Smith & Corona was a great addition and I used it a couple of times, but I found that it didn’t fit in my daily life. After bringing it with me through a couple moves and letting it collect dust in the closet, I thought the best resolution for either of us would be finding the Smith & Corona a new home, so I donated my little friend to the Salvation Army.
It was a tough break to make because I had to admit defeat and come to terms with the fact that I may have grown out my relationship with typewriters. The size and weight and storage just seemed a little too impractical. Typing out my creative musings on a device that demands attention and presence with its loud noises and hulking size was more a passing notion than a reality—kind of like when you tell yourself almost daily, ‘I really should go to the gym,’ but that daily inner dialogue gets you no closer to cardio fulfillment.
I still would wistfully dream about using a manual typewriter from time-to-time. Ever so often I would grimace at the thought that I donated away my twenty-dollar Smith & Corona treasure when now a “vintage” relic like that is going for hundreds of dollars thanks to hipster millennials.
A new discovery
Just this week while I was on my iPad, I came across an app for a manual typewriter simulator called Hanx. It turns out that Tom Hanks is a manual typewriter aficionado, and worked with a group of app developers to mimic the experience of a manual typewriter for the iPad.
The Hanx app is a free download. For best results, definitely use a bluetooth keyboard. I’m using a Logitech Ultrathin keyboard. If you don’t have a bluetooth keyboard handy, you can use the on-screen keyboard, I find an actual keyboard helps with the overall experience.
The free app gives you access to a standard typewriter with limited features and the ability to save your work as PDFs to Google Drive, Evernote, Dropbox, and a host of other viewing options.
Without any of the in-app purchases, you are limited to working only in one document and you only have one style of typewriter. For $4.99 you can get extra editing tools, like different colored ink, text alignment, access to multiple documents, background colors and two addition typewriter models.
Personally, I like the standard typewriter that comes with the app by default. I purchased the in app purchases to be able to create multiple documents and for the text alignment.
The Hanx experience
Using the typewriter is an amazing experience. It really takes me back to working on my original Underwood. The sound of the keys clacking away creates that nostalgic connection that I used to feel with my typewriter. Writing seems more deliberate and brings back the drama to banging out your pathos.
One feature that I enjoy is that when the typewriter gets close to the end of the line, you get that warning ‘ding’ and then the carriage automatically jumps to the beginning of the next line. If you’re in the middle of a word when you reach the end of the line, the app will move the entire word to the beginning of the next line. It’s kind of like an upgrade to manual typewriting. One minor flaw is that the same breaking of a word between pages doesn’t quite work. The app isn’t smart enough to move an entire word to the next page when you reach the end of a current page. The word will just break between the two pages.
Another tweak that would be great for future releases would be the ability to export your work as a text file. The PDF export keeps the integrity of the typed look, but it would be great to easily import your Hanx documents into Google Drive as an editable Google doc. You can make that happen now but there’s an extra step involve. You can either copy and paste from the PDF to your text document or you can upload the PDF to Google Drive with the settings enabled to convert the PDF into a text document.
I’m tickled with the overall experience. And this makes me want to type for days. I did write the beginning half of the document in a Starbucks and luckily had my headphones handy so as not to disturb any of my fellow cafe coworkers. While using my headphones, I soon figured out that I couldn’t listen to my iTunes library on my iPad while also indulging in the clackity clack of the Hanx app. When I started typing while music played, the app automatically muted the audio of the iTunes app. It would be nice for both to be able to work in concert, but that might be a bigger issue with the iPad being able to do one thing at a time.
I understand that there wasn’t an undo function on manual typewriters, but they also did not have the ability to ‘cut’ or ‘select all’ and ‘delete’. There’s no undo in the Hanx app so if you lose something, it’s gone. After I finished this post, I went back to the beginning to make edits and I accidentally deleted content on an entire page. Since there’s no ‘undo’, I wasn’t able to resurrect my blank page. Luckily, I exported my Hanx doc to Google Drive before I started editing, making it easy to paste back the lost content. An undo/redo option would be a more than beneficial addition to the app.
The Hanx app was such a positive experience, I rushed out and bought my own keyboard instead of borrowing one. They had a great price for the Logitech keyboard on the Amazon site for only $41 dollars. I ended up purchasing a ‘Jungle Red’ keyboard cover. The standard black was $69, so for a little extra flare, you get a major discount. How could I pass that up?
For people like me that miss the magic moments with your old manual typewriter, give Hanx a whirl. It really brings back everything that I miss about manual typewriters with the added benefit of convenience and portability. The repetitive clacking might not win over your friends and coworkers, but you can wear earbuds unlike your old manual.
And for the younger generations that have never seen an actual typewriter let alone used one, try it out. I guarantee that it bring a personality all its own to your writing endeavors.