Sunday, July 6, 2008

Old Timey Information Technologies

Even before I learned the word "steampunk" I was fascinated by older technologies that feature interesting designs or gizmos that make them cool-looking, even today. The early typewriters are a good example: those big clunky Underwood models with the keyboards whose style of letters have become ubiquitous among the scrap-booking crowd (you can buy alphabets that look like the keys at any hobby shop), and the various manifestations of the letter forms themselves. My favorite among these is P22's version, "Typewriter," which I use on some of my web pages. It's got a slightly worn aspect that reminds me of what typed letters looked like when I was a kid.

But the particular technologies I've been thinking of lately are the immediate ancestors of the web itself--what we used before we could simply Google something, or browse a library's catalogue online. I was reminded of microfilm and microfiche when I finally picked up the second volume of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, The Subtle Knife. In it, Will (one of the kid heroes) goes into a library and looks up news reports of his father on microfilm. Today, many libraries will have digital copies of these stories, but during most of my graduate career, microfilm was where we had to go, and microfiche was how we got there.

The immediate predecessor of microfiche catalogues was, of course, the handy dandy card catalogue (a term which librarians I know still use without thinking sometimes--"Go look it up on the card catalogue"). At UC Riverside, where I started out, the catalogue was several drawers high and gazillions of drawers long--on two sides of an aisle. When I got to Penn, there were several, one in each specialty library, but I don't remember if there was one grand central catalogue--although surely there must have been one. I still possess a six-drawer unit salvaged from the basement of Bennett Hall, where I worked, and where the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was located at the time. The box had been painted an abysmal pink, which, when removed, revealed the same quarter-sawn oak I now have underfoot in my house.

My Bennett Hall office (I administered fellowships and scholarships for the Grad school) also housed a couple of IBM Selectric typewriters--cutting-edge technology in the early seventies. When one was stolen, however, the replacement was bolted onto a rolling typewriter stand made to hold an old non-electric model. The stand, which I also still have, features a side shelf that sits up about two inches from the bottom of where the typewriter would rest, to make it easier to copy handwritten text.

My all-time favorite typewriter, however, is a little portable Olivetti Lettera 22. It was given me by my mother's Italian boyfriend, an Olivetti salesman, when I left Taiwan, and I have it still. Its script type was extremely difficult to read, but it was what I had (before I discovered typing labs in college), so I actually wrote my first college papers on it. This practice came to an end rather abruptly when an archaeology professor--even though he thought the paper was so good he glued five round paper hole-reinforcers (do they still make these?) on it and colored them yellow with a highlighter because he "didn't have any gold stars"--told me that my typewriter "could drive a man to drink." Despite the A+ on my assessment of the Linear B decipherment controversy, I never used that machine for a paper again.

Nowadays, of course, few of us give even a passing thought to these old, obsolete or at least obsolescent ways of locating information and transcribing it. The computer does it all. Nonetheless, our technologies have a way of affecting what we write and how we write it, so it seems prudent to remember where we've been in order to assess where we're ending up.

The first computer in our family was a Commodore 64, with an eight-page file memory in the first version of Word Perfect I ever owned. So I wrote papers that were multiples of eight pages, and became adept at producing 32-page graduate essays that I printed out on a dot-matrix printer (which some professors were reluctant to accept). Our family trudged into the digital age with a succession of IBM clones (one a Clone brand), and at one point I even served as the token humanities teaching assistant in the microcomputer lab at UT Dallas. In recent years, even though I think of myself as a slow-adopter, I've entered the twenty-first century at full tilt, with a hot-shot laptop computer and an iPhone. But I still miss the old clunky typewriters that required strong wrists and clear minds--because there was no "undo" function.

Too bad I'd never be able to find ribbons for that old Olivetti, or I'd dust it off and type something to my Uncle Art--who's probably the only person around who might get a kick out of it.

Photo credits: Typist, image from an old French postcard, contributed by Knyf; Olivetti Lettera 22 (first model) typewriter by LjL; The obsolete card catalog files at Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, by Ragesoss. All from Wikimedia Commons.

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