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Document Preparation, early-mid 20th Century

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Manual typewriters, early-mid 20th century

Why typing on a manual typewriter was hard work

Typing on old manual typewriters required more physical effort than on a modern computer keyboard.

Each new sheet of paper had to be placed between the rollers and wound into position by hand using roller knobs at either side of the typewriter.

When typing, substantial pressure had to be applied to a key because it had to force a metal print-head up to press hard onto an inked typewriter ribbon, to make an impression on the paper.

At the end of each typed line, the typist had to move her left hand away from the keyboard to pull a large lever to return the rollers and paper to the beginning of the next line, as the rollers and paper had moved along as she typed.

Vintage manual typewriter showing: the rollers holding the paper, the knob to wind the paper through the rollers, the lever to bring the rollers/paper back to position at the end of each line of typing, and the spools taking the two-colour typewriter ribbon

Manual typewriter, early 20th Century



1950s-60s typewriter

More streamlined 1950s or 60s typewriter

Some of the significant features are more visible in the less-streamlined, older typewriter but are actually present in both typewriters. Note the rollers holding the paper, the knob on the right to wind the paper through the rollers, the lever on the left to bring the rollers/paper back to position at the end of each line of typing, and the spools taking the two colour typewriter ribbon to enable typing to be in black or red.

Finally, at the end of every page, the rollers needed to be wound back to release the paper.

How to type capital letters on a manual typewriter

Every typewriter had a fixed typeface with two characters on each print-head - one upper case and the other lower case. There were keys at both sides of the keyboard to raise the rollers so that the upper case character hit the ribbon.

Why manual typewriters jammed

Sometimes, if the typing was too fast or more than one key got pressed at the same time, the printheads would lock and need to be disentangled by hand.

Manual typewriter print heads

Manual typewriter print heads viewed from above.

Tap/click to enlarge.

Printheads jamming on a manual typewriter

Printheads jamming together if the typing was too fast.

Tap/click to enlarge the first image to note that the symbols are inverted left to right so that the imprint on the page is the right way round.

Typewriter paper - foolscap

The standard size for paper was called foolscap. It was slightly taller than A4 as can be recognised from the photo below.

Foolscap paper

Foolscap paper. Note that it is longer than A4.

Appearance of typing from a manual typewriter

When typing with a manual typewriter, it was difficult to put the same pressure on every key. So the resulting typing varied in intensity, as can be seen from the old letter below. Note also that all the characters occupied the same width, irrespective of whether they were narrow, like 'i' or wide like 'm' and that the letters appear slightly blurred because of the smudging of the typewriter ribbon. (With modern computers, the spacing is different, which is known as proportional spacing.)

letter typed on old manual typewriter

Letter typed on an old manual typewriter, courtesy of David Daniels. Tap/click for a larger legible version.

Incidentally the letter shows the punctuation convention of the time, with more punctuation marks than became usual in later years. In particular, 'Mr' has a full stop after it. Being relatively short, the letter does not show the normal practice of the time of two or three spaces after a full stop. This practice was dropped when justified text (right-hand typing aligned as well as left-hand typing) became common with the advent of computerised word processors.

Where a few copies were required, they were normally made at the time of typing not afterwards. This involved the use of carbon paper. Where more copies were required, there were the Banda and Gestetner.


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