B.C. – Before Computers

People of my generation sometimes joke they were born “B.C.” – before computers.  When I was a sophomore in high school, I took a typing class from Mr. Kaczmarek, a tall, thin man in horn-rimmed glasses.  I can still remember the sound that reverberated through the classroom as we took a timed typing test on our Remingtons.  Reaching the end of a line at our own pace, we each hit the carriage return, creating a keyboard symphony: “Clicky clacky, clicky clacky, WHACK!  Clicky clacky, clicky clacky, WHACK!” 

It was a decent way to develop our left arm muscles.  Later, of course, there was a carriage return key — where the “Enter” key is found on today’s computer keyboards.  To help us keep our eyes off the paper in the typewriter, a bell would sound to let us know we were reaching the end of a line.  Momentary pause as we would think, Is there room for the entire word or should I hyphenate?

Then came “Word Wrap” – a term many computer literate young people aren’t familiar with.  To me, it was a technological miracle that the word processor knew when there was no more room for print on the current line, “wrapping” the word around to the next line.  As these machines became more and more sophisticated, they even knew where to place the hyphens.

Typing is definitely one of the most valuable classes I’ve ever taken, and I’m reminded of that every time I watch someone at a computer, searching the keyboard for a particular letter or symbol.  Even once they’ve become familiar with the precise location of each letter, number and symbol, the best most of these self-taught typists can do is use two or three fingers on each hand, and they can’t take their eyes off the keyboard while they type.  Over the years I sometimes earned extra income by working for temporary agencies; my typing – fast and accurate – helped me learn what it would be like to work in offices at Harley-Davidson, Midwest Express, Northwestern Mutual, Ameritech or Magnetek Engineering.  I also worked in a variety of law offices.

One of my first temporary jobs was for the law firm of Lipton and Petrie in downtown Milwaukee.  Every letter, every brief, had to be typed perfectly in duplicate.  These days duplicating a copy is easy – we just hit the “print” command and specify the number of copies we want.  If we send an e-mail, we can send a duplicate e-mail to another person by indicating “cc” (carbon copy) — or “bcc” (blind carbon copy) if we don’t want Person A to know that Person B is receiving it.  In the “B.C.” days at Lipton and Petrie, we used real carbon paper – the kind with the purple backing which marked the hands of any secretary who made too many errors.  One mistake on the top copy meant repeated mistakes on the copies underneath, and there was no “erase” key to undo the damage.  Each mistake had to be carefully whited out and the correction made so that it was imperceptible.  Even one noticeable correction meant the entire page had to be retyped.  This, more than anything else, improved my accuracy.

In the 70s, when I started writing news and feature articles for the Hales Corners and Franklin Hub, I worked from home on my personal typewriter.  As in the law office, I was required to make a carbon copy of each article submitted for my files.  If I made a mistake, I could mark up the carbon copy any way I chose, and the editors weren’t fussy about corrections on the page turned in, as long as they could read it.  After editing it, they turned it over to a typesetter where it had to be keyed in a second time. 

Today even some kindergartners can find the right keys on a keyboard. But I wonder how many will learn touch typing? Most people in the 21st century will probably get along fine on their laptops, tablets and smartphones with a self-taught version of accelerated hunt and peck.

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