Martyn Lyons. The Typewriter Century: A Cultural History of Writing Practice. University of Toronto Press, 2021.

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Martyn Lyons. The Typewriter Century: A Cultural History of Writing Practice. University of Toronto Press, 2021. 255p. US$32.95 (paper) ISBN 978-1-4875-2573-6. 

One of the memorable set pieces in Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus is an exchange between Valda, an employee in a government office in London in the mid-twentieth century, and her boss, Mr. Leadbetter. After having sewn a button back onto his jacket some days earlier, Valda expects reciprocity from him when she needs a change of typewriter ribbon. When she asks, she finds 

He was baffled and displeased. “Have you never needed a new ribbon before? Were you not trained to do such things?”

“It will not take a minute.”

“You had better get one of the girls to show you.” It was incomprehensible. 

“They will dirty their hands.” She said, “It is a small thing to do.” 

Now he understood. He went out and got on the other girls—the real girls—in a rage.

(1980 140)

In this brief interchange, the inanimate machine allows for a clear representation of expectations and repercussions. Valda’s request puts her boss into such a distemper that he marks her file to indicate she should not be promoted. Her request for help with the typewriter was such a transgression that it warranted a permanent limit to her career progression. 

Martyn Lyons’s The Typewriter Century, A Cultural History of Writing Practices takes the machine as a starting point to examine its relationship to work, creative and otherwise and, like Hazzard’s novel, finds a complex network of relationships that it creates or facilitates. This social and literary history is interspersed with reckonings on gender and labour as Lyons considers the technical, personal and even mythical roles that the typewriter played in offices, homes and imaginations for most of the twentieth century. Starting with a history of the machine, Lyons tracks its development – notably that “The main function of early typewriters was prosthetic: they could be built with keys embossed with Braille and were designed to help the blind.” (27) For these early machines, and later for depictions of authors at work, the book includes occasional photos that help demonstrate what would otherwise be difficult to communicate in words. 

Lyons considers the role of the typewriter in the workplace and the effect that it had on the workforce of the time and finds that “… the typewriter ushered in the feminization of the clerical workforce. The typewriter was the herald of modernity and, in the Western world, modernity had a woman’s face.” (49) This woman’s face was white because, as he remarks a few pages later, it would be decades before women of color occupied similar positions. (55) Lyons’ considerations of the triangulation of boss, staff member and typewriter demonstrate how such collaborations formed the early version of the modern office.

Moving from the purely clerical to the partly creative, Lyons describes the “Fiction Factory” that Erle Stanley Gardner ran where he was producing fiction on an “industrial scale” (168) and even gave his employees, the typists, a share of royalties. (166) This commercial enterprise calls to mind James Patterson’s staff in the contemporary era and finds a precursor for that prodigious output in Gardner’s extraordinary output, made possible by his staff. Lyons’ inclusion of so-called “pulp fiction” authors such as Gardner, crime writers and writers for children ensures a wide spectrum of examples for the kinds of collaboration that typewriters facilitated. 

As well as considering the volume of output, Lyons examines the different sorts of technologies some authors adopted. Of particular interest is the “close interdependency of manuscript and typescript forms” (136) in the case of Georges Simenon, for instance, who used a range of practices for various projects. Or in the case of Barbara Bradford, there was the deployment of different technologies for separate stages of the process, “so that the surviving typescript consists of a mixture of typed, word-processed, and handwritten text, sometimes combining a century of different writing technologies on the same page.” (189) Lyons doesn’t allow his interest in the typewriter to obscure the concurrent use of other technologies and so ensures that his examination of these past technologies can find parallels in contemporary authors’ use of print-outs, notebooks and other writing devices. 

Famous typewriter users such as Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain merit mentions but Lyons spends more time on writers working in less literary genres. The final section that focuses on the domestic typewriter and its female owner – Enid Blyton, Barbara Bradford and Agatha Christie – ensures that the book considers this technology in a setting quite different from the noisy Mad Men-era workplace. These are domestic settings where, in Bradford’s case at least, any paper is conscripted for drafting: ‘”pages torn from ledgers, the backs of previous drafts, the backs of invitation cards, the backs of royalty statements, on fan letters and literally on the backs and insides of envelopes” (184). Lyons attention is not just on the machine itself but on how it was used and what such usage reveals about his subjects. 

Lyons states from the outset that his choice of subjects will be limited, choosing ‘examples from the United States, Britain, and Australia’ (15). A limited set of subjects is bound to be the case for any study, but his brief mentions of the use of typewriters in Mexico, India and Nigeria are tantalizing and suggest that scholarship on the role of the typewriter in settings other than the Western world would be rich subject matter.

The book’s conclusion brings us to the present day. Lyons’ comments about the visibility of drafts in the age of word-processing are not entirely convincing. He argues that with the advent of word-processors, “A vision of the immaculate text came into focus for writers. They could now realistically aspire to produce a perfect text” (195). If this were the case, then self-published books, or indeed manuscripts submitted to publishers, would not be in need of editors as they clearly are. He also argues that “The word processor wipes out the history of any composition and makes it impossible to discern what John le Carré called the ‘architecture of the text.'” (195). However, changes to the manuscript can be visible in notebooks, and in versions of the document with track changes, not to mention the common scenario of excerpts from works in progress being shared with friends or colleagues or published in journals. 

Lyons finds a range of contemporary uses for typewriters such as a in the form of a security measure for intelligence officers or as a romanticized item for writers who would not have had a chance to use the machine before there were other options (197); despite being superseded by these devices, the typewriter still has a place in offices and for creative users.  

The Typewriter Century is clearly the result of extensive research but that does not inhibit the prose, which is very engaging. This book will interest scholars concerned with the means of production, and it will also appeal to general readers who are curious about the history of technology and writing. 

Alice Grundy, Australian National University