Typecasting, take two: writing on a manual typewriter

I’m now buying second-hand typewriters at a rate of one machine per week. If I don’t stop soon I’ll run out of room in my tiny Hong Kong apartment very quickly. I’m now writing on an Olivetti Valentine, a ‘designer classic’ by Italian industrial designer Ettore Sottsass (and finished by British designer Perry King). This is a coveted machine, collected by such museums as the Museum of Modern Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum. This blog is not about industrial design nor typewriter collecting, so I should get back on track.*

What does typing on a manual typewriter feel like? The keys are quite a bit heavier than my Olympia daisy wheel, though not by too much. There’s no automatic correction, as you can see I have to use correction tape, which slows things down quite a bit. (If I wasn’t typecasting I would not bother with the correction tape.) Typing on a manual typewriter is quite satisfying: the feedback you get when you hit a key and the type slug presses through the ink ribbon onto the paper/platen is immediate and direct. It’s a physical act. The keys of an electronic typewriter are switches, which means that the feedback is not physical nor direct. The pressure with which each character strikes onto the paper is consistently even. With a manual typewriter, I’m still trying to get a sense of how hard I should hit the keys to get an optimal impression (I tend to hit too hard). The key (excuse the pun) is to strike a balance between exerting the least physical effort and getting the best quality of impression.

Writing on a manual typewriter represents the middle-ground between the total connection between hand and mark with pen and paper, and the ethereal process of writing on a digital screen. The process is indeed tangible and ‘material’, yet still mediated by technology, using pre-fabricated characters. I must say I do like this process.

(written on an Olivetti Valentine manual typewriter, a second – and final – draft)

* This typewriter was bought from a very generous friend, John Wu, who sold it to me at an unbelievable price. They can fetch for quite a lot more online. Thanks John!


Apparently typecasting is a thing – typing on a typewriter then posting a scanned image of the result in a blog. Joe van Cleave’s blog is an example. Joe suggests that in the age of word processing, there is still a place for typewriters as a writing tool for first drafts, using paper as a ‘memory system’ for ‘stream of consciousness’ writing, then transferred onto a computer/word processor for editing later. Well, this is a second draft of this blog post. Let’s see if it will also be a final draft that I post on to nontxt.com.

I started this post on 21 April on this secondhand Olympia Carrera de Luxe daisy wheel typewriter, a machine similar to the one I had when I was 10 years old. It actually feels very natural to type on this machine again. One thing is different though: I wasn’t a fluent writer in English then, and I had never used a typewriter as a tool for composing prose in a meaningful way at that time (late 1980s). My fascination for typewriters then was only with the machinery and the ‘romanticism’ of it. Now that I’m actually composing something meaningful on this machine feels rather different . Does writing on this typewriter make me ponder my ideas and words more carefully? Although I can correct mistakes on this machine, it is not as easy or seamless as on a computer, so I tend not to erase complete sentences (or even words for that matter), let alone complete paragraphs or moving things around. I actually spend more time writing rather than editing, which I guess can be a good thing.

After the invention of the typewriter, it quickly became a business machine, used for documents and business correspondence. It symbolised efficiency and accuracy, and made penmanship obsolete. Because of the technical limitations, the letters are monospaced – meaning all letters occupy the same amount of space, however wide or narrow they should ideally be. This made text typed on a typewriter having a distinctive look. (Though some typewriters offered proportional spacing such as the IBM Composer, but I’ll leave this subject to a future post perhaps.) The ‘monospaced look’ gradually became synonymous with the very idea of ‘writing’, and perhaps also ‘informality’ or ‘draft’, something that isn’t ‘published’ perhaps. Do we still have this association? I’m probably of the last generation who still have that association. Newer generations, not so much. But the association of ‘code’ or ‘screenplay’ with monospaced typefaces perhaps still exist . There is something about typing in a monospaced typeface that makes the writing less precious for me, suggesting that it is a draft, not a finished or published piece of writing.

The typewriter did not only become a business tool, it was also favoured by writers, for drafting and putting together manuscripts. The ‘congruence between thought and action’ that I mentioned before was perhaps a factor for the typewriter’s wide adoption as a writer’s tool, that it is more efficient for transcribing thoughts into tangible marks on paper than a pen. And also spared typesetters and editors of the agony of unintelligible handwriting.

I’m typing too carefully to be writing down a ‘stream of consciousness’ right now on this typewriter, knowing that it will be ‘typecasted’, and am exercising my typographer’s craft when doing so. I’m writing, editing, as well as producing a ‘camera-ready’ copy all at the same time, which is not something that unusual for people who are used to word processing on computers
these days.

On another note: This blog has now switched to a dedicated website rather than residing under Tumblr. I was frustrated by the way Tumblr handles images, so this is an improvement. -It is now more sophisticated-looking, which perhaps lost some of its original no-nonsense, direct and honest quality in its presentation? It now looks more ‘published’ than it did before, which makes any typos look particularly jarring. It now has a date stamp as well as a title for each post. These things kind of go against what I had set out to do with this project, and taking on a more formal quality than I intended . In any case, I’ll just relax and let the project take its natural course.

(Written on an Olympia Carrera de Luxe electronic daisy wheel typewriter, using the Prestige Elite 12 pitch typeface [12 characters per inch], on an ultra-smooth letter paper bought from a convenience store in Japan, giving a much crisper impression than regular laser stock.) [typos have been corrected]

A bilingual typewriter with a plotter mechanism

I’m writing this post on a secondhand 科達牌中英文電子四色繪圖打字機 Fortec ET-888 Chinese–English electronic four-colour plotting typewriter I just bought. This was designed in Hong Kong in the 1980s and manufactured in Mainland China. It was never a popular machine, launched right at a point when Chinese computing was at its infancy. Typewriters that use a plotter mechanism were a bit of an anomaly. Searching on the web, I came across a plotter typewriter made by Brother and Sears called the Type-O-Graph (or is it Type-A-Graph?), which, as the name suggests, can plot statistical graphs as well as typing and word processing. Incidentally, I never realised that cheap plotters were available for home use in the 1970s–80s. This typewriter uses the same kind of mechanism and pens as the Atari 1020 and Commodore 1520 plotters. There are still a lot of enthusiasts of these plotters out there but new pens are a bit hard to come by.

The advantage of a plotter-based mechanism is that it can have different type sizes, and can make drawings. For typing in Chinese, a plotter-based machine made sense: the memory required to store a vector-based, stroke-based Chinese font would be much less than if they were bitmapped (this machine can print 7,063 Chinese characters). Plotting also (supposedly) gives better definition to the complex Chinese characters than a bitmapped mechanism. And it’s a cheap technology. The image is quite faint though, and it is not able to produce bold type.

This machine can be used as a typewriter, printer/plotter (hooked up to a PC through its parallel port) and a word processor, however crudely. The first and second drafts of this post were written on this machine in word processing mode. With a 13-character LCD display, text can be corrected and edited before printing out. The machine has an internal memory of 14K (!) and can store up to 10 text files, and transmitted to a computer if needed (why would one do that I wonder). Text can be marked up using control codes to change attributes such as font sizes, pen colour, italic/underline and centre alignment. The keyboard is terribly unresponsive. Forget about reviewing and editing whole manuscripts before printing out – it’s painful to navigate around in the tiny viewport, and the fact that it doesn’t do automatic line-wrapping makes it next to useless (see the numerous unsucessful printouts that I made in the images below). I’m now re-typing and editing as I work from my two printed drafts.

The font is a stroke-based Courier of sorts with no curves, making it resemble Wim Crouwel’s Gridnik. The Chinese is a godawful ‘robotic’ font with no aesthetic considerations to speak of. These are probably so bad that they are the new cool.

Chinese type sample in medium size and English sample in small size
Chinese type sample in large size and English sample in medium size

The Chinese input method is one that was invented by a Hong Konger 區卓宣 Cheuk-suen Au (transliterated) called 卓士字母輸入法 Jackson Input System, which is similar to Changjie with slightly different rules, and also uses five ascii characters to code each Chinese character. On the leaflet it says that this input method can be learnt in 10 minutes. Probably true, but whether you can find your character is another story.

A double-page spread from the user manual, explaining how the Jackson Input system works

This machine never really caught on, as it was launched right at the transition point of the maturation of Chinese word processing on PCs, becoming obsolete shortly after its introduction. The leaflet claims that it topped the sales charts in Hong Kong and sold 15,000 units over nine months. Of course: it had no competitors on the market. Little information can be found about this machine except a passing mention in the Wikipedia page of Hong Kong polymath/author 簡而清 Yee-ching ‘Greenstreet’ Kan. He was attributed to the development of this typewriter in collaboration with a Chinese manufacturer, saying that it was an important technological breakthrough at the time. I do think it deserves more than a footnote in the history of Chinese word processing.

A promotion leaflet for the typewriter. The red text in the top right reads: ‘an invention that Hong Kongers are proud of’.

Fortec ET-800 user’s manual (PDF 4MB)
Fortec ET-800 Chinese code reference booklet (PDF 3.4MB)

(I’m sharing these here as historical records of a legacy technology. If you believe this violates copyright, please let me know and I’ll take them down. )

(First and second drafts written on the Fortec ET-888, final draft in Byword)

More musings on writing

I find that I don’t write the best when I use a fountain pen. Why is that? Is it because the nib is a bit large and I can’t see what I’m writing properly? Is it the ink flow? Is it how the nib interacts with (scratches) the paper surface? Is it because the ink takes too long to dry? It may well be all of the above, but I tend to think that it might be psychological: that writing with a fountain pen feels a bit ‘ceremonial’ or ‘ritualistic’, hearkening back to a time when writing was more formal and when communication was more precious and less ubiquitus. I find that the more expensive the pen and the nicer the quality of the paper, the more difficult it is to write nicely. I began using fountain pens when I was in primary school, so why would it be an issue? Perhaps it has something to do with my taking up of calligraphy as a serious hobby, where a lot of discipline is involved?

Learning calligraphy was a process of copying exemplars of different ‘scripts’ or ‘hands’, which is a very self-conscious process. At first the objective is to imitate, stroke by stoke, letter by letter. The first mission is to make sure that the letterforms look exactly like those in the examplar. Not until after the forms are retained in memory does one start to see individual letterforms as groups, forming words, sentences and passages. It is then that the idea of rhythm or flow comes to the fore. The forms of the letters have to become second nature before rhythm can be achieved. A degree of spontaneity is necessary. If one is too self-conscious about each letter they are forming, the rhythm won’t come naturally. Self-consciousness makes writing appear contrived and unnatural. Getting warmed up first usually does the trick. Or just not be too precious about any piece of writing and let it come naturally. Easier said than done. I often run into this problem.

Does handwriting convey personality? Graphologists seem to think so. But we have been taught to write in a certain prescribed way. Or for calligraphers, we learn to write different scripts/hands and can imitate numerous styles, so perhaps we calligraphers are a bit different? Not sure about personality, which runs deep. But moods and feelings at the moment of writing can perhaps be easily conveyed. Do digital text and typsetting work as disguise then, and strip texts of any authenticity? How can authenticity be conveyed in published texts?

(first draft written in ink on paper, final draft in Byword)


A whole bunch of different pens

Yesterday morning I started a pen journal and wrote 14 entries using 14 different pens that I have. Rarely do I write continuous prose out entirely in longhand, yet ideas and words flowed just as easily as typing on a keyboard. Edited final draft below, illustrated by first drafts and the respective pens discussed. These are in no particular order; all but the last three are fountain pens.

1 Pilot Pluminix

Although really cheap, this Pilot Pluminix fountain pen is high quality and writes smoothly. The grip is comfortable with two indentations for the thumb and index finger to rest on. The pen has a short barrel, 12 cm with the cap on. The cap is screw-on and does not have a clip, but has two protrusions that keep it from rolling off the desk. The ‘F’ nib is in fact a narrow (around 0.5mm) italic (stub) nib, ideal for everyday handwriting. The thin strokes are quite fine, which is rare for an italic fountain pen. One of my favourite pens here. Here’s a review of this pen

2 Parker Vacumatic

Parker ‘Blue Diamond’ fountain pen

This pen is amongst a bunch of old pens that my parents passed onto me. I had never tried writing with it until today. Apparently dad bought it some time ago, secondhand. On the barrel the words ‘Geo S Parker / Parker Vacumatic, made in USA / 63’ are blind stamped onto it. Some Googling revealed that it is a ‘Blue Diamond’ made between 1942–48. Quite a beautiful pen. After writing for a bit the ink seems to flow quite well. The nib is gold-plated, with the words ‘Artus radium point 93’ written on it. It is a little worn from use, I guess adapted to the writing angle of its previous owner.

3 Pelican c1992

Pelican fountain pen

My parents bought me this Pelican fountain pen before I left Hong Kong for the UK in 1992. It has a simple glossy black barrel with gold trims and clip. It was bought at a pen shop on the ground floor of the old Man Yee Building on Pottinger Street, which of course is long gone. Going overseas to study was a big deal in those days, and this expensive pen was a parting gift. The piston action for ink filling in this pen is fantastic: unscrew, dip in ink, screw tight, and it fills right up. The nib is gold-plated, a Pelican 120–500, HEF. I used this pen for my school work throughout secondary school and the nib is very worn, giving thick and thin lines. The line weight has become too heavy for my taste. It has always been slightly scratchy to write with.

I used to use the Parker ‘Quink’ blue-black ink with this pen. At one point I switched to washable blue so that mistakes could be corrected using a bleach ink-eraser and overwritten with a felt-tip of a similar colour. I never did like the purplish blue though. This ink is Lamy’s black bottled ink, which is a beautifully dense black.

4 Hong Dian forest series

Hong Dian forest series black titanium fountain pen fitted with an EF nib

This is a recent find on Taobao, a sleek black titanium fountain pen with contemporary styling made in China. How they can charge only ¥46 RMB is beyond comprehension. The pen feels heavy on the hand, possibly a good thing. The build is very solid, with a criss-cross texture on the barrel. This one is fitted with an ‘EF’ nib quich is quite fine and works well with my regular writing size. It writes very smoothly, probably the smoothest amongst all of the fountain pens I own. When you put the cap on there is a very satisfying click, an added bonus. The piston action convertor works well, and I’ve filled it up with the black Lamy ink.

5 Hong Dian forest series with a Chinese calligraphy nib

Hong Dian forest series black titanium fountain pen fitted with a Chinese calligraphy nib

This is identical to 4 but fitted with a Chinese calligraphy nib. Not to be confused with a brush, a Chinese calligraphy nib is like a regular pointed nib but bent at an angle. This type of nib probably look a bit strange to Western eyes. It is designed for imitating the thicks and thins of Chinese/Japanese calligraphy by varying the angle at which you hold your pen (in brush calligraphy one varies the pressure to vary stroke widths). Of course you can use it to write in Latin or other scripts.

6 Sailor Profit calligraphy fountain pen

A Sailor ’Profit’ calligraphy fountain pen

This is the same type of pen as 5, but Japanese-made. I first came across this type of pen at Tokyu Hands in Japan, where I bought it from. The ¥2100 JPY price tag isn’t exactly cheap, but in terms of quality it is comparable to 5. The angle of the bending is shallower, which means that one needs to hold it almost upright to get thin lines. It also means that a much thicker stroke can be produced.

7 Pilot Custom 74

A Pilot Custom 74 fountain pen

This is probably the most expensive fountain pen I’ve ever bought. I bought it from a large stationery store in Sapporo, Japan (remember to seek out stationery stores when you go to Japan!). Japanese people do like their fountain pens, and Pilot and Sailor are the two most popular brands. Incidentally in Japan they call fountain pens 万年筆, literally ‘ten thousand year pens’. This series from Pilot is traditional in styling with a glossy black barrel and gold trims and clip. The nib is gold-plated. This series offers a wide variety of nib types with a range of thicknesses and degrees of flexibility. This particular nib is very flexible, so flexible that you can write copperplate script with it. The stroke width will transition from thin to thick by applying pressure on downstrokes. This is a very high quality product that writes very smoothly.

8 Lamy Safari

White Lamy Safari fountain pen fitted with a 1.1 italic nib

The Lamy Safari fountain pen is a classic design by Wolfgang Fabian. The bold, modern design won an IF design award in 2007. The nib is stainless steel, and I replaced the original fine nib of the two I have with 1.1 mm italic nibs. I own an orange one and white one (hard to keep clean). The series comes in all sorts of vibrant colours, and they keep introducing new ones. The design of the Safari is easily one of my all-time favourites, though of reasons unbeknownst to me, the two that I own never did become my everyday pens. This ink is Lamy’s Turquoise T52 bottled ink, which I use with the excellent piston action convertor. This colour is simply gorgeous, and is very dense. The industrial design of the bottle is also beautiful, with a ‘valley’ at the bottom so that one can get to the last remaining drop. A roll of perforated blotting paper is rolled into the base for wiping excess ink off the nib after filling – very considerate.

9 Memory, a Safari knock-off

Memory fountain pen that looks like a Lamy Safari knock-off

No idea why this pen made the list, but here you go. This fountain pen came free with the Hong Dian black titanium pens. It looks exactly identical to the Lamy Safari with a clear barrel. The quality of the finish is nowhere near as refined however. The only redeeming factor is the smoothness of the ‘F’ nib – it writes really well. The ink is Sailor’s ‘Shikiori’, in Yuki-akai 雪明. The ink is way too thin and watercolour-like, not great for writing.

10 Rotring Art Pen

Rotring Art Pen fitted with a 1.1mm calligraphy nib

This is Rotring Art Pen is fitted with an italic nib. The styling looks dated by now, very 1980s. Hard to believe that this was my everyday pen during my art school years. My writing was much larger then. The 6mm line rules feel far too narrow for a pen this thick. This is supposedly the same thickness as the Lamy Safari (1.1mm), but apparently not. The nib is so worn from heavy daily use that the thin strokes have become quite thick. Rotring used to make a nib-sharpening stone, but I never bought one. The long staff/barrel serves no practical purpose, other than imitating a traditional calligraphy dip-pen. This supposedly black cartridge is too feeble. The original Art Pen ‘Jet Black’ cartridges were extremely dense.

11 Osmiroid

Osmiroid italic fountain pen

Back in 1993, I won first prize at the Osmiroid national schools calligraphy and handwriting competition in the UK. Part of the prize was a ‘luxury’ set of Osmiroid calligraphy fountain pens with a wide variety of nibs. The pens were cheaply made with poor quality plastic and finishing, poor ergonomics and with really poor ink flow. Never did use them much at all, though I still have them. This particular one is of slightly better quality that I bought from a close-out sale of a stationery store here in Hong Kong around seven years ago. It’s very uncomfortable to hold, hence I’m wiring at a weird pen angle. The Osmiroid pen company apparently dates back to the early nineteenth century, founded by educationist James Perry. It was bought by Berol Limited in 1989, and it doesn’t look like the brand exists anymore.

Cheap, everyday pens

12 Muji multifunction gel pen with mechanical pencil

Muji multifunction gel pen and mechanical pencil

I’m not a fan of fountain pens for everyday writing, and I’m not fond of ballpoint pens either. Real ink from a gel or roller ball pen is what I prefer. Clean lines and quick drying ink are important. I’ve experimented with many (mainly Japanese) brands, and find that Muji’s clear barrel muiltifunction gel pen with mechanical pencil to be the best. As of today, I don’t see this pen in their online catalogue anymore. Good that I still have a large stash of refills in my drawer.

I think it was Roger Black who said that if the first colour was black, then the second colour would be red. This is true with early manuscripts, letterpress printing (the word ‘rubrication’ means the addition of red, for both manuscripts and early incunabular) as well as in manual typewriters. Red is very useful for differentiating content and to provide an additional layer of information. That’s why in my multifunction pen I have red and black inks, and with a mechanical penil as well, my arsenal of writing implements is complete. I find 0.4mm to be ideal, for my current size of handwriting on 6mm ruled paper. The pencil is 0.5mm with HB lead, for tentative thoughts and mark-making, say, constructing a grid for a page layout.

13 Pentel Sign Pen

Pentel two-colour Sign Pen

To extend the repretoire a bit, I also used to carry a double-tip Pentel Sign Pen around with black and red ink. This is a thick felt-tip for those ocassions where further emphasis is needed, and for sketching and ideation. This is a variant of the classic Pentel single-colour Sign Pen debuted in 1963.

14 Pilot Frixion four-colour

Pilot Frixion four-colour multifunction pen

For awhile I also used another multifunction pen – the Pilot Frixion with four colours. It is a hugely popular product. The ink is thermal sensitive, and the heat generated by rubbing with the silicone eraser provided removes the ink marks without residues. This series comes in many variations, but styling of the four-colour multifunction one is ugly, and the ink feeble. Though to be fair the thick barrel with rubber grip is actually quite comfortable to hold. The Frixion series won a Good Design Award in 2015. Overall it’s a very good series of products.

The pen I use the most these days is the Apple Pencil. Incidentally the nib broke off while I was putting this post together. I had to buy a pack of replacements nibs, $140 HKD for four. With a price tag of $999 HKD plus the replacement nibs, it really is the most expensive pen I have in my possession. 

With a smartphone always by our side these days, it might not be necessary to carry pen and paper in our pockets anymore. The iPad with Apple Pencil has certainly revived handwriting and has taken it to a different level. Yet its experience is still nowhere as palpable and direct as pen and paper, technologies that don’t require power nor an operating system that will always be there.

More musings on writing in the next post.

(first draft written by hand, final draft in Byword)