Typewriter type sizes

The way type sizes are measured on typewriters is a bit different from traditional/digital typography. In fixed-width typewriters, type sizes are measured in ‘characters per inch’ (cpi). The most common are Elite (12 cpi) and Pica (10 cpi). Elite is therefore a smaller type than Pica. Amongst my three typewriters that use different printing mechanisms, I have a total of eight different type sizes to work with. I will display them [above].

Fellow University of Reading alumnus María Ramos Silva wrote an excellent MA Typeface Design dissertation on type design for typewriters, particularly by Olivetti (2015). Definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the interaction between the social, cultural, technological and design aspects of typewriters.

(written on an Olympia Carrera de Luxe, second [final] draft)
[typos further corrected when input as digital text]

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!