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!


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)