Clickety-clack: the sound of the typewriter is back

Tom Hanks’s passion for typewriters has led him to create an iPad version of a vintage machine, an app called Hanx Writer, that’s enthralling ink heads

Fri, Aug 29, 2014, 12:32

A few years ago Tom Hanks brought his father’s old Underwood, which Hanks snr had bought at the end of the second World War, to a typewriter repair shop for a simple cleaning. When the actor collected it, a few days later, he realised that the industrious service man had replaced all the old, worn keys with shiny new ones. He almost burst into tears.

Hanks is a typewriter obsessive. He collects Remingtons, Triumphs, Vosses and Cole Steels the way Imelda Marcos collected shoes. “They are each different in design, action and sound – each one stamps into paper a permanent trail of imagination through keys, hammers, cloth and dye,” he wrote in a New York Times article headlined: “I Am TOM. I Like to TYPE. Hear That?”

Hanks sees beauty in the fact that you can type the word “typewriter” using just one row of the Qwerty keyboard. He can tell a typewriter’s brand just by its sound.

This week Hanx Writer, an iPad app that Hanks designed, became the most popular free app ever in the Apple store. It simulates a typewriter keyboard, complete with clickety-clack sounds and the distinctive ding at the end of each line, on your iPad. You can “insert” new pages too. Once you’ve typed the text you can email it, print it or share it from the app.

Hanx Writer is a skeuomorph – a design that adopts the look and feel of another object – rather than a retro fashion statement. According to Clinton Mills of Hitcents, the creative agency that brought Hanks’s idea to fruition, there is an element of nostalgia to the app, but “it’s not gimmicky. It’s to show iPad users that whenever you type, the sounds of the typewriter make you feel like you’re composing something special.”

When manufacturers tried bringing out “noiseless” typewriters in the 1920s, few people bought them, because they found it hard to imagine writing in silence. And businesses wouldn’t buy them because they preferred to monitor activity by the sound of typewriters clicking and clacking.

While other analogue technologies, such as vinyl albums, have been cherished in recent decades, the typewriter seemed to be erased from cultural history more quickly than the Walkman or the VHS recorder.

But this week, on the back of Hanx Writer’s success, “ink heads”, or typewriter aficionados, have been gushing about the pleasures of old-school typing.

Some people just don’t like the soft pad-pad sounds of a digital device and are willing to forgo the ease of the delete button for the sensation of ink being physically stamped on to paper.

The Irish Times was one of the last national newspapers in Ireland to dispense with manual typewriters, in 1993. Reporters had to assume an advanced yoga position to use them, and after typing for 30 minutes our arms and shoulders felt as if we had just swum the Atlantic.

But times change fast. One year we were using typewriters, the next – 1994 – we became the first Irish newspaper with a website.

Times sometimes move backwards too. Also this week, the London Times, whose offices last heard the clickity-clack of typewriting in the late 1980s, installed speakers in its newsroom to play the sounds of typing, in the hope that “it will increase energy levels and help reporters to hit deadlines”.

For ordinary folk the Hanx Writer is not the only such app. Its rival Typing Writer also simulates a typewriter on digital devices – and even includes correction fluid (aka Tippex). If you make a typo, you press your finger over the offending word and a white blotch appears, obscuring it.

And if that doesn’t do it for you, you can always get a real typewriter, insert some paper and have yourself some real action.

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