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Typewriters I have known..

Gael Newton AM

My search for homes for the instruments as well as books and prints that have accompanied my career path and personal life began quite a while ago. Part of my downsizing process is reviewing old files as well as objects.

I came across a personal memoir in draft form about those principal instruments of any professional writing career before the computer era. The typewriter.

Typewriters remain a cherished part of my life. My professional career kicked off in my student years with my two fingers dancing tentatively plunking the keys of a much-loved typewriter. It was not till later in life that I realised that someone in my family had aspirations to be a writer.

What does one do with an unpublished novel that has no sentimental value for grandchildren the author didn’t live long enough to know at adults? My mother Joy died from breast cancer at 62 in 1988. Some years later I read the typescript of her only novel. It was a story set in colonial Sydney about a convict’s family triumph over injustice and adversity. Titled Power is my enemy, the feisty heroine was named Gael.

Despite aptitude and love of Latin and French, mum had to leave school at 15 because her father thought education was wasted on girls as they would only be housewives. He was a returned soldier. One wonders how he didn’t notice the economic plight of so many post war spinsters and widows.

Mum went to business school and worked as a typist before marriage. After her divorce we went to live with her parents. That experience was possibly why my Grandmother urged me to aim for tertiary education.

Mum was interested in colonial Australian history so we often went on various National Trust type excursions to old pastoral homes and sites. Her colonial era novel was extensively researched. Not surprisingly given this lineage, I became an art historian and later a photo curator.

I still have two copies of mum’s typescript. The first is a thick wad of that very thin typing paper with each letter impressed in relief so you can run your fingertips across it like braille. The script and its matching carbon copy (sent unsuccessfully to publishers) are punched twice in the left-hand margin and tied together with pink legal tape through stiff grey cardboard covers.

My mother had a portable typewriter, a Smith Corona. Heavy, cold and patinated with a funny tough paint in battleship grey like a wrinkled old lemon peel. The keys were smooth raised letters encircled with little chrome rings. They required force to make the little teeth land on the paper. I was always fascinated by her pounding away so fast without looking at the keys and regret not learning to touch type.

I was always attentive to movies where typists appeared but they never seemed real people like mum. Movies always seemed to show writers and journalists pushing up their sleeves slamming the carriage across like machine gun and lunging at the keys. Often there are scenes with endless bits of crumpled paper. Citizen Kane I'm sure has lots of that sort of scene. I never saw any men typing when I visited mum in her workplaces.

I liked to play with her typewriter at home; it was fifties styled and seemed glamorous. I might have stumbled through a few high school essays on it. But what was most exciting was the 1960s ‘golf ball’ monster IBM Selectric typewriter with correcting ribbon Mum had at work. It was hot pink-red with almost sci-fi curved edges.

At that time in the early 1970s she was a private secretary in a one-man finance business. So I could visit quite a lot and get my assignments typed up properly on the golf ball. I loved the way the pages came out clean and dark on the new typewriter seemed like an aeroplane. It had new electronic whirring noises too not just mechanical clacks as the carriage return was eliminated.


When I went away to university in the 1970s I was entranced with Olivetti’s 1969 ‘Valentine’ portable by top designer Ettore Sottsass, in a bright red plastic case. I had to have one. It cost a lot, maybe $40.00. The keys moved much more freely and quickly and you could use thicker paper. I loved it. My ‘Olivia’ learnt about sixteenth century ceiling painting and many other subjects over my protracted university and art school life in the early 1970s.

With the proceeds of my first book sales as a photo curator/historian in the early 1980s I graduated to a state of the art 1984 Olivetti Praxis portable electronic typewriter spotted in the William street window of Olivetti. It was over $1000, more than my car. It was huge sleek and black and the case was raked like alien space ship. No funky sixties look this time.



‘Oliver’ saw me through 100,000 words of my major Bicentennial curatorial publication Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988 for the National Gallery of Australia. ‘Oliver’s wondrous self-correcting facility saving the horrors of white-out the smell of which was always associated with red ‘Olivia’.

Sadly, I was unfaithful. In the early 1990s a colleague put me down in front of her mac and got me to type a few sentences. It was magic not only did the words on the screen glow they looked like book writing and printed out in gorgeous black inks with lovely fonts. What was produced seemed ever so professional. Fingers just tapped lightly. I was seduced.

Black ‘Oliver’ was soon banished to the back of the wardrobe alongside red Olivia. Our long nights of companionship were forgotten. ‘Oliver’ was superseded by a hefty computer and later a laptop. It was un-named and the first of a succession and the first to be thrown out.

It seemed amazingly to slide it into the bin but the youth in the white shirt at the computer shop had made me understand it was ‘not worth repairing’. There were no e-waste recycling bins in those days and as far as I know no museums collecting the models. 

I kept Olivia and Oliver under the desk for years and wondered if I could display them on the wall like art. But finally realised it was a bit pointless and some internet searching located a private typewriter collection and so I paid to have the typewriters shipped up to them with as I recall a copy of Shades of Light.

I couldn’t put them in the bin - we had been through so much together my typewriters and I.

PS: I scanned mum’s novel and hope to OCR it into a digital form and post it on the internet in her memory.

Gael Newton 2021

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