Tuesday 21 May 2024

Life Before Computers Gave us Anchovy and Claptrap. Part One

 Remember Carbon Paper?

No? Prepare to be shocked

Yes? Welcome back to the Pre-Millennium Carbon Age

Part One

So you’ve got a story idea…

Back in those heady days of yore when you had an idea for a story, you didn’t fire up your laptop (‘What’s that?’ you would have cried and no one would have answered.) Instead, you grabbed your Silvine Exercise Book. There was something so wonderfully tactile about the glossy textured surface and, on the back cover, you could learn ‘avoirdupois weights’, ‘hay and straw weights’, ‘long and lineal measures’ including how many poles were in a furlong (40), the number of yards in a fathom (2). We all knew how many noggins made up a pint (4) because our exercise books told us, and as for rods, poles and perches...

With pencils sharpened, you stared at the first pristine page. If you were already inspired enough, you might actually write something - maybe the working title, or possibly a first sentence. Braver souls headed straight for the ballpoint pen; the rest of us lined up our erasers.

Meanwhile, the machine that would eventually be harnessed into service to produce a printed version sat idly in the corner of the kitchen/living room/bedroom. Most likely it was a portable, neatly zipped into its leatherette carrying case. You wouldn’t dream of typing your first draft or even your second. No, that was for later, when you had finished all the crossings out and amendments and after you had deciphered that note you made on page 32 relating to something on page 94 that was now completely obliterated or amended so many times as to be completely illegible.

But eventually the day would come when you would unzip that carrying case and take out your beloved, much cherished Empire Smith Corona, Olivetti, Imperial or whatever make of typewriter you had chosen. The smell was unmistakeable, a mix of the ink on the ribbon (more of that later) and the grease on the simple cogs and keys that kept the machine working. Next to you, was your collection of scribbled-on Silvine exercise books numbered from 1 to whatever, open at volume 1, page 1. All you had to do now was type it up. Simple? Well, yes, and then again…no.

You see your friendly typewriter couldn’t correct any mistakes you might make, or any decisions to alter a word or phrase once you had typed it. If you wanted to make a correction, you had to do it yourself. To effect such a change, you needed to call on the services of a hard typewriter rubber (that usually rubbed a hole in the paper while removing the offending error) or, if you were a little more sophisticated, you might use a white liquid resembling a cross between a bottle of nail varnish and Dulux Brilliant White Gloss Paint – called variously ‘Liquid Paper’ or ‘Tipp-Ex’ depending on your manufacturer of choice. 

This had been invented by the mother of a musician and sometime member of The Monkees (anyone under the age of 40 is advised to consult an older relative or friend). His name was Michael (Mike) Nesmith. I forget hers but I believe she was a Mrs. Nesmith, at least once upon a time. Tipp-Ex also made a paper-correction slip thingy but it’s far too complicated to explain here (that older friend/relative is going to become increasingly handy from now on).

(Mike Nesmith is on the left)
The subject of errors and revisions leads me to the next hurdle we writers from the carbon (paper) age had to overcome. Copies. Nowadays, along with everything else a typewriter couldn’t do, your computer, in cahoots with a printer, will happily print off as many copies as you want – all identical and of the same quality. Not back then they didn’t.

And this is where carbon paper came in.

It was sold in boxes, in various sorts, textures and colours. Usually you had a choice of black or, a sort of, royal blue. If you wanted more colour definition you needed to use different colours of paper rather than print. Even the most amateur writer knew that to type only one copy of the precious manuscript was to court danger of the most precipitous kind. What if you lost it? What if you sent it to a publisher and THEY lost it? Or the postal service lost it (I’m coming to them later, in part two). What if your house burned down? What if…what if… The prospect was too horrendous to contemplate so, the investment in carbon paper was well worth it, plus publishers were usually satisfied with receiving a first or second-generation copy, as long as it was neat, error-free, pristine, and…legible. As well as double-spaced, with correct margins and numbered pages (you had to type those on as you went along).

In order to create your usual mix of one top copy plus up to five carbon copies, you carefully layered your sheets of typing paper with a layer of carbon paper between each one – taking great care to load the carbon paper the right way up or else the damn thing would print on the reverse of the previous sheet and you would have to (sound ominous music here) START ALL OVER AGAIN.

A word of caution here. Imagine you are bashing away at your typewriter - not the gentle tip tap most of you do right now. Typewriters were robust and required robust operation – some more than others; the keys needed to be moved. They had to be hit with meaning and a certain sense of real purpose or they had a tendency to sit tight and refuse to budge or else all gang up on you, move together and end in a tangle which – you guessed it – you would have to sort out. Manually manipulating the little buggers back where they belonged. This usually resulted in scraped fingers (yours) and bad language (yours again).

Then, as now, editors didn’t like to receive work that showed a lack of care – spelling and grammatical errors and typos for example. Back then, you would need to add corrections to the list of their pet hates They would – if you were lucky – allow you probably one or maybe two very minor corrections now and again on a full novel-length manuscript but some were far stricter than that and would reject anything that, at least on the first ten pages, contained more than one obvious error. Don’t forget that any mistake you made was echoed through every carbon copy and was far harder to disguise on your copies. And also, Liquid Paper needed time to dry. A frequent complaint from agents and publishers concerned the difficulty of trying to prise apart sheets of type fused together with an over-exuberant application of correction fluid.

How many times have I reached almost to the end of the page only to make a stupid error and have to retype the entire sheet? More than I care to recall and, of course, when retyping the page it never seemed to quite line up with the previous or proceeding one so an entire chapter might have to be retyped. Another factor to bear in mind is that the more carbons you made, the fainter the type would appear on, say the, fourth or fifth copy, to the extent that whole letters might appear to have been missed because you hadn’t bashed that key quite hard enough. Also, the weight of the paper made a huge difference, which is why most carbon copies were produced on what we called ‘flimsy’. This was a much lighter weight – resembling tissue paper.

Like everything else, carbon paper had a limited life span although you could reuse it a number of times, only discarding it when the copies started growing fainter.

The same applied to the ribbon.

On my first typewriter, I had an all-black ribbon. You unwrapped it, sat it down on its spindle, threaded it through and attached it to an empty reel and spindle on the other side of your machine. Hitting a typewriter key would cause the selected hammer to strike the ribbon and its attendant letter to appear on the printed page. When your ribbon was nice and new, the type would be a bold, assertive black. Once the ribbon had run its course to the end, it would automatically reverse itself and you could merrily carry on typing until you saw the type beginning to move from black through dark charcoal to grey. Time to replace the ribbon. Some fancier typewriters used black and red ribbons enabling you to select which colour you wanted to type in. That always seemed a bit of a waste to me as it meant half the ribbon was barely used.

As you can imagine, changing a ribbon was messy, time consuming and inclined to result in sore, inky fingers and bad language(that would be yours again). As with all inanimate objects, a typewriter experiencing a ribbon change seemed to want to provide you with as much grief as it was capable of. And, take it from me, typewriters were born sadists.

Later models dispensed with all that nonsense and delivered you a cassette which you inserted. Slam, dunk, done. It didn’t reverse itself and stopped when it was empty. That was fine as long as you had a replacement all ready and waiting. Infuriating if you didn’t and it was Sunday afternoon.

Of course, I have been talking here about manual typewriters. There were expensive electric ones. The only real difference for many years was that they were usually a little quieter and required less heavy bashing of the keys, and they automatically performed something known as ‘automatic carriage return’ (you haven’t sent that older relative/friend home yet, have you?). In other words, once you had set your margins, the typewriter would ring a little bell when it knew you were coming to the end of a sentence and, at one finger touch from you., would send the carriage flying back to the beginning of the next line. On manual typewriters you could also set your margins and a bell would ping but then you had to return the carriage yourself (your friend/relative will explain).

Your typewriter wouldn’t ping when it came to the bottom of the page though. Oh no, you would have to take precautions against running out of paper (in my case, I would draw the faintest pencil line a couple of inches up from the bottom) or run the risk of all your efforts being in vain as you watched your paper slip to one side, along with your line of print. And guess what that meant? You’ve got it. START ALL OVER AGAIN.

Oh – and another point. If you were lost for just the right word to use, there was no point in asking your typewriter, you had to reach up to your bookshelf, heave down your copy of Roget’s Thesaurus and look it up. Yes, really. Ask…well, you know who by now don’t you?

So, are you still mad at your laptop? Do you still think producing your manuscript is tough? Wait till you learn what happened when you wanted to send it off.

Still to come, in Part Two:

I get my first Word Processor

The first spellcheckers – introducing the wonderful world of Anchovy and Claptrap

The perils, pitfalls, and expense of querying agents and publishers before emails made it all so easy (or not)

Don’t miss Part Two

It will leave you aghast and wondering why anyone even tried to get published.



public domain

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