Typewriters changed the world

Director: Doug Nichol

Run Time: 103 mins

The typewriter is a product of the industrial age, the age that preceded our information age. The typewriter mechanized what was previously, for the individual at least, a by-hand process. Rather than inscribe each letter on a page with a pen or pencil we could now imprint letters and fill pages very quickly using buttons, levers, fulcrums, and metal strike plates. Proto-typewriters were invented as early as the 1500s, but the first commercially successful typewriter was invented by Christopher Latham Shoals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1868.


Shoals’ typewriter and variations of it sped up and standardized communication. For women, typewriters created an avenue of employment, because their thinner and more dextrous fingers enabled them to type faster than men. Combined with other industrial age advances like the telegraph, typewriters laid the foundation for this information age. Typewriters changed the world.


Shoals and those first typists would likely find the people featured in California Typewriter very curious. The documentary explores the industrial machine and the people who still love it today. The film features interviews with luminaries like Tom Hanks, John Mayer, David McCullough, and the late Sam Shepard alongside otherwise unknown men who also share a deep affection for typewriters. Their ardor is unabashedly flooded with nostalgia. They appreciate typewriters because typewriters suggest taking things slow, better focus, intention, and iconoclasm. (Curiously, there are very few women in the film – a fact not overlooked by the film itself. Perhaps for women, the typewriter is yet tied inextricably to the industrial age and its née-roboticized workforce.)


Typewriters were once the harbingers of more efficient future. Now they are precious remnants of a more patient past. New becomes old. Fast becomes slow. There is a time for everything, including typewriters.


In addition to the machine itself, California Typewriter celebrates the very act of creativity that typewriters facilitate. The machine birthed by the never-ceasing assembly line now creates the necessary time-space for writers to focus on their craft. This attention to artistry is the most compelling and resonant facet of this documentary. The documentary borrows its title from a typewriter repair shop in Berkeley, California, where Herb Permillion, his daughter Carmen, and their one employee, Ken Alexander, have been repairing typewriters of all kinds since 1949. They are the craftspeople at the center of this story patiently giving these forgotten machines new life, testifying to the inherent goodness of being faithful in the tasks assigned to us.


The documentary includes the Permillions and Mr. Alexander in a collective of like-minded writers, musicians, and one visual artist (Jeremy Mayer), devoted to a craft. This kind of devotion to craft is the true heart of artistry, because when you take away all the necessary self-promotion that is part of being an artist in the post-Enlightenment world, artistry is about a person doing something well whether or not anyone notices. Typewriters, like any writing tool used well, make this possible. At the end of the day, whether we’re imprinting words onto a virtual document, a physical piece of paper, a slab of stone, or merely tracing them in the sand, writing consists of a person, the words she or he wants to cast out into the world so that others might read them, and the tool used to cast them. California Typewriter is a heartfelt ode to creativity itself and to the tools that make creativity possible.

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