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The Iron Whim

After each holiday season my mother-in-law’s birthday comes up rather quickly, and I seem to find myself scrambling to find something to give her. What a joy it was to discover The Iron Whim by Darren Wershler-Henry.

My mother-in-law is in her 80′s now, but for years during the war she served as the executive assistant to high ranking military personal. Back then she was called a secretary, and she took short-hand using the Pitman shorthand method. She typed all the documents and correspondence in 6 copies with carbon paper in between each sheet on a black Underwood typewriter. Typos of course were a nightmare!

She laughs now when she describes how as a young, eager employee she would cringe at the fact that her boss had a tendancy to mumble and face away from her while he dictated, preferring to look out the window into the military courtyard. I guess she developed the intuitive “radar” of Corporal O’Reilly in M.A.S.H., but unlike the movie/television character, she would be terrified to ask her gruff boss to repeat anything. So if she made a mistake typing the shorthand dication into letters or memos, the work involved making necessary revisions using the old fashioned typewriters was horrendous — a far cry from our editing techniques today on computers with word processing software!

The Iron Whim goes into the amazingly rich history of the humble iron work-horse. It is loaded with fascinating tidbits. Did you know that Henry James became so accustomed to the sound of a typist when he composed that he could not even begin the creative process without someone hammering away on a machine to create the familiar background noise! [Picasso transported a cage of pigeons whereever he lived in order to work amidst their gentle cooing, and W.C. Fields required that a garden sprinkler splash his bedroom window so that he could sleep -- so there must be a connection between the repetitive rhythms in sounds that feed the creative process.]

It is fascinating now to realize how the typewriter actually shaped the creative writing process for two centuries, when typewriting was writing and effected its users’ behavior and thought process.

One of the prolific journalists in the early days at The New Yorker was A.K. Liebling, who was famously able to come in, sit down to his desk and type out perfect copy for his daily deadlines, requiring no re-writes, no revisions. Colleagues claimed there was a direct connection between his mental processes and the keys.

And what else could we imagine Grahme Greene using to compose his correspondance letters from international locations back to London, which was also the instrument used to compose all his novels? He dragged the same typewriter in his suitcase everywhere.

Interestingly enough, Darren Wershler-Henry is Assistant Professor of Communications Studies at Wilfred Laurier University. He is an authority on communications and technology-related issues. This book would interest people in the technology sector, or communications sector.

And my mother-in-law? Well, she still types all of her letters, finding it easier than holding a pen with her arthritic fingers, and her Smith-Corona sits proudly at the foot of her dining room table with a pink towel on it, (that the cat often sits on top.) I tried for some while to get her to use an old laptop, but she didn’t like the feel of the keyboard. Somehow I can’t imagine her using anything else.