Learning to type

2017/01/28 at 13:37

When I started college in 1983, papers were still typed on typewriters. Typing was considered a clerical skill, and most students paid typists to prepare their final drafts. My freshman year of college, my  mother typed my papers.

My sophomore year at UT, I started working for professor of German Ralph Read, who had gone blind a few year prior due to complications of diabetes. I drove him to and from campus each day, ran errands for him, and helped him some with class preparations. Since going blind, Prof. Read’s primary academic work consisted of translating German novels into English. To do this, he had quite a process. One of his graduate student assistants would read the novel into a dictation machine. Then Prof. Read would play the recording back and type the rough English translation on his IBM Selectric typewriter. The IBM typewriter was tactile enough that Prof. Read could load pages himself, feel when he was near the end of a page, etc. The only problem that plagued him from time to time was that he couldn’t tell when his ribbon ran out of ink. After typing out his rough draft translation, then he would produce a final draft with the help of a German-speaking assistant who would type the final draft for the publisher.

Ralph Read was a generous man, and he taught me many things, both academic and personal. (Unfortunately, he died unexpectedly after I’d worked for him for about a year). One of the gifts he gave me was the ability to type. Back in the days before personal computers, most professionals had typists. College professor was, however, one of the few professions where people did a lot of their own typing. And of course, typing was especially important for Dr. Read, since it was his only means of written communication. When he found out that I didn’t type, he advised me repeatedly that I needed to learn the skill. So, I bought a portable manual typewriter at a garage sale, taped over the keys, bought a typing book and taught myself touch typing.

About this same time, the first consumer-grade standalone portable word processors were introduced. I bought one that had a one-line LCD display, stored a 5-page paper in internal memory and printed onto heat-sensitive paper. I used it to type my own papers! Of course, I could only work on one paper at a time, and I had to delete one from memory before starting the next one. But it was markedly better than paying a typist or my mom.

While I was working for Dr. Read, the first Macintosh model was introduced, and the UT German department bought a couple. Nobody was very sure what to do with them, but because I had learned to type and had used a word processor, I was one of the first to sit down at the Mac and figure out how to use it. And the rest, as they say, is history.