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History and the Typewriter

I’m old enough to remember as a newspaper guy typing my reports onto tiny pieces of paper to be sent upstairs to a typesetter who began the process of immortalising my words by retyping them into a machine that spat out slugs of hot lead. That was lucky because I always had appalling handwriting. It got even worse after I became a reporter because everything of importance had to be typed and my handwriting became interspersed with shorthand symbols. It now seems likely that despite my, and my teachers’, efforts, good handwriting for me was a lost cause. As my brain ages, it is reverting to its natural left-handed mode but someone decided when I was tiny that life was hard for lefties and I was taught everything right-handed. So, until recently, I thought I was right handed. The importance of the typewriter to historians is frequently under-estimated. A leading Scots-Canadian had some very rude things to say in a hand-written letter sent to London in the 1830s about a French-Canadian political  icon called Louis Papineau. But I couldn’t find out exactly what he had said. A visit to the National Library of Scotland offered the chance to find out. The library had the original letter criticising Papineau. The problem was it could be in one of more than 100 file boxes of papers donated to the library. The librarians and I  made an educated guess and six boxes were brought to the reading room of the library. Four letters down in the first box I checked was the letter. And that’s when I found out why the exact words are never quoted. Five key words are completely illegible. From what can be deciphered, it’s obvious that the sentence in question is very uncomplimentary but the exact nature of the criticism without those five words is lost. That would never have happened in the age of the typewriter.

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