Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mechanical Accents

I suspect today's younger generation wouldn't quite know what to do with a manual typewriter if they saw one. But there was a time, before even electric typewriters, when the whole operation was purely machanical and manual. Yes, just like the lawnmower.

Well once upon such a time I aspired to be a journalist and I got myself a typewriter. It was actually the one most popular with journalists at the time an Olivetti Lettera 32.

It was great to be able to type stuff. It looked very professional and you could submit it. There was one small problem, however.

Much of the stuff I was doing was in Irish and there was no fada (acute accent) on the typewriter. Now I could have got one with a foreign keyboard, but, the keyboard layout would have been quite different and I would not necessarily have all the accents I needed.

My needs were quite modest, actually. I just needed to be able to type the vowels with a fada (a e i o u). Since the adoption of the Cló Rómhánach in place of the previous "Celtic" script I didn't need any séimhiú (lenition) on the usual set of consonants (b c d f g m p s t). Following the consonant with a "h" now served the same purpose, and this was clearly within the competence of the ordinary typewriter.

I had two choices really. Try and go for a French type solution where I imported already accented letters onto redundant keys, or, come up with some system which independently typed the fada over an already typed letter.

The disadvantage of the first was that I would be working from a slightly different keyboard in Irish, surrendering quite a few "redundant" keys and running the risk of confusing my English language typing. But the second seemed impossible. Sticking a fada on a redundant key would not work, because each time you typed a letter the mechanism advanced to the next space.

So I brought my problem to Hely's in Dame Street, where I think I must have bought the typewriter originally.

No problem. They took one redundant key. Fitted a fada (and a gràve for good measure) and detached that key from the advancing mechanism. Think about it.

Yes, the only problem was to remember to type the fada before the letter rather than after it. Once you got used to that you were in business.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. How true.

Update 18/9/2013

I found myself in the National Library of Ireland this evening, a wee bit on the early side for the booklaunch I was attending. So I decided to have a coffee in the Library's Café Joly. Sitting sipping, I noticed two manual typewriters on two of the window sills and, out of curiosity, went over to have a look.

They seem to be props for Yvonne Cullen's 7-week creative writing course, which she has titled From History to Story. While poking at one of them, I noticed an acute accent key on the keyboard, and further investigation revealed that it had been modified in exactly the same way as my own, above, the same key used and the same technique of disconnecting the carriage mechanism.

Exciting and disappointing at the same time. Exciting to find another one like mine, disappointing to find that I wasn't the only one with this ingenious modification.

Click logo to go to Yvonne's blog


Póló said...

One thing I had forgotten, and must admit, is that the uppercase accented letters were not great. I suspect that, in the circumstances of the time, I omitted these accents.

It would have been better for the new key to have had a lower and uppercase fada, rather than the lowercase fada and gràve.

Anonymous said...