Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Travel writers and typewriters

Back at the start of the month I wrote a post inspired by a NYT article on Mark Kirschenbaum’s work on the literary history of word processing.

Last night, because I rode the bus home, I finally got around to listening to a podcast of a talk given by Mark Kirschenbaum at the New York Public library in the middle of December.

Listening to the talk I was suddenly struck by the thought that advent of the portable typewriter suddenly made travel writing possible.

Certainly Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming took typewriters with them when the crossed the Takla Makan on the way to Kashgar and Maillart writes of Anna Schwarzenbach and herself cramming their portable typewriters into the dickey seat of their Ford when they were driving to Afghanistan in the late 1930’s.

Travel writers are essentially journalists. The typewriter liberated them from the need for legibilty and coupled with that great Victorian invention, a regular mail service, meant they could prepare and send their copy while en route. Importantly, by using such rudimentary techniques as carbon paper (which of course lives on in email’s cc:) they could also ensure that they retained a copy should their draft get lost in the mail.

Just as the 35mm camera liberated photojournalists and made some of the innovative photography of the 1930’s possible.

Journalists of course have moved on from the typewriter - for a while the Tandy 100 and it’s successors were popular - due to their lightness and the fact that they could run off standard batteries if necessary, which was probably a great advantage when out in the field.

Nowadays journalists use netbooks, or ultrabooks, and complain about the lack of power for charging and internet connectivity.

In fact it’s much like the fun of running field surveys in the days before decent battery life.

For example, in the mid eighties I was responsible for running a couple of small scale botanical surveys. Even though the data was entered into a database, the field surveys were done with squared paper, a pencil and crib on what species we were looking for and how to estimate abundance.

Lack of suitable portable devices, battery life and the rest. Now you’d use either a laptop or a tablet computer. The same goes for archaeological surveys, technology is adopted  when the ease of data entry and battery life makes it practical.

And in this there’s a lesson. Elsewhere I’ve written about how some key technologies were what enabled to modern world. A decent reliable postal system, coupled with trains and steamships enabled communication and commerce. The arrival of the safety bicycle  that anyone could ride in 1885 meant that people could get somewhere in a day that would previously have been difficult to get to, be it historians documenting medieval buildings, or botanists counting plant species.

Likewise the advent of the truck. It’s notable that both Joseph Needham and Peter Fleming rode trucks to get to parts of 1930’s China not connected to the train system, or Ella Maillart ‘lorry hopping’ to Afghanistan, in much the same way as William Dalrymple did some fifty years later in search of Xanadu.

Like the wordprocessor, the typewriter was an enabling technology in that it allowed travel writers and journalists to work in a way that had previously been impossible, by being able to compile notes and prepare material in the field.

And any history of the modern needs to take account of these enabling technologies - even though the end points may have remained essentially the same the process of getting there became simpler, more immediate, and was suitably flexible to be adapted to a range of needs

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