Underwood Typewriter No. 5, similar to the one columnist Lois Szymanski used when she began writing.
Underwood Typewriter No. 5, similar to the one columnist Lois Szymanski used when she began writing. (Connecticut Historical Society)

The other day, as I sat down at my computer to work, I thought about how things have changed … just in my lifetime.

When I first started writing, it was on a typewriter. I was about 10 years old. My parents owned an old, antique Underwood No. 5 typewriter, the kind with the return you had to push by hand from the side. I thought it was the neatest thing ever invented. I would sit for hours typing long notes, silly poems … anything that came into my head.


In college, I used the electric typewriters in the study area when I could, but most of my essays were handwritten. Years later, to encourage me to write down my stories and send them in, my husband bought an electric typewriter. That was a huge step up, but nothing compared to the Brother Word Processor he bought me years later. It could hold 15 pages in memory, so I would write one to two chapters of my first books print those chapters, and then overwrite them for the next chapters, and so on. I thought that was pretty cool. I wrote “Patches,” my first novel for kids on that word processor. I edited it and reprinted it seven times — stacks of pages — before I felt it was ready. Then, it took the publisher — Avon Books — over a year to decide to buy it.

My editor at Avon (now an imprint of HarperCollins) worked with me on one more book before asking me if I could start submitting my books on a floppy drive. After having a mild panic attack, I knew I had to bite the bullet and buy a computer. Computers were just becoming the craze and I had no idea how to work on. Still, my husband enthusiastically took me shopping and the salesman helped us decide which one to buy. We put it on our credit card and brought it home. The first time it shut down on me in the middle of work I thought I had broken the most expensive purchase I’d made in years and I cried. But it wasn’t really broken, and in time I figured it out, submitting the next six books that Avon bought on floppy disks.

Flash forward over 30 years and I am now pretty proficient at multiple programs. We moved from floppy disks to CD disks to flash drives, but most of my books are now submitted by email and to multiple publishers.

I met my husband when we both worked at Port City Press in Pikesville. I worked in the office and he worked in the plant, binding books. Back then, I would deliver specs to the Linotype machines for the books that needed to be printed. The name, Linotype came from the fact that these machines produced an entire line of metal type at once, unlike the typewriter, which was one letter at a time. Each single piece of lead was called a slug. They were joined together to form matrices (or lines of words) which were often reused later.

The guys working the Linotype machines, (also called hot metal machines) would set the print, casting blocks of metal type to be imprinted on the page. Linotype was a mainstay for printing newspapers, magazines, books and even posters from the late 19th century through the 1980s, until it was replaced by phototypesetting, offset lithography printing and digital or computerized print. I still remember when the first ABDick offset printing machine came into the plant. We knew the Linotype guys would soon be out of work, with only a few staying to learn the new technology.

So much has changed over the years. When my kids were young and popping hot pockets into the microwave to snack on, I told them how there were no microwaves when I was a kid. Their eyes widened. “How did you even make popcorn?” they asked. I told them about the long handled contraptions we had with a wire bowl on the end to dump the kernels in, latch shut and then hold over the burner until it popped. Unless we were using easy pop pans that you shook over the burner, watching the foil rise and expand as the popcorn popped to fill the pan.

Not long ago, Dan and I were laughing while remembering the boxy black and white television sets we once had, with rabbit ears on top that you had to adjust to get one of the three local stations to tune in. Now we have flat screens hanging on the wall with hundreds of clear channels in color coming in through the cable.

For a while, the changes came faster than we could acclimate, with wringer washing machines replaced by automatic ones and clothes dryers replacing line drying. I still remember stuffing metal frames in my father’s wet pants as they came out of the wash, hanging the stiff contraptions on the clothesline to swing in the breeze and dry with permanent creases down the centerline of each pants leg.

I wonder what changes we have coming in the years to come? I think the next item to become obsolete will be the keys we use to lock our doors daily. Our keys are not much different from the keys that ancient Romans used, thousands of years ago. Still, the key has evolved some from the skeleton key I used as a kid. Now they are intricately designed key with more than a few designs cut into it to make each key unique and made to fit only your door. Still, I think the key is surely marked for extinction. Keycards, keypads and biometric scanners are already in use in hotels and parking garages. Many new cars have keypads, or devices that, when kept in your pocket or purse, unlock the car when you walk up to it. Some factories and plants now use finger or thumb scanners. Employees are admitted to the plant by their own unique fingerprint. I can see keys becoming ancient artifacts in the years to come.

Change is a continuous process, but it seems nothing new is ever permanent. Changes can be hard to accept at time, but they’re inevitable, so it’s best to roll with the punches. I’ll never forget how I dragged my feet at getting a computer and learning how to operate it, but now, I can’t imagine life without one. There is not a single day of my life that I am not on the computer, checking Instagram and Facebook, researching, reading … and writing this column for you.

Lois Szymanski writes from Westminster. Her Life & Times column, The Great Big World, appears every first, third and fifth Sunday. Email her at loisszymanski@hotmail.com.