How to Operate an Old Manual Typewriter

By Grant D. McKenzie
Old government-style Underwood typewriter

Manual typewriters have QWERTY keyboards just like today's computer keyboards, so learning to type on one is very easy. The most difficult things to get used to are the amount of pressure necessary to create an impression on the paper and the fact that you must return the carriage by hand at the end of each line. Manual typewriters also require more preparation to operate. With today's word processors, you can change margins and correct mistakes with ease. With old typewriters, though, everything had to be set up properly from the beginning.

Install a new ribbon if it is worn or missing. Typewriters operate by a lever or wheel that strikes the ribbon, leaving an imprint of the character on the paper when you press a key. The ribbon is usually some type of material impregnated with ink that advances with each keystroke to make sure it wears evenly.

Set the tabs and margins. Most typewriter models will have a series of slides on the carriage that need to be adjust for your individual needs. Margins regulate how far the carriage returns and how far it travels before ringing a bell at the end of a line.

Line one sheet of paper up and advance it to the appropriate top-margin size. The paper is usually inserted in the back of the roller on the carriage and advanced with a knob on the side.

Type your first line. Listen for the bell that signals the end of your margin. Some old typewriter models will not stop the carriage at the end of a line or even at the edge of the paper.

Using the return handle, move the carriage back to its start point. The lever action on the handle will advance the paper to the next line on most models. Begin typing your second line.

Repeat until your are finished with that page. Pull it from the top out of the carriage. If it becomes jammed or is too tight to pull without tearing, advance the paper using the knob on the side of the carriage.

About the Author

Grant is a history buff, especially in the area of airpower theory with a focus on European Theater in WWII. He is also a Sinfonian and deeply dedicated to the advancement of music in America, both as an amateur performer and as a supporter or music education. Finally, Grant is an amateur craftsman. He enjoys woodworking and candle-making and has developed his own unique methods and styles for candles.