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  • Writer's pictureJeff Kerr

Typewriters, Telephones, and Televisions


I'm typing this on a machine about the same size as the Big Chief tablets they had us use in elementary school. I use this device every day without giving it much thought. With it, I can write, edit, print, and, if I want, speak in real time to someone in halfway around the world. We live in a truly wondrous age.


In high school I wrote out my papers in longhand. To accomplish this I used a 19-cent Bic ballpoint pen and as many sheets of lined notebook paper as it took. Because strikethroughs were frowned upon by my teachers, I learned to curse like a sailor every time my hand slipped or I misspelled a word, as that meant rewriting the entire page. By the time I finished, I had littered the floor with balled-up sheets of swear-inducing trash.

The writing process got a little easier in college. I had an inexpensive electric (la-di-da) typewriter at my disposal. Mistakes once again posed significant problems, but I could usually fix those with correction paper (ask your parents, kids). Later, Monkee Mike Nesmith’s mother Bettie Nesmith Graham invented Liquid Paper, making the process even easier. Thank you, Mrs. Graham.


Contemplating the miraculous changes the last fifty years have seen in the writing process got me to thinking about other seismic shifts that have occurred in my lifetime. I’m old enough (barely) to remember the Kennedy assassination, so we’re talking about a span of approximately 60 years. Here are some random observations.

Let’s start with telephones. The phones of my youth were monstrous plastic devices hooked to the wall so that, to use one, you had to stand or sit in one spot. With our phone located on my mother’s desk in the kitchen, there was no such thing as a private phone conversation in our house. When my parents sprang for a second line in their bedroom I could sneak back there to make a clandestine call, although inevitably someone would pick up the kitchen line, listen for a while, and hang up. Then, when I returned to the den, here is what I faced.


“Who were you calling?”

“Nobody.”

“It sounded like a girl.”

“No, Tommy has a cold.”

“Tommy called you ‘cutie pie?’”

Another massive change I have witnessed is the transformation of television, both the shows and the sets themselves. Our family TV was a sturdy piece of polished wood furniture displayed prominently in the den. You pulled on a metal knob to turn it on, and then waited an eternity for the vacuum tubes to do their thing. Turning the channel involved actual turning, as there was a fist-sized knob that you rotated around the VHF dial of 13 channels. Later, UHF channels became a thing, so our repertoire in Houston skyrocketed from four channels to six. And that’s including the public TV station, which no self-respecting adolescent ever watched, and channel 26, in those days home to unwatchable weirdness.


How many of you are old enough to recall hurrying through the den in an effort to reach the kitchen before your father called out, “Hey, change the channel for me?” This is what happened next.


Click.

“Not that one.”

Click.

“Try channel 13.”

Click.

“Go back to 11.”

Click.

“Thanks.”

You start for the kitchen.

“While you’re in there, get me a beer.”


Which brings us to television content. There just wasn’t that much. The TV schedule in those days was divided into prime time (remember, only three network stations), afternoon soap operas, and Saturday morning cartoons. VCRs, a miraculous device already rendered obsolete, didn’t yet exist, so if you missed a favorite show it was gone forever. I’ll always remember the excitement I felt when, at about age nine, I spotted King Kong as the movie of the week in the TV Guide, and the massive disappointment that ensued when my parents announced we were going to Dad’s boss’s house that night for supper.


“But, Mom, King Kong is showing.”

“Get in the car.”

“Dad! King Kong!”

“Do what your mother says.”

In seventh grade I joined the slide rule club at school. For those of you too young to remember, slide rules were ingenious devices you could use to perform just about any arithmetical calculation. But only if you had mastered the technique. I remember the thrill that shot up my spine the first time I manipulated the slide, positioned the little marker slide, and saw the correct answer to three plus four. Magic!


Not long after I learned the rudiments of slide rule calculations, calculators came along to send slide rules into oblivion. Our family’s first was a hardback-book-sized clunker that had to be plugged in for it to work. With it you could add, subtract, multiply, and divide. There was also a mysterious % button that I only figured out last week. As wondrous as these newfound abilities were, the best thing about a calculator was that you could enter certain numbers, flip the thing upside down, and—voila! —you had written a naughty word. Thus, 7734 became “hell” and 9009 became “boob.” You could even write “shit” if you used an asterisk for the t.


What notable changes have you seen in your life? Video games? Movie CGI? Pop Tarts? Drop me a line and I’ll pass it along in the next blog post.



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