“The Art of the Typewriter” Display at GCC North Library

A rusty typewriter sitting in the school library where he works captured the imagination of Ryan Adney, an English teacher at Alhambra High School in Phoenix. The typewriter had sat in a dusty corner, unused, for the better part of 20 years.

“I have always been a sucker for that which other people ignore,” said Adney, who saw the machine, restored it and started using it.

His students started asking questions, marking the beginning of what he’s come to know as his Classroom Typewriter Project.

The exhibit at GCC is a small selection of typewriters from Adney’s personal collection. The machines – the earliest from 1909 and the newest from 1985 – represent about 100 years of typewriter design and styling.

The deans at GCC North, Chuck Jeffrey and Monica Casteneda, who was instrumental in bringing the exhibit to GCC North, said anyone who has a love of old technology, typewriters, and nostalgia should make a point to visit the exhibit.

Asked whether he is a collector, a curator or a hobbyist, Adney responded, “I think all these terms apply to modern typewriter collectors.”

“Obviously, I am interested in gathering fine specimens and enjoying them. In that way, I am like any other collector. However, typewriter collectors see themselves as existing on a special point on the collector/preservationist spectrum.”

He, like many others, doesn’t just like to collect these machines, they like to use them. In his view, that is a stark contrast to collections in which items are placed on a shelf and observed strictly as objects d’art.

“Many of my machines now used on a regular basis had been used by previously by students in my classroom,” he said, explaining that many of his ilk do not view typewriters as precious objects, but as tools that will, with a little care and consideration, outlive their owners.

Adney has been collecting typewriters on-and-off for the last 18 years, most concertedly since 2009.The typewriters on display at GCC North are all from his personal collection. His family has been supportive; it was his wife who suggested that he start displaying his typewriters in their home office. He also has a classroom collection his students are allowed to use.

One thing he finds the most interesting is that these machines were built to last. “Nowhere in corporate ethos of the big, traditional typewriter manufacturers was the concept of an ‘upgrade cycle,’” he observed. “These manufacturers were making typewriters that would outlast their owners. Many of them have.”

“It makes one stop and think about how much the world has changed in so little time. Moreover, the personal relationship that we have with tools is very much absent.”

Putting traditional typewriters in context with the new world of computers, Adney points out that he singular purpose of a typewriter is to put words on paper. “When working properly it does that very well,” he said. “A typewriter is not nearly as good at streaming a movie form Netflix or tweeting. That’s the point! Typewriters are single-use devices and people like me relish that idea.”

He believes our technology-driven society has fetishized the concept of efficiency and productivity, defining a product’s market value by its feature set.

“We live at a time when we often equate quantity with quality,” said Adney. “I, for one, do not like that. It is a hollow existence. So when there is a chance to rekindle both nostalgia and valuable criticism of our technology people really take to that idea. And as a consequence typewriters are again very much in the conscience of people.”

Nostalgia is continuing discussion topic for those in the Typosphere, a virtual community of typewriter bloggers and collectors. Adney is no exception. However, having grown up in the post-typewriter age, his nostalgia is for a time he never personally experienced. “I grew up in the middle of the computer revolution and I have only small memories of typewriters,” he said.

Those who recall the past and remember typing as a chore may view the computer as a great saver of time. Adney doesn’t discount their feelings, and acknowledges that typing on a typewriter consumes a significant amount of time. He agrees that if it were the only way to type, it might seem tedious.

Still, he raises challenging questions:

If computers are viewed as “time savers,” what has happened to that extra time? Have computers offered us more leisure time to explore our hobbies? Have computers given us the gift of time with our friends and families?

Adney maintains the time saved by computerization has been filled with other kinds of drudgery, and that the “time-saver” argument is a canard. “So, yeah, I feel a little nostalgic for a time when things were harder, but I think things were also a little more honest,” he said.

Adney doesn’t think the computer is going anywhere. But he thinks typewriters are here to stay, too. He sees the typewriter, the LP vinyl album, the mechanical watch, the fountain pen as mirrors – visual cues that can remind us to stop and assess the true value technology.

Like many of us, Adney says it’s hard to see the art in something that has a functional place in our lives. But this exhibit helps, by taking typewriters out of their daily context and presenting them in a way that helps the viewer focus the lines of the machine, and contemplate them as works of art.

Adney says one big takeaway from the exhibit should the realization of how remarkably little the typewriter changed over a nearly one-hundred year period. A typewriter user from 1909 would be able to sit down in front of a typewriter from 1989 and use it with very little confusion.

Whereas in a fraction of that same amount of time, the computer has gone through countless iterations. Adney calls traditional typewriters “decade-agnostic.”

He issues a challenge:  “Take a modern computer user and place him or her in front of a computer from the mid-eighties and see how well they fare.”

For more information, contact Monica Castaneda, monica.castaneda@gccaz.edu.