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Blank Stares of the Young

by

Bill Tune

bctune@gmail.com

Have you ever asked a young person where the term “carbon copy” comes from?  Blank stare. They use it, whether they realize it or not, every time they “Cc” an email.  However, even if they know that “Cc” stands for “carbon copy”, they don't have a clue where the term comes from.  I don't blame them for not knowing this.  It is a part of my life experience, but not theirs.  They probably don't even know that the first keyboards were non-electric.  To them a typewriter is a museum piece and life without spell-check is inconceivable. 


Interestingly enough, carbon paper was invented before the typewriter in the early 19th century (that is the 1800's, kids).  Originally it had other uses, but when the first practical typewriter was invented in 1872, the carbon paper market really took off.  Of course, this was even before my time.


Making a carbon copy was a fairly simple process requiring a piece of carbon paper - one side of which was smooth and the other side coated with “a layer of a loosely bound dry ink” (according to Wikipedia).  By placing the carbon paper between two sheets of blank paper (ink-side down), one could insert the pages in a typewriter, type on the top page while an immediate copy was transferred to the page under the carbon copy.  In the days before copy machines (Yes, Virginia, there were days before copy machines were widely used, and I'm old enough to have at least glimpsed that era.) this process saved a lot of extra re-typing of documents when multiple copies were needed.  However, one disadvantage of a system where everything typed instantly appeared on two (or more) pages was that EVERYTHING you typed appeared instantly on two (or more) pages, including mistakes.


I may not have been around to see the introduction of the first typewriter, but I did witness the amazing revolution brought on by electric typewriters and the genius, if not sometimes fussy, correction tape that allowed you to back up, retype the error (exactly!), then type your correction.  This worked beautifully--if you caught your mistake immediately; if the tape was the same color as the paper you were typing on; if the page had not shifted (at all!) in the carriage; and if you didn't make yet another mistake while trying to correct the first one.


Liquid paper was a lot easier to use.  I'll never forget the last paper I wrote for my master's degree in 1986.  I was not a word processing pioneer at the time, so this paper was done on a portable, manual typewriter.  (I didn't even have one of those fancy electric typewriters.)  My paper was returned with this completely unnecessary note: “Gee, Bill, did you use the whole bottle of liquid paper?”  I was just thankful that this was not a dissertation paper.  Back then dissertation papers had to be typed letter-perfect with no type of correction allowed.  That meant one mistake on the bottom line of a typed page marked that page for the trash can (with an appropriate amount of cursing) while reaching for a clean sheet on which to start over.  My in-laws told (through gritted teeth) the horrors of typing my father-in-law's final paper in graduate school in the 50's.  They took turns typing pages until completing the paper.  They were ultimately successful with minimal physical damage to each other and only a moderate amount of long-term mental incapacity.  Today such a task would be fairly routine with the technology we so take for granted.


Occasionally, people of my age group like to share emails that allow us to wax nostalgic about the early decades of our existence.  Among the relics I enjoyed remembering were metal ice trays, the plastic insert used to play 45 RPM records on a phonograph, S&H Green stamps, skate keys, tinker toys, Brownie box cameras, and if I started talking about old TV shows, we'd be here all day.  (If you don't get all the references in this paragraph, enjoy your youth.)


While there are certain references we don't expect young people to relate to, it's the ones that catch us by surprise that make life interesting.  You don't even have to be old for this to happen.  As a first-year band director in 1975, I struggled with my 6th & 7th grade band, which met at the last period of the day.  I was only 24 and my inexperience in handling school children was evident.  After several months of trying to teach and corral this energetic group of budding musicians (and I use that term very loosely), I went to my annual band director's convention with the goal of finding music that they would WANT to play.  I found it, a very simple arrangement of the Beatles’ classic “Michele.”  I could hardly wait to get home and bask in their undying gratitude.  Instead of their daily oppressor, I would become their savior from endless scales and exercises.  When I got home and passed out the new music, it was with breathless anticipation I asked, “How many people are familiar with the song 'Michele'?”  Blank stares all around, so I asked, “How many of you remember the Beatles?”  More blank stares.  Then it dawned on me that the unforgettable, world-famous singing group that changed the face of modern pop music broke up just as this group of kids was being born.  With my bubble sufficiently burst, I gave a brief history of the Beatles, and we proceeded to learn the new song.  In the end, they did like it, and a couple even came up to me weeks later to boast that they had heard “our” song playing as background music in Gibson's (There's another archaic reference for you.).  It was gratifying to learn years later that the Beatles enjoyed a resurgence in popularity that I suspect will never fade.   Their place in modern music history is secure. 


Back to the carbon copy, while the technology has changed significantly, we still have use for making carbon copies today.  The standard practice now involves carbonless paper, or paper with a special coating on one side that creates the copy.  This is used on cash register receipts, check books, and some order forms, just to name a few.


And I'd like to make a few more comments about the typewriter keyboard. How many people realize how many computer keys originated with the manual typewriter?  To type a capital letter one had to SHIFT the keys up, and if you wanted to type a series of capital letters, one had to LOCK the shift key in the CAPS position.  At the end of each line, one had to slide the carriage RETURN from right to left which automatically rolled the carriage up in preparation for the next line of typing.  Long before word processors developed electronic tabs, the typewriter had an elaborate system for setting and/or clearing TABS manually. True, there were no ESCAPE, CONTROL, or FUNCTION keys, and the BACKSPACE has become the DELETE key, but the basic QWERTY system from the days of old is still used today.  Also, back then a “cursor” was just the poor typist who was having a bad day.


Keyboarding skills, once reserved for older students and adults, are now taught in elementary school.  No doubt proper typing skills’ standards will never be the same since everyone got a keyboard, but that's the world we live in now.  I'm already falling behind on current trends because it looks like most kids now type faster with 2 thumbs on a cell phone than my 10 fingers ever did on a typewriter.


I'm certainly not against progress.  I enjoy the modern conveniences of our time as much as the next guy.  However, I hope we never lose sight of where we came from and what life was like in the days of yore.  And I pray that never again will the question, “Who are the Beatles?” be met with a blank stare.

enough