What’s Up with Pop Culture and Typewriters? – Weird Al, Tom Hanks and Printing

by Jim Lyons | 8/3114

I am not sure if it is an end-of-summer nostalgia thing, or just pure coincidence, but lately it seems I am surrounded by typewriter references. This week, it was the Emmy Awards, and the “Weird Al” send-up that parodied famous TV show’s theme songs, and somehow ended with the presentation of a giant typewriter to audience member and Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin, who famously prefers to write on an old-school DOS word processor to anything more modern. 

Looking at my Twitter homepage a few days prior, I noticed among the trending topics “Tom Hanks.” With all the summer’s negative and even horrific news on so many fronts, I was a bit hesitant to click through to see what this trending status was all about, but was soon relieved to find it was very happy buzz about, of all things, a new Hanks-branded typewriter-simulation app for the iPad. Entitled Hanx Writer, the tweets led me to a TechCrunch description of the app – and its popularity. I also found a Newsweek article that directed me to a NYTimes op-ed piece by Hanks, from last summer (2013), which heaped praise and nostalgia on the typewriter – turns out he’s quite the aficionado.

Of course, I had to download the app and play with it for myself, and found that it's quite fun and really does give the feel of typing – similar but different, too, than today’s keyboarding. Plus, and of course of keen interest to me, Hanx Writer allows printing, so that perfect Courier font on the iPad screen can be rendered to a printed page via built-in AirPrint capability.

A nostalgic piece on NPR’s Planet Money about the 50th anniversary of the New York world's fair and the technology on display included picture phones but stressed how typewriters seemed to generate more interest. And though such old memories are subject to “drift”, I also remember the picture phone (but not typewriters) from my childhood visit to the 1962 Seattle World's Fair – although they were not nearly as exciting as the “pickle pins” offered by Heinz (a promotional staple of such events for more than 100 years), and a grade school status item, at least in 1962!


The nostalgia about the typewriter aside, it really is interesting to think, from a business evolution perspective, about the development of the desktop printer in the period following. At my first office jobs I remember some of the secretaries — in more progressive areas of the business — having enhanced typewriters that held canned text for letters and invoices in oddly shaped memory cards, to go along with manual entry of names and other unique fields. This help streamline the process of more efficiently producing typed documents. These memory-enabled machines evolved into standalone word processors, still requiring a typewriter or the loud and expensive “daisy wheel” printer.

At the same time, the PC was developing (though not yet called a “PC”), and that DOS platform Martin still prefers became home to very basic text editing, eventually also dubbed word processors. But they needed a better output device than the aforementioned daisy wheels or “greenbar” printers found in the data center. And by 1984, the HP LaserJet emerged as that disruptive printer, featuring “Quick, Quiet and Quality” capabilities, finally beating the output capabilty of typewriters at every turn.

I guess I am getting a little nostalgic myself, but to take a more calculated, academic eye to the situation, it’s what we categorize as classic development of “complementary products” (as my economics students will attest) along with some “creative destruction” thrown in. The computer-based word processor and the "letter quality” printer developed on similar tracks and created together an outstanding combination that displaced typewriters, even those souped-up models, and business communications was transformed forever.

And back to the Hanks app. Whether you want to classify it as pure nostalgia, and/or a gimmicky app to show the kids and stimulate “can you believe we really did this” thoughts and discussion? Regardless, for a little end-of-summer fun and nostalgia of your own, I heartily recommend taking the Hanx Writer app for a spin!


 Jim Lyons has been writing, analyzing and blogging about industry developments since 2006. In his monthly Observations column he comments on business and marketing developments in the printing and imaging industry, combining many years of experience with an ever-enthusiastic eye on the future. In the Jim Lyons Observations column on The Imaging Channel, highlights from that blog appear monthly. Lyons is also a faculty member at the University of Phoenix, teaching marketing and economics at its school of business, and is a regular contributor to both The Imaging Channel and Workflow. Follow him on Twitter @jflyons and read more of Jim Lyons Observations at http://www.jimlyonsobservations.com/.