CFP: Typewriters around the world: machines, practices, cultures

Vaibhav Singh's picture
Call for Papers
July 9, 2020
United Kingdom
Subject Fields: 
Business History / Studies, Communication, Cultural History / Studies, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, Popular Culture Studies


Typewriters around the world: machines, practices, cultures 

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Two day international conference

Conference convener: Dr Vaibhav Singh, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Reading

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Histories of typewriters often seem to imply a stable, universal, linguistically unspecific machine – overlooking the variations, divergences, the richness of methods and practices in a global context. In addition, texts produced on these machines have constituted minor footnotes in the history of print, design, and technology, despite having introduced transformative negotiations between language and technology, modernity and politics. This conference situates typewriters, typewriting, and their myriad communities within a rarely seen diversity of languages, interactions, and interfaces. It aims to bring together scholars, researchers, designers, collectors, and enthusiasts in a relatively unexplored area of considerable significance, offering a glimpse of the broad spectrum of ingenuity and critical enquiry related to typewriters for different writing systems. 

The typewriter, as a liminal or in-between apparatus, offers print historians something of a conundrum: in a sense text produced on typewriters is still typography, if we understand typography to be text produced with prefabricated letters. But on the other hand typewriting is more akin to stamping practice than typographic printing, as individual marks are struck on, for a single instance or a small number of copies, rather than producing printed matter en masse using a composed surface. Typewritten documents are peculiar also in the way they occupy a place between personal and impersonal domains, the private and the public spheres, between the anonymous, the personal, the official, between the unique print and mass-produced printed artefacts. For instance: can a typewritten page simultaneously represent a ‘manuscript’, a personal letter, a stamped anonymous inscription, not a professionally printed object but yet a printed official document, or a clandestine, underground endeavour. As the commonly used expression ‘typewritten manuscript’ has implied across the twentieth century, the process of typewriting indeed occupies a curious space between writing and printing – in a way, writing wanting to be printing, or conversely printing resisting the common associations of mass printing. Few other practices throw into such sharp relief the connections between mark-making and agency – the contested relationship between print and authority.

Small-scale technologies and ‘personal’ machines in a global context have remained largely at the periphery of critical scholarship in the history of print, design, communication, as well as in the history of technology, despite their significance and lasting influence. Typewriters provide an endlessly fascinating entry point to questions that are often lost in the history of print, they do so especially by positing the script not merely as a passive carrier of information, but as a pliable existential artefact in itself, with a social and political life – inseparable from the materiality of textual production. We invite papers that examine how ideas of politics, modernity, and economy connect to the interactions and interfaces that mediate text-production in different scripts, different linguistic contexts.

Typewriters, in the popular imagination, have an indelible connection with nostalgia and the twentieth century. While this association has driven a resurgence of interest in typewriters – as desirable objects, with a patina of history – it has also reinforced the notion of the machines themselves, and the practices they engendered, as irrelevant and obsolete. Typewriters are portrayed as quaint, cumbersome adventures, perhaps necessary on the way to more ‘intelligent’ machines. Nonetheless, we – including generations that never used a typewriter themselves – are tied to conceptions and practices that typewriters instigated and established. This is evident not only in the somatic continuation of depressing keys as the primary gateway to text composition, but also in the spatial configuration and comprehension of alphabets, syllabaries, ideograms through the device of the keyboard and its arrangement.

In light of the above, we invite papers that examine the history of typewriters and typewriting, broadly defined, through an engagement with machines, practices, communities, and cultures. Topics of interest include, but are not limited to, the design and manufacture of writing machines, their adaptation and use across the world; processes of technological innovation and negotiation; resistance, popularisation, instruction; reconfiguration of textual practices in various scripts of the world; the development of specific machines and manufacturers; inventors, agents, mechanics, users, typewriter collectors, and collections worldwide.

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We invite proposals for presentations of 20-minute duration. Please send an abstract (300 words) and short bio (150 words) to

Deadline for abstract submission: 10 April 2020 
Date of conference: 9–10 July 2020 
Conference venue: Wellcome Collection, London 
Venue address: 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE 
Conference convener: Dr Vaibhav Singh, University of Reading 
Email enquiries:

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Registration fees (£30 early-booking, £40 regular) apply to speakers and attendees of this conference. We are unable to cover costs involved in travel and accommodation. Tea/coffee and lunch will be provided during the conference. Please register as early as convenient, places limited by hall capacity. 

Authors of select proposals will be invited (no obligations) to publish extended versions of their papers in a peer-reviewed journal issue of Contextual Alternate. Submission guidelines for the journal can be found here: