Road Warrior

I'm sitting on a red beanbag chair on the second floor of the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, just across from a bank of elevators and a rush of exhausted conventioneers at the annual Seybold conference on publishing technology. There are several beanbag chairs here, and all are filled with exhausted-looking attendees, collapsed and sprawled. About the only thing that distinguishes me from the young man in the yellow beanbag next to me is our typing speed: I'm poking away on a 1916 foldable, portable Corona typewriter and he's zipping along on what looks to be a Sony Vaio subnotebook.

I've been traveling for the past several months sans high-tech accoutrements--no cell phone, no laptop computer, no fax machine, no personal digital assistants other than the fingers on my own two hands. My motive? To see what we road warriors stand to lose--or gain--by going wireless the old-fashioned way. My plan is to compose this column, as well as a log of my travels, on my portable typewriter and mail both to my editor at the magazine.

The typewriter I'm toting came into being after one Benn Conger, a New York state senator, saw a foldable typewriter co-invented by a man named Frank Rose and his son. Conger and a couple of friends loved the machine so much that they bought out all the patents of the Rose Typewriter Co. and formed the Standard Typewriter Co., which began producing its folding typewriter in 1907. The machine weighed 5.5 pounds and met with great success. Legend has it that Teddy Roosevelt carried one with him on safari in 1910. The company's name was changed to Corona Typewriter Co. in 1914, and two years later an ad proclaimed the 1916 version--my particular machine--the laptop of its day: "Whether you are being swirled along on the 20th Century Limited, rocked by the motion of an ocean liner, or setting foot where white men never trod; you can now write as well as in an office." Hardly politically correct language. But then, neither was the art that accompanied the text: a housewife handing the laptop to her husband as he headed off to earn the daily bread.

My first foray into low-tech travel was a train ride from Boston's South Station to New York City's Penn Station. I got on the train sometime before 6 in the morning (when it's before 6, I don't keep track of exact times) and returned home on a train that arrived in South Station a little after 3 the next morning (the same rule of inexactitude applies to anything after 2 a.m.). I was amused to find outlets along the sidewalls of the coach section for plugging in a laptop. A nice feature, certainly, but one I wouldn't need for this trip. Two other people were in the car: a guy who slept and a woman who plugged in her PowerBook but got no juice. For the next 20 minutes, the woman walked from car to car dragging the power cord behind her, looking for an outlet that worked. I chuckled quietly and typed some notes for my lunchtime meeting.

No one on the trip to New York commented on my antiquated machine--its sleek beauty, its powerful build, its wonderful compactness. (It weighs less than my Dell plus an extra battery and a power cord.) On the train home one other person was in my car, and he was sound asleep. I tried typing extra hard, but the clanging was drowned out by the chugging of the train through the Northeast Corridor.

The next major leg of my trip involved a car jaunt to Camden, Maine, a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Boston. I arrived in Camden, checked into the Lord Camden Inn, on Main Street, and went to my room. Upon entering, I instinctively checked the proximity of the phone jack to the electrical outlets. Another stroke in the Corona's favor: the jack and outlets that I'd need for a laptop were lodged behind the king-size bed. But I was laptop-free. I simply took the typewriter out of its case and set it on the desk near the window overlooking the Megunticook River. Then I pulled out some hotel stationery and typed my editor an update. Now, if I want a paper copy when I travel with my Dell, I have to compose on the laptop and fax the document to myself at the front desk. But here I could type a letter out on the machine and have it in hand--instantly! What a concept!

True, what would have taken me 5 minutes to write in bytes took me 20 minutes to peck out with two fingers in text. But then, my comments were much more thoughtful and (dare I say it?) cogent. With my laptop, I can compose, revise, delete, add, embellish, transpose--all without having to retype the entire document. Which means I'm more likely to write the first thing that comes into my head and then clean it up. With the Corona, unless I want to continually type new drafts, I have to think carefully about my words and the structure of my ideas before I set them down. Because of that--and because with the Corona I'm unable to kick into multitask mode (dialing in for E-mail, getting the latest stock quotes, or hopping onto Lexis-Nexis to check a fact, and so on)--I found it much easier to focus on my work.