While Mister Boomer was conversing with a 40-year old coworker recently, she mentioned how she had learned to type on a manual typewriter. One of the things she recalled was how difficult it had been to press a typewriter key with her pinkie fingers. Eventually she did learn, and now years later, is happy for the experience. It struck Mister B that there were many things in our boomer years that required manual dexterity and physical hand strength. Practically every “modern” thing we had still required finger and hand movement, from rotary phone dials to turning TV knobs, manual typewriters to manual steering on cars. The push-button world had begun for us, but most boomers would live a good portion of their lives turning, grabbing and twisting things that were otherwise designed to make our lives easier and better.
Mister B recalls becoming a big fan of science fiction books at an early age. He enjoyed reading about the future, and trying to imagine what it would be like. On many occasions, he would stare at his hand and try to envision what human hands might look like in a future where push buttons would replace the need for dials, knobs and levers. In Mister B’s imaginary evolution, it seemed logical that the small flaps of skin he could see stretched between his fingers would grow as the need for separate fingers dissipated. He’d look at his hand and see webbing between the fingers, much like he’d seen on the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
It remains to be seen if evolution will take that path and change our physiology, and it certainly won’t be happening in our lifetimes. Yet the fundamental way we used our hands and fingers is ever-changing, especially now at the advent of devices controlled by voice commands. Take a look at what was once commonplace, and now all but relegated to the archives of history:
Electrric typewriters existed as far back as the the 1920s, with the first one arguably invented in the early 1900s. History tells us it didn’t catch on that quickly because electricity wasn’t widespread until the late 1920s, much like internet access is still uneven in some parts of the country today. By then the Great Depression took hold. As a result of three decades of manual typewriters, units could be found in thrift shops at affordable prices, and passed down through family members right up to the boomer years. Mister B, like so many boomers, made their way through high school and college using the manual, hard-to-press keys and hand-operated carriage return. Mister B’s family typewriter was a 1929 Underwood. Nonetheless, Mister B never learned how to type, so he continues to pen these posts with the hunt-and-peck method. Brother Boomer has possession of that typewriter to this day. Mister B’s family did not own an electric typewriter at any point, even after his mother became a keypunch operator. Mister B recalls seeing electric typewriters in stores in the late sixties and early seventies.
Power steering on cars was an option on luxury cars in the 1930s, so only the wealthy could afford it. The steering wheels of cars were designed to be larger, to assist in the task of turning the wheels. Advancements in gears in the 1940s helped a little, but it was still tough to fully turn a car, pulling hand over hand on a 20-inch diameter wheel. In contrast, the steering wheels on today’s vehicles are 14- or 15-inches in diameter. By the 1960s, power steering became an option on all American-made cars. Boomers were in the market for cheap cars, though, so power steering wasn’t going to be in the cards. Mister Boomer’s father did not own a car with power steering until 1970. It took until Mister B bought his first new car in 1977 before he had power steering.
As with many “modern appliances” in Mister Boomer’s house, somewhere around the late 1960s the electric can opener came in by way of a prize for a golf or bowling banquet. His father was on a bowling team in the fall and winter, and a golf team in the spring and summer. Mister B didn’t care much for the device, though his sister liked it a lot. She was younger, and it was much easier for her to open cans of Spaghetti-Os and Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee Beefaroni with the electric can opener. She was plopping them into pots and warming them for herself by age eight. Mister Boomer continued to use the manual, hand-crank can opener, and still does to this day — unless it’s a can with a pop-top. He hates those, too, because they are harder for a senior Mister B to open sometimes than turning a can opener around a lid.
There are many more things we twisted, turned and grabbed in our boomer years, in order to adjust, open or control the devices that defined our modern age, such as the aforementioned rotary phone dials and TV knobs. How about screwdrivers? Power screwdrivers have supplanted hand-held tools in most cases. Stereo levers and dials? Most music is streamed these days off the internet. At most a slide of a finger on a screen can turn the volume up or down, or a voice command can do the task literally without lifting a finger.
Some boomers marvel at the speed of which their grandchildren can text on their smartphones, using just their thumbs. While that “skill” may be similar to boomers’ typing on a manual typewriter, automatic word suggestions entering as they type makes the message appear all the faster. Soon typing will be unnecessary for this function, as already voice-interpreted messages are possible on a number of devices.
Yes, boomers have seen the evolution of these devices, and built strong hands and upper body strength along the way. As our parents saw more time-saving devices enter their post-war world, we aging boomers can look forward to a lot of automated assistance in our old age. Sitting in the comfort of our own recliners, soon we’ll be able to say, “Hey Siri-Alexa-Cortana-Google-Portal (or whatever comes next), open a can of Beefaroni and warm it for me, OK?”
What memories of manual dexterity come to mind for you, boomers?