Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The typewriter’s day is nearly done

Who knew that typewriters were still being manufactured? Somehow word processing’s precursor had managed to endure in India for decades after the fickle keyboard crowd moved on. But now the 19th-century machine’s last gasp is that much closer with the announcement that Godrej & Boyce will close its Mumbai plant, which used to produce 50,000 typewriters a year. Defence agencies, courts and government offices were the last customers of the cumbersome device as sales plummeted to less than 1,000 per annum. Now, finally, even the tradition-minded Indian bureaucracy will have to face up to the efficiencies of the modern world.

They linger in dark places

The typewriter has been proclaimed dead for decades, but somehow it manages to linger on – at least in the U.S. prison system, which is now the biggest market for the transparent machines made by Swintec, a New Jersey firm. Authorities like the fact that prisoners can’t hide contraband in the see-through typewriters nor access the temptations of the Internet. David Berkowitz, the notorious Son of Sam killer, is one of the Swintec’s most satisfied customers, typing out two dozen missives a week to friends and acquaintances on his electric keyboard. Swintec also supplies typewriters to funeral homes that have to type up original death certificates and to the New York Police Department, which requires officers to do their two-finger best on carbon-paper documents such as evidence vouchers. If NYPD deskers look askance at your criminal complaint, researchers say, it’s probably because they don’t want to be bothered with the awkward tedium of an antiquated typewriter.

Speed demons

Before he was a renowned literary critic, Northrop Frye found fame as a speed demon on the typewriter. After graduating from high school in Moncton, he studied office skills at the Success Business College and competed in national typing competitions, winning an Underwood expert-typist award in 1929 at the age of 16. But his speed of 63 words per minute paled beside that of the fastest typists, who have reached over 200 wpm. Frye wisely moved on to a more cerebral level of verbal dexterity.

How to succeed in business

Was the typewriter sexist? The debate endures long after the office typewriter went the way of the three-martini lunch, thanks in part to the cult of Mad Men and its steno pools that placed young typists at the ad executives’ beck and call. As early as the 1920s, naughty postcards portrayed the typewriter as a suggestive instigator of boss-secretary shenanigans, and smart girls were advised not to learn typing if they wanted to advance in the work world. But some historians look on the old QWERTY keyboard more kindly: Office work at the typists’ level was better-paid, safer and less physically draining than other kinds of women’s work, while offering greater mobility in urban – and urbane – corporate culture.

The sound of productivity

The silent typewriter? A bad idea. Remington tried one out, and the market said no. People accustomed to the traditional clickety-clack, that reassuring indicator of productivity, found both the soundless machine and its noiseless office equally unconvincing.

Special relationships

Typewriters write the way people talk, said Ernest Hemingway. But Henry James, whose elaborate style couldn’t have been more different from Hemingway’s spare prose, dictated his novels to a female typist. Likewise, Friedrich Nietzsche trained the typewriter to obey his contorted verbiage. Jack Kerouac, a high-energy, 100-words-a-minute typist, was so impatient about his words keeping up with his streaming thoughts that he typed on a single continuous roll of paper. Maybe, as with any writing instrument, it’s each to his own: Paul Auster preciously described his Olympia as “a frail sentient being,” while gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson used to take target practice at his untalkative IBM Selectric. And the deadline-driven sportswriter Red Smith remarked that “there’s nothing to writing – all you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Still, would anyone ever say that about a BlackBerry?

No more revealing manuscripts

With the disappearance of the typewriter, says Robert Morrison of Queen’s University, comes the end of the literary manuscript. “When you have a typewritten manuscript, you can keep much better track of the author’s revisions and second thoughts and changes. With the computer, it’s all gone: Hit the Delete key and all your changes disappear into the ether. And what we know from looking at older manuscripts is that very often the crossed-out original is a lot more interesting than the final version.”

Dirty looks

Another reason the typewriter couldn’t last: After 9/11, it’s almost impossible to get it through security without being hassled. “The typewriter’s declining popularity arouses suspicion,” wrote the deliberately old-school author David Sedaris, “and I wind up eliciting the sort of reaction one might expect when travelling with a cannon.”


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