The sixteen-year death of the typewriter

Recently the internet has been flooded with the news that Godrej and Boyce, one of the last typewriter manufacturers located in Mumbai, India, has decided to stop production of these typing machines in favor of something more useful, like refrigerators. This news caused quite a stir on Mashable and other news websites and has resulted in fond sentimental columns like “Last Words on the Typewriter” by avid typist and novelist Paul Bailey on the Guardian books blog.

In his essay, Bailey chronicles buying his first typewriter in the 1960s (it was “a secondhand Olivetti portable … It cost something close to £20, which was a fortune for a young man earning £7 a week as a shop assistant in Harrods”) and his latest electronic typewriter, a Dora 204 SP, called simply and affectionately, “Dora.” The column wistfully announces the “demise of the typewriter” and reads like a eulogy to an old friend: “Dora is [now] resting in splendour on a desk in my study … She is there to remind me of the pleasure I have taken in typing for most of my working life.”

The impending demise of the typewriter is nothing new. 16 years ago, in 1995, a New York Times article titled “An Ode to the Typewriter” was published in response to one of the biggest typewriter manufacturers, Smith Corona, filing for bankruptcy. For the NYT, the bankruptcy of this monolithic typewriter company signaled “the triumph of personal computers and software over the typewriter” — the championing of the digital over analog; the forward movement of innovation. Word processing was becoming something monopolized by PCs and forward-thinking companies like IBM.

And still the typewriter lasted sixteen years to 2011, only to be greeted with another goodbye ode. While the last 16 years haven’t been a particularly robust period for typewriters, the fact that they have held on so long since this 1995 “turning point” reveals something — our attachment to the analog, our desire to hold onto old technologies and keep them around for sentimentality’s sake; the not-necessarily synchronous movement of innovation and use, or obsolescence and disuse.

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There is something particularly charming about typewriters. I own two myself — one is a manual Olivetti Lettera 32 and the other is an electric SCM Smith Corona 1G. The first jams up easily and is difficult to find ink spools for; the second is cumbersomely large and at least 40 pounds of metal and plastic placed in a similarly cumbersome plastic “travel” case. It is easier to open a word processing document on my 5-pound Mac computer (which also triples as an MP3 player, a DVD watcher, an Internet accessor) and type out whatever I feel like typing without presence of white-out or corrective tape.

It’s the permanence of writing on the typewriter, though — the realness of ink stamped on the realness of paper — that creates a different kind of writing experience. With a computer I can write something and un-write it just as easily. With typewriters, I deal with permanence constantly, where typed words I didn’t mean remain on the page, gone over again with the X key several times, but still there. Here the page functions as a timeline that moves forward as I move forward, where I can see trails of thought being cut off as my thought process unwinds. The typewriter keeps a record of everything — each missed stroke, each failed beginning. Sometimes I go over my old letters and look at the X’d out places and try to figure out where I was going, what I was thinking, what I wanted to write, and what ended up on the page.

This isn’t to say that computers are better than typewriters, or vice versa, when it comes to the chronicle of writing. I would say that the two are entirely different in the experience they give to a writer, with different awarenesses and processes. With the computer, I constantly deal with impermanence — when writing I feel the need to constantly save my progress, to stamp my words all over Dropbox and email, to keep what I’ve thought and typed from going back to nothing. Browser refreshes, clicking the wrong dialogue box, can cause the loss of hours of time, with no record kept, just a vague memory and maybe some saddened sobs.

At the risk of loss, I type on computers; at the risk of keeping everything I didn’t want, I type on typewriters. Permanence and impermanence affect the way I think when typing on either. I either feel the anxiety of constantly saving what I’ve written or the dread of making a mistake, typing that errant “W,” that remains on the page. Both machines give me an awareness of what I write, with either the awareness that my thoughts and sentiments come from nothing and can similarly return to nothing; or the awareness that every side thought I have when writing, every mistake, is often ignored at the expense of the completed project.

I will be sad to say goodbye to the typewriter. While it’s taken over 16 years for us to really let go (we’ve extended our goodbyes as long as they’ve existed), typewriters offer a look into the way writerly thinking has changed since word processing devices have changed. I’ll likely keep my typewriters around for a while, searching around for the odd ink spool on eBay to keep them functioning.
When it comes to writing, however, we keep the typewriter as a reminder — that writing is about mindset, about awareness of what we write, how we write, and most of all, the experience of what we are writing with.

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