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The Typewriter at the Gates of Dawn
November 20, 2012 12:25 AM   Subscribe

The BBC reports that the last typewriter to be built in the UK (according to its manufacturers) has been donated to London's Science Museum. "Brother said it had stopped making typewriters because demand had fallen to 30 a day, with most of those being sold in the US."

From less than five years ago, another BBC news story: "The Japanese multinational Brother sold 12,000 electronic typewriters last year in the UK..."

The first typewriter was patented (but not commercially manufactured) in 1714. Though many other mechanical typing devices were invented thereafter, the Sholes and Glidden typewriter (developed between 1866 and 1874) was the first commercially successful model, and the one which gave us the world 'typewriter'.

Though in decline, the typewriter industry is not - contrary to recent reports - completely over. As recently as last year, one manufacturer was producing machines for the US prison system. New Brother typewriters are still for sale on Amazon. And Mom and Pop and independent stores, from Oregon to Massachusetts, are still around.

The Flickr Writing Machines group contains many pictures of typewriters.
posted by Wordshore (97 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Just last week I got a note written on a typewriter. The font was unmistakeable.
posted by Cranberry at 12:36 AM on November 20, 2012


The last time I made it to Burning Man, 2010, one of our campmates showed up with a typewriter he'd picked up at a thrift store on the way down. All week long it was a communal storytelling experience. Strangers would drop in to camp, sit down to chat, at some point it would be wordlessly passed to them. They'd start typing. Occasionally someone would be drunk enough to wobble upwards and read a few pages worth.

I wonder what happened to that ramshackle tale. The typewriter guy was from Manchester fwiw, so maybe that one story made its way back to the UK.
posted by mannequito at 12:47 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Somewhere out there, people are still running Netscape Navigator and Windows 95. I would take it in the direction of typewriters but I guess Tom Waits "Underground" might work better.
posted by crapmatic at 12:58 AM on November 20, 2012


This technology is dead. Roll the knob backwards and apply the White-Out.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:03 AM on November 20, 2012


It's better to qwert out than to fade away.
posted by quadog at 1:06 AM on November 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


A footnote from a book I wrote:

"Sholes' QWERTY typewriter was based on an oft-overlooked feature of Morse code wherein Morse had assigned the shortest codes to the most common letters in English ("e" and "t") and left the longest codes for the least common Q. Sholes designed his mechanical typewriter such that letters in commonly used word pairs (“th,” for example) would be separated on the keyboard to avoid collisions between the mechanical arms. The specific arrangement was based on a study of letter-pair frequency prepared by educator Amos Densmore, who also happened to be the brother of Sholes’ sole financial backer."
posted by three blind mice at 1:15 AM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


A ten-letter word formed just using the keys on the top row of letters on the typewriter.

It's a puzzle. Got it?

And one of my favorites.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:16 AM on November 20, 2012


typewriter
posted by mannequito at 1:17 AM on November 20, 2012


Incorrect. It is "Qwertyuiop", a neologism meaning "the act of a cat demanding attention from its owner."
posted by MuffinMan at 1:19 AM on November 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


i thought that was FRANKFRANK
posted by mannequito at 1:20 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


(using catslock)
posted by mannequito at 1:20 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Woody Allen Has Used the Same Typewriter for 50 Years
posted by iotic at 1:21 AM on November 20, 2012


I'm sorry, the correct answer was either PROPRIETOR or REPERTOIRE.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:23 AM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


I still secretly want an Olivetti Valentine. But I can only justify it if I can turn it into a laptop.
posted by mippy at 1:24 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it's time to be realistic about the influence that the QWERTY keyboard has had on our daily lives. The choice of that layout historically had nothing to do with the user and everything to do with the need to prevent the machine from jamming up.

So we have a noticeably inefficient keyboard layout, and it's so well entrenched that we're never going to overcome it, despite its obvious inefficiencies.

The only reasonable solution is to modify spelling to accommodate the machine. Every word beginning with a Q should be followed by a W. The letter E (which requires a second finger to type) should be replaced with more easily accessible letters, such as T or R.

I'm qwitt crrtain about this.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:49 AM on November 20, 2012 [7 favorites]


.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:07 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


I actually read not too long ago that typewriters are thriving in India, where of course the bureaucracy and its endless paper and carbon copies are also thriving. Computers are difficult to standardize over such a huge developing country and they've found that typewriters and carbon paper are a good stopgap... for a few decades at least. Apparently it's a pretty big business, building and repairing them over there.

I don't doubt, however, that the era of the typewriter is over. I'm a sentimental guy, I have two (mostly busted, for aesthetic purposes, I admit), and I love type - but as a writer, I find that a notebook and a good syncing text editor like Simplenote is just a better set of tools overall. I'm sad to see it go, but that's progress.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:17 AM on November 20, 2012


I wonder if I can still get replacement parts come 2020.
posted by clarknova at 2:21 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Small personal story:

My late grandfather had his typewriter (a classic Underwood) requisitioned by the Republican army at the outset of the Spanish Civil War. After the war, he went to recover it to a Nationalist army depot and, unbelievably, he actually got it back.

That typewriter is still a prized family heirloom...
posted by Skeptic at 2:33 AM on November 20, 2012 [15 favorites]


I loved typewriters growing up. My first personal typewriter my dad got me when I was around 12, it was in a large suitcase like thing (it came attached to it) and hummed very loud when you plugged it in. It had raised keys, pretty much like what steampunk people covet, and one of the letters hated being pushed. The long letter-stick things (can you tell I love 'em but don't know much about them?) kept getting stuck, so you'd have to unstick them to get them to type again.

tl;dr I fucking love typewriters.
posted by Malice at 2:35 AM on November 20, 2012


Up until this year the place I board my dog was still using typewriters, carbon paper and massive filing cabinets to track everything.

There was a certain charm to dropping my dog off and watching their decades old processes continue to work flawlessly. Something was lost when they switched to electronic records and fancy computers.

But it was worth it. Reduced errors, better billing, online booking, and more. Welcome to the future.
posted by samhyland at 3:31 AM on November 20, 2012


I will not mourn the passing of the typewriter, as much as my nostalgic side wishes me to, for though I type these words on on a fake unforgiving skeuomorphic facsimile of the mechanical original, when I hit the 'Post Comment' button, these inane words will be accessible to many at the speed of light.
posted by panaceanot at 3:52 AM on November 20, 2012


I have this crazy theory that people who learned to type on a typewriter, with its inability to make your mistakes disappear, think differently than those who started on a word processor. I won't miss the typewriter, but I often miss the way I used to write, and the more formalized process it required.
posted by snickerdoodle at 3:55 AM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sentiment anside aside, it was a pain having to avoid mistakes and not being able ro retypvise without retyping everything. I would used to throw away an average of sizx aborted attempts for every sht note I wrote.
posted by Segundus at 4:05 AM on November 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


I think typewriters are the best , and the fact that they are
becoming obselete is a tragedy for our society and will cause
no end of harm to all our great institutions . The XXonly hop-
e for the preservation of typewriter is - perhaps ironically
- the hipster, that much-maligned species, which has, until
now, been viewed as a cancer upon our civilization . Yet the
hipster, whose love of obselesence is matched only by his d-
esire for authenticityX, may be the last great hope for this
once- ubiquitous machine bXXXX on the other hand hipsters
are fucking annoying ,so there is that to consider I guess/.

posted by the quidnunc kid at 4:07 AM on November 20, 2012 [11 favorites]


Segundus, I owe you a coke.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 4:08 AM on November 20, 2012


Maybe one of them fancy vodkas down at the garlic place...
posted by Segundus at 4:12 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wonder if I can still get replacement parts come 2020.

By 2020, you should be able to 3D-print them.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:25 AM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


And then there are MetaFilter mods, who (allegedly) surround their typewriter with the body parts of MeFi's who use the blink tag, double FPP, or derail onto something about the 2012 election...
posted by Wordshore at 4:26 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Now I want to know where those 30 typewriters/day are going.
posted by griphus at 4:34 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Awesome, thanks for this post! I love typewriters. I have three that I've gotten from various places.

My first typewriter comes from when I was an undergraduate working in technical services at my school's library. When professors died or retired they would often donate the entire contents of their offices to the library. Normally this sucked because it meant we had to search a ton of books for duplicate copies and go through old museum catalogs and stuff and it was a huge pain, but one time this guy (Chauncy D. Harris in case you are wondering) left possessions including two old typewriters and I GOT one! It is super beautiful; it's like the classy laptop of typewriters. In honor of Professor Harris sometimes when I randomly begin a novel on this typewriter so I have an excuse to type on it I make my pen name Chauncy.

My second typewriter came from my old job; they had an IBM Selectric they didn't really want so I asked if I could have it and they said YES! My husband was not super pleased when he came to pick me up from work and I was standing there desperately trying to carry this behemoth of a typewriter but he let me keep it because I threatened to cry. His father actually used to work for IBM fixing Selectrics so he's pretty excited I have it.

My third typewriter is actually my favorite for both awesome typewriter and sentimental reasons. My grandmother died almost exactly two years ago and my grandfather moved out of their ridiculous WASP house and my aunt and my mother spent months clearing out all their junk. This means I got some fantastically great stuff including an Alice in Wonderland croquet set AND a typewriter! It is really, REALLY beautiful. I thought it was just something they had and then it turns out that it used to belong to Granny about fifty years ago and Granddaddy says he doesn't think anyone's used it since. I typed him a letter on it to say hi and thank you and he e-mailed me back about it. I joked to him that we were probably the only grandfather/granddaughter pair in the country where I sent him a typewritten letter and he sent back an e-mail. He thought this was so funny that he shared it with all of his friends (in fairness this is like three people because many of them are dead). He's pretty old now and he doesn't remember things so well; my mother said this is the first story he's remembered and told clearly in months. His wife of nearly sixty years is dead and his grandchildren live far away from Rhode Island now (two of us live in DC, one's in the navy in Guam and one lives in Singapore), he doesn't hear or remember things very well and there's just not a whole lot of brightness in his life. I like typewriters for many reasons but right now my favorite thing about them is that they let me make my grandfather laugh for the first time in a really long while.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 4:35 AM on November 20, 2012 [26 favorites]


I was talking to someone once, who made an interesting point about typewriters. When his generation went off to college (in the 1960s, but this would apply for a fair while on each side of that decade), if you were middle class you (or your family) would buy a typewriter. They were expensive, similar to a computer if you bought a fancy one, but that same typewriter would carry you through college and on into the first decade of your working life, and probably beyond.

His point was that this was just plain cheaper than the current fast replace cycle for your laptop/tablet/phone, and there were advantages to that as a young person. I think about what he said every time we buy a new electronic device and wonder how this moment will look in a few decades.
posted by Forktine at 4:56 AM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Apparently Brother is still making distributing and selling typewriters in the U.S. (it's not clear from their site where they're made). But there's a U.S. site with typewriters - even non-electronic ones - for sale. I can't imagine who's buying them.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 5:30 AM on November 20, 2012


You can tell that I learned to type on a typewriter by the way that I still beat the hell out of the keyboard as I'm typing. My muscle memory still thinks that I'm hitting the keys with three inches of travel on my mom's 1927 Royal Portable that I first typed on.

Also I still put double spaces after a period about half the time.
posted by octothorpe at 5:30 AM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I can't imagine who's buying them.

Hipsters.

racka-frackin' hipsters...
posted by Egg Shen at 5:32 AM on November 20, 2012


I'm currently 30,000 words into NaNoWriMo using an 80-year-old typewriter. I don't think I could have done it any other way. Being unable to erase what you have written, the minimal functionality, and the tactile nature of it completely changes the writing experience. It's like writing in ink when you've only ever used pencil. It's liberating, in a limiting kind of way.
posted by Acey at 5:32 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thank google for typewriters! I love them. My first was an Underwood. I still have my Olivetti Lettera. And I use it all the time for letters. People LOVE getting typewritten letters!

While I am 47, I know plenty of people older than I who use their electric typewriters daily, for ordinary tasks. Most are still serviced by companies whose business is, well, servicing typewriters.

What more, all over the Caribbean people use them as commonly as a can-opener or curling iron.

So don't be so quick to write off the typewriter. It's forgotten but not gone.
posted by Mike Mongo at 5:35 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's pretty mindboggling how fast the typewriter has been supplanted. I'm only 51, but when I was in college (c'mon, it wasn't that long ago), personal computers didn't even really exist. All of our work was done on typewriters. Now there are college students who have never seen a typewriter.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:38 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I recently had to find a new home for my hoard of manual typewriters. I'd inadvertently built up quite a stash during that gap in history between when arrogant computer jocks sneered at typewriters as the demon tools of luddites and when Apartment Therapy made it mandatory for every stylish apartment slideshow to include at least one shot of a pink Olympia SM7 perched on every white-painted shabby chic vanity, just under the obligatory KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON poster.

I learned to write on a manual typewriter my mother gave me, then drifted into the world of constant novelty and upgrades and bigger and better and why would anyone use a typewriter when you can't erase?

Thing is, a computer is a splendid editing machine, but it's not so great for writing, at least for me. On the screen I'm looking at right now, this text is framed in distractions, options, other avenues, and rests on a bar of other applications. Something is always teasing me, luring me into diversions and tangents, and reminding me that I have all the options in the universe at my disposal.

Writing is not about all the options in the universe.

I can use a simplified writing application, whether it's a lovely thing like Bean or something as spare as WriteRoom, and I avail myself of these wonderful tools quite often. When the haze is here, though, and when I've got a halo of ideas whirling around my hairline, I'm happier to step away from the computer, pick up the heavy green metal case of my Hermes 3000, set it up on the table in my front room, away from access to the entire universe, and start writing.

On my 3000, I cannot delete. I can't edit, I can't hang in that indecision space where I type a line, rethink it, retype it, backspace and type and backspace and type, and otherwise treat my own language with the Stalinistic historicity of the computer. I write something, and if I immediately dislike it, I can back up, strike it through, or reach in with a red pencil and mark it while it's still on the platen. When I make a mistake, it is immediately fossilized in my draft.

Perfectionists hate this. I tend towards perfectionism, and it's why I'm not published on any scale today. Doubt obliterates progress more completely than almost anything. One of the things I've enjoyed about writing on mefi, for example, is that it's cured me, or at least calmed me, of that panic of typos, malapropisms, and mistakes. I've written begging emails to mods in the past, hoping to kill an errant apostrophe or a word that's just so wrong that I start to think I'm developing early onset dementia. Some of these digital prayers have been answered, and the rest of the time, I've had to become comfortable with a certain discomfort.

The draft produced by a typewriter is a wonderful thing. All those lines and blotches of red, all those ponderous abandoned paragraphs circled and left off as the party traveled down the page, and all the mistakes that one must honor as hidden intentions become part of the fuel to fire the next draft, and maybe your next draft is done on a computer, as mine are, but in the first leap from the inner world to this one, the typewriter can be your tool to learn not to be ashamed of your ugliness, your repetitions, and your absurd fixations. You can pull up a chair and let it all come roaring out in one explosive mess, pounded out with actual physical sound and fury, the way it was before our keys started getting flatter and easier, before the machines meant to serve us started underlining everything in tremulous red lines and pointing out that our grammar wasn't quite right.

Yes, I'm aware you can turn those things off. They never stay off, though. There's no option for "never, ever correct me again, unless I ask you to."

This approach is not for everyone. Most people today can't abide the concept of a first draft, and the mere notion of writing one out on paper, then having to retype it from the beginning before you can begin the editing process is paralyzing for some.

On the other hand, there's something wonderful about attacking your first draft in a binder with a red pencil to mark it all up in a way that indicates your thought-out intentions without giving you the room for vandalism—had I gone this way with the manuscript I was working on in 2004, I might have had it in print already instead of having to backtrack and start over with a fresh philosophy on the writing process. In the world of the future, we think of this as slow and inefficient, but we've also largely abandoned the maxim to measure twice and cut once.

I went off the deep end somewhere along the way, and opened my closet to put away my coat and found that I couldn't, because I'd built this solid wall of typewriters in there that stretched from the floor to the ceiling in a little nervous tic I have because of a chance encounter with an association of survivalists in 1978. I've given some away since, and narrowed my collection down to a manageable twenty-five or so, but I still need to pare it back to the machines I actually use instead of keeping a bulwark against the death of the typewriter.

There's a romance to these machines, and I'll grant that it is sometimes a silly thing.

That said, I've written in the blue quiet of the early morning in a broken-down place in the mountains, where the static and hum of electricity went away with a falling tree on the power lines, and the clockwork of the typewriter was as perfect as a jazz minuet, underpinned by the distant cry of coming trains and the constrained thunder of their arrival from that place around the bend. I've sat and I've fought the machinery, muscles and sinews taut in the dance, sketching out stories that are as close to what I was feeling right then and there as I've yet been able to put into language.

Are they magic? No, but with a caveat—

Discipline can do for you all the things that a typewriter will do, but that discipline comes at a cost, and isn't without a flavor of its own that insinuates itself in your writing like tangled strings and strata of smoke. For many or even most these days, this is no longer even a thought. The way things are is the way things are because it's the way things are. It's the landscape of now.

There was a life before this, though, and the writers managed and they flourished.

On the floor of a newly-rented storage space, twenty-four manual typewriters rest alongside the towering racks from my music studio and ranks of synthesizers that no longer have the same spark for me. A nineteenth-century wheelchair, as ominous and brutal as Lovecraft, stands there, surrounded by bicycles, parts of bicycles, and half-mutated bikes I was building when something snapped in my head and led me off down new channels. I daydream of all these things no longer haunting me, both in my heart and my balance, and paring my life down to the essence of what I hope to make of it when all things are counted.

There will always be a typewriter, though, sitting on that worn-out table in a broken-down place on the side of a mountain, looking out over the train tracks and the river valley there, where I can unspool these endless odes to my not-particularly-auspicious existence. At home, there will always be a typewriter in its case sitting beside my well-worn sewing machines, at the ready for the draft.

Something has to stop me from doing the damage that is all too familiar.

I am my own worst enemy. I can do this.
posted by sonascope at 5:39 AM on November 20, 2012 [22 favorites]


> 5 years ago: "The Japanese multinational Brother sold 12,000 electronic typewriters last year in the UK..." [...] This year: "Brother said it had stopped making typewriters because demand had fallen to 30 a day..."

So the cutoff for production was somewhere between 11,000 and 12,000 typewriters a year?
posted by ardgedee at 5:48 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Writers and their typewriters, in case you were interested in who used what.
posted by Orb2069 at 5:48 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have no special affection for the use of typewriters (I'm a lousy typist so they're basically a typo factory for me), but my dad used to fix typewriters for IBM for a living so I'm fond of them. It's crazy how long he kept it up (into the 80s). They're cooler in some ways than computers because they're a piece of technology that's a clearly understandable mechanical device instead of an impenetrable (to the lay person) black box of electronics. It's for that reason that my wife loves typewriters to the point that we own 3, a Selectric that she took from an employer that was getting rid of it, a Corona that used to belong to her grandmother, and a portable Hermes of some sort that used to belong to Chauncy Harris (he died and left it to the library where we worked and no one wanted it so we took it).

I would say that last one is a conversation piece except very few people want to talk about the typewriters of dead cartographers.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:04 AM on November 20, 2012


wait wait, Bulgaroktonos and Ms. Pterodactyl BOTH have typewriters from Chauncy Harris? *checks links between users* Oh, ok then.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:11 AM on November 20, 2012


So you know why you have CTRL and SHIFT on your keyboard, children? Let me tell you about the old days...
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:12 AM on November 20, 2012


I should really read the entire thread before posting next time. Yes, my wife and I own the same typewriter collection. Also, since I said "we" own them, I'm going to get to have a conversation about how they are her typewriters and how I've never loved the typewriters or believed in her novel just because I pointed out how it had no dialogue and was all one paragraph.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:19 AM on November 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


Apparently Brother is still making distributing and selling typewriters in the U.S. (it's not clear from their site where they're made). But there's a U.S. site with typewriters - even non-electronic ones - for sale. I can't imagine who's buying them.

We still have a couple going in the office. They're handy for writing certain cheques, on Post-It notes that need to be around for a while, or for other non-standard pieces of paper.

You can do all of those on the big printers, of course, but often it's such a pain to reset the trays and get the whole office to hold off on printing anything until that cheque gets done, that it's simply easier to type it up.

Which is not to say that we use them a lot, but they're definitely still in rotation.
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:24 AM on November 20, 2012


Oh -- and minute books. Much typing for the minute books, still.
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:25 AM on November 20, 2012


Nerdist bribes Tom Hanks with a 1934 Smith Corona portable typewriter
posted by argonauta at 6:26 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Typewriters are like pianos, in the sense that both of them rely on mechanical fulcrums to execute a strike. And both are dead, or almost dead, because of their reliance on the simple mechanics of a bygone era.

Of the two, the piano is larger, and thus still somewhat held in esteem. But there's very little reason to maintain big mechanical contraptions like the piano or the typewriter anymore, aside from nostalgia, given that modern keyboards can do the same thing more efficiently.

To prove this, I will now play Chopsticks on my laptop:
HGGHHGHGGHHGFJFJJFFJFJFJDKDKDKKDDKKDDKDKDKDKDKDKDKGHGHGHHGGHGHHGHJFFJJFJFJFJFJFJFFJDKKDKDKDDKDKDKKDDKDL....
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:34 AM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


When you were typing on a manual there was a lot of satisfaction in finishing a line of type and getting to "throw the carriage" to the right. It made this nice rhythm of "tap, tap, tap, tap, SLAM, tap, tap, tap...". Hitting the Enter key isn't nearly as fun.
posted by octothorpe at 6:35 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wonder if the same people still buying typewriters are the same people who still bought new Walkmans up until last year.
posted by Brocktoon at 6:41 AM on November 20, 2012


the same people still buying typewriters are the same people who still bought new Walkmans

Begone before I hit you with my '62 Beetle and then sew you up with my Singer 99.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:45 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have a "portable" Smith Corona typewriter. Weighs about 6-8 pounds and folds up into a bulky briefcase.

I'm not sure how to maintain it, so if anyone has any documentation or manuals, I'd be interested!
posted by FJT at 6:50 AM on November 20, 2012


Just last week I got a note written on a typewriter. I can tell by the pixels.
posted by 7segment at 6:53 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


My type writer memory is a sound actually. I took typing class in junior high (do kids even do this anymore, or do they learn independently using typing software?). It was a room full of 25 IBM Selectics, with the golf ball element. The sound of 25 of those simultaneously striking paper in unison was awesome.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 6:55 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wonder if the same people still buying typewriters are the same people who still bought new Walkmans up until last year.

It's easy to lump all sorts of ludditism together, but I think they're distinct. Three types of antiquated technology have been mentioned here, typewriters, pianos, and Walkmen. Pianos and typewriters both provide tactile/mechanical experiences that are unlike their electronic counterparts. They also both have long histories than Walkmen, which are the product of a very narrow slice of history. I think love of Walkmen is much more likely to be a product of the users direct connection to that time period (nostalgia for your own past) as opposed to a connection to broader history (nostalgia for a time you never lived as part of history). Because of that longer history, the user of a typewriter or piano can say to themselves "I'm writing on a machine like Hemingway or I'm playing music on a machine like Rachmaninoff. There's so much less history like that with Walkmen. Also, Walkmen don't really appeal to the "I love solid, well made machines" thing that makes a lot of people like typewriters. I'm guessing people use Walkmen because they 1) used them when they were popular and 2) have tapes.

Pianos have an extra thing going on where there are a ton of pianos in the world and only a few people who want them and they're enormous and heavy. I'm guessing people will keep owning pianos because if you care enough to move one, you can basically have it for free from someone who inherited one and hates it.

As an aside, as an effect of my dad fixing typewriters for a living, watching old movies with him is like being with a trainspotter. He's constantly noticing typewriter model types and commenting on their strengths and weaknesses. It's understandable, but as a child, I found it annoying.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:58 AM on November 20, 2012


Time for artisanal hand made typewriters i guess. ;)
posted by usagizero at 7:00 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just have to make do with a Brother Labelmaker.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:03 AM on November 20, 2012


I'll just leave this here, OK?
posted by evilDoug at 7:07 AM on November 20, 2012


Something was lost when they switched to electronic records and fancy computers.

Pissed off employees?
posted by IvoShandor at 7:08 AM on November 20, 2012


I am typing this on a Unicomp UB4404A keyboard. This keyboard was made from designs created by IBM (and purchased by Unicomp) that were originally used for the IBM Model M keyboard.

The IBM Model M was designed to replace the IBM Model F. Programmers and other computer types really had no problem with the IBM Model F, but IBM was selling to a new market, and the challenge went out to make a keyboard that felt more like something commonly used in offices, namely, the IBM Selectric II typewriter.

As anybody who has used both the Model M and Selectric II will tell you, they didn't do a great job of making the feel the same. But, compared to the Model F, and to virtually every other keyboard in the entire world, it was, and is, a marvel.

The main problem Unicomp is having is making money. There is very little replacement business in Model M keyboards. Next to me are two. On the Mac is the UB4404A, made on March 19th, 2009. To my right is my IBM Model M, made on July 9th, 1986.

The computer this keyboard was made for has been long on the scrap heap.

But that's the link between the two keyworlds. IBM wanted a computerized Selectric.
posted by eriko at 7:09 AM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


Of the two, the piano is larger, and thus still somewhat held in esteem. But there's very little reason to maintain big mechanical contraptions like the piano or the typewriter anymore, aside from nostalgia, given that modern keyboards can do the same thing more efficiently.

AFAIK no digital piano has been made that can offer the expressiveness, nuance, pure tonal quality and character of an honest-to-god piano. They may be workable substitutes or desirable in and of themselves for all kinds of reasons, but nothing compares to the real thing. It's actually a significant difference.
posted by naju at 7:12 AM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


A lot of the people buying Walkmans (I think that's right, it's a headless compound) are probably older people who still have a lot of tapes and never bothered getting a CD player, even. My mum used hers for audiobooks from the library until it got cheaper for the library to stock them on CD, forcing her into getting a CD player which took her a while to get her head around using.

I think there is a retro thing with Walkmans, though. I've noticed from going to indie festivals that there's a big resurgence with using cassette tapes, and cassettes are ridiculously cheap in charity shops. I know horror/cult film fans who enjoy VHS because it's easier to find weird stuff that hasn;'t yet been cleaned up and reissued on DVD because the publishers thought it was profitable or it's still in copyright; there's a similar thing with tapes.

As someone whose Walkman might as well have been her boyfriend until she got an mp3 player in 2005, I also miss the tactility of the buttons, being able to switch to radio with a button, and the natural limitations of tapes which forced you to choose and self-edit what you wanted to listen to - a lot of people my age (I'm 30) who like typewriters as objects grew up without them being the dominant format for word processing for the most part - in years to come Walkmans might take on that object d'art status. The original yellow Sport Walkman, for one, is a cute little object.
posted by mippy at 7:13 AM on November 20, 2012


GOD I wanted a Dymo Labelmaker so much when I was a kid. My much older sister had one and the thought of being able to print out things and stick them on other things was really enticing. I still occasionally have to stop myself from buying one when I remember how fun it was when she would let me use the clicker to print out her labels, letter by letter.
posted by mippy at 7:21 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


If anybody else was tempted to sneak into eriko's house and take his keyboards, here's an ordering link to the Ultra classics on Unicomp's order page.
posted by Orb2069 at 7:22 AM on November 20, 2012


or believed in her novel just because I pointed out how it had no dialogue and was all one paragraph

You must be married to Will Self. Which makes you Deborah Orr.
posted by Segundus at 7:36 AM on November 20, 2012


I do think there's something interesting about nostalgia for objects that are, relatively speaking, recent. Walkmans (which I guess is correct and is now on my short list of worst English words) will be an interesting case to follow to see if the nostalgia extends beyond the generation of people who used them when they were new items.

Nostalgia for typewriters is, in some way, a nostalgia for the mechanical age which people who use computers, and smart phones, and MP3 players. Some of the appeal of the typewriter is as I said above in the fact that it has clearly understandable moving parts; you press the key and you can see what it's doing. It's "realer" than typing on a computer. Similarly moving forward, you can find people who hate typing on touchscreens and need the even slighter mechanical feedback of a physical smartphone keyboard.

Of course, the period of time when people relied on industrially produced machines was (in the grand scheme of things) fairly short, but long enough for people to long to return to it, which I find pretty fascinating.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:37 AM on November 20, 2012


What I want--some goddamned day--is a tablet that has a printer in it. Could be a small one. Could be a dinky labelmaker, I don't care.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:39 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think typewriters are likely to be more like sewing machines. They're sturdy, long-lasting, easy to repair. (Almost) anyone who does a LOT of writing is going to want a computer, like someone producing clothes is going to want very elaborate, high-powered sewing machines with lots of digital options and stuff. But there's still a market for basic mechanical sewing machines because there's a small but relevant number of people who want to be able to sew things now-and-then, faster than by hand, and are willing to use a machine that only does a few types of stitches.

Typewriters will hang around where people need to address envelopes, but not so many envelopes that they want to fuss with the printer. Where there are legacy forms that are printed, not digitized, and sometimes you need to add to them or fill things in. Where word processing programs are stupid about something small and it's easier to add that thing by hand or on a typewriter. And actually, as people print fewer things (we use our printer maybe once a week now that reading documents on tablets is getting so normative and portable), more people may decide it's easier to e-mail the rare documents they need printed to the local print shop for printing and not own a printer, but if they've got a typewriter laying around they may find it useful for occasional "printed documents at home."

Of course it's old-fashioned and unnecessary, like a sewing machine now that we don't need to produce clothes at home. But it's a useful tool for people who WANT to do those things, and entry-level sewing machines are inexpensive, repairable, and last a reasonably long time ... and don't really need maintenance when you're not using them. Some people will want to do things that are just as easy to do with a typewriter, and since they're inexpensive, repairable, last forever, and don't need maintenance when you're not using them, I think they'll stick around.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:41 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


BTW, even small cities still have small-appliance-repair shops, and the ones that survived the decline of repairable machines are mostly "Sew-Vacs" that focused on this home sewing market. What's interesting is, I thought most of them would die off as their owners died off, but most of them have turned over now to younger proprietors (and often young women!) who are mechanically-inclined and, when they don't know how to repair a specific thing, can google it. Anyway, that's the kind of small appliance repair shop you'll go to in the future, where they repair sewing machines and typewriters and other largely-mechanical-and-electrical machines, rewire lamps, and can sort out the toaster you inherited from your grandmother. Otherwise you'll go to an electronics repair place for digital problems.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:46 AM on November 20, 2012


I address 1-2 envelopes all the time. We use labels.

Or, you know, write the address on by hand.
posted by jb at 7:49 AM on November 20, 2012


Just throwing out some offtopic Brotherly love, my 11 year old Brother monochrome laser printer still runs like its on rails.
posted by laconic skeuomorph at 7:52 AM on November 20, 2012


Don't forget, you can have the best of both worlds here.
posted by Melismata at 7:52 AM on November 20, 2012


I never really got why Brother et al were even still making typewriters when you can buy a gross of used (but perfectly functional) ones (including the odd 'word processor') at any thrift store for a nickel.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:53 AM on November 20, 2012


Oh, funny typewriter story:

It is my best friend's wedding, and the decorators decided that a cute fun thing to do was to have a typewriter on a table with very nice, personalized stationery, so that the guests could type up a little message to the bride and groom. Great idea, right?

So, it's getting on in the evening and everyone's had a fair share of drinks in them. And I see my friend messing with the typewriter (probably to type obscenities on it, because that is how we roll.) And he's pretty drunk and can't figure it out. The paper just won't go in.

"Move over," I say. "I got this." See, I used a typewriter once when I was six and totally have seen people using them on TV. This should be a breeze. And then we spend a good few minutes being completely unable to feed the sheet in there. It's just not going in any way I can figure out. Another one of our friends comes up and now there's three drunk dudes in front of this godforsaken contraption being completely unable to figure it out. I mean, by the look of it, we're like a few moments away from hitting it with a femur bone and throwing our feces at each other.

So, then, another one of our friends -- who is probably more hammered than any of us were -- comes by. She looks at us like we've just failed at putting our pants on, shakes her head and CHINK THUNK CACHINK the paper is loaded and ready to go. My friend immediately gets on the keyboard and:

PENIS PENIS PENIS PENIS

PENIS PENIS

PENIS PENIS PENIS PENIS


Mission complete. And we carefully take out the paper and put it down. But then I realize I want to type some obscenities too.

...and we're back to square one.
posted by griphus at 7:58 AM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


I can't imagine who's buying them.

Our law firm will need to buy an electric typewriter in the next few days because I broke the one we have now.

Many of the forms I have to use aren't available as editable PDFs. (Or they're just not available in PDF form as all, like this form.)
posted by Lucinda at 8:42 AM on November 20, 2012


When I was growing up, the first typewriter we owned was an Underwood, an ancient used machine, which still worked flawlessly. We used it for probably, um, I'd guess about eight years. It was ridiculously old, but all we ever had to do was buy ribbons.

But then one of my parents decided to go back to college, and it was decided that we would get a a real typewriter. And they really thought about the purchase! It was an Actual Decision, not just something they ran out to the corner store and grabbed.

They made a great choice, ending up with an IBM Selectric electric ball typewriter. That thing was awesome. It cost more than a computer would cost today, by quite a bit, but we used that thing all the time. We actually had two fonts for it, the regular Courier, plus italics. It was really sophisticated, for a typewriter. It had built-in whiteout; you hit a correction key, and then hit the key you wanted to remove, and it would use a special ribbon to pull the ink back off the page. I'm pretty sure, although it's been a long time, that it wasn't a whiteout, adding more ink on top of the black, but actually removing the old ink. You'd usually need to hit the letter a couple of times to get most of the ink, and then sometimes a few other letters to get stray bits that were left over. Still, in an era when one typo could ruin an entire sheet of paper, and a half-hour of work, at least if you weren't a real typist, that correction ribbon was about the best thing ever.

That thing was SO LOUD. A Selectric makes a Model M keyboard (which was designed to feel a lot like a Selectric) sound absolutely silent in comparison. When you typed on a Selectric, you had the regular typing sound, plus the sound of the ball twisting into place and WHAM hitting the paper, over and over and over. People complain, nowadays, about loud keyboards, but they have no idea what loud typing actually sounds like.

From experience, loud typing sounds like muffled machine-gun fire in the next room.
posted by Malor at 8:44 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


(Or they're just not available in PDF form as all, like this form.)

You may know this already, but Adobe Acrobat will let you just type write onto documents of any sort after converting them to PDF (which it also does.) I basically secured my current job by explaining this to my boss.
posted by griphus at 8:44 AM on November 20, 2012


You may know this already, but Adobe Acrobat will let you just type write onto documents of any sort.

Even if it's a crappy PDF scan of a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy? (That's what I have to deal with half the time)
posted by Lucinda at 8:49 AM on November 20, 2012


Yep! It's sort of a free-floating text tool so aligning it can be a pain, but you can type directly onto any PDF that isn't locked. I have to do the same thing at work re: copy of copy of copy of fax of copy, and it is a lifesaver.
posted by griphus at 8:53 AM on November 20, 2012


If you want to send me a crappy PDF, I can type on it and send it back to you so you can see what it looks like.
posted by griphus at 8:54 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


We actually still sell a couple typewriters every year. Three so far this year, by my count. Mostly new Brother models; occasionally we'll sell a refurbished Selectric II or III if we happen to have one. Doing a slow but steady trade in typewriter repair too; again, mostly Selectrics, with the occasional Brother. Haven't had a manual typewriter in the shop for years, but it has happened from time to time. We don't keep a lot of parts in stock anymore, because the demand is slowly drying up. But most people are happy just to have it working again, whenever it's ready is fine.

They're mostly used by offices still using pre-printed forms of one sort or another, especially multi-part forms (either carbonless or with carbons). Fading, sure, but still being used more often than people think.

If you still have a manual typewriter, the best advice I can give is hold onto your ribbon spools. It's getting harder to find direct replacements, but we can always rewind a same-size fabric ribbon onto your existing spools, as long as you've got 'em.
posted by xedrik at 9:03 AM on November 20, 2012


You may know this already, but Adobe Acrobat will let you just type write onto documents of any sort after converting them to PDF (which it also does.) I basically secured my current job by explaining this to my boss.

The typewriter tool is handy, for filling in forms. There isn't really a way to check off a box, though (maybe I should have tried X over the box). Also, you get a plain typewriter font (courier?).

You need the full acrobat, of course, not just the free reader.
posted by jb at 9:52 AM on November 20, 2012


That thing was SO LOUD. A Selectric makes a Model M keyboard (which was designed to feel a lot like a Selectric) sound absolutely silent in comparison. When you typed on a Selectric, you had the regular typing sound, plus the sound of the ball twisting into place and WHAM hitting the paper, over and over and over.

But the typing had to be loud! How else were you supposed to hear it over the constant roar of the motor?
posted by Sys Rq at 9:52 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I use either an "X" or the line-making tool to check off boxes. Mine also came with a shitload of fonts, although I never use any outside of Courier, Helvetica and TNR.
posted by griphus at 9:53 AM on November 20, 2012


That thing was SO LOUD. A Selectric makes a Model M keyboard (which was designed to feel a lot like a Selectric) sound absolutely silent in comparison.

Even better: daisywheel printer. It's like a selectric being typed on by a gang of rabid monkeys.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:04 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


The BBC have a follow-up piece, five reasons to still use a typewriter.
posted by Wordshore at 10:20 AM on November 20, 2012


I still used a typewriter to type my papers during my senior year of high school, as we didn't own a computer and my high school didn't have computer lab hours in the evening. This was 1996. Based on that experience, I have a little less affinity for the typewriter experience.
posted by bizzyb at 10:38 AM on November 20, 2012


I long for a Selectric II, but I live in an old house converted to apartments, and my memory of the sound makes me think that the typewriter might be noisier than my upstairs neighbor and her army of clog-wearing cats.

Instead, I'll probably save up for a Kinesis Advantage keyboard like the one I convinced a former employer to buy for me in the mid-90s. It needed the same weighty strike as the Selectric, plus the split-hand design and contoured key wells for each hand made it impossible for anyone to use my workstation without my help.
posted by catlet at 10:46 AM on November 20, 2012


My muscle memory still thinks that I'm hitting the keys with three inches of travel on my mom's 1927 Royal Portable that I first typed on.

Oh, hey, I think that might be the same (or very similar) as the one I got from my grandfather when I was in junior high, that I used all the way until I left for college. (1987-92, approx) It required some serious manual effort, plus some dexterity to undo key jams.

If you still have a manual typewriter, the best advice I can give is hold onto your ribbon spools. It's getting harder to find direct replacements, but we can always rewind a same-size fabric ribbon onto your existing spools, as long as you've got 'em.

I had to do that, or reink the ribbon itself. What a pain! I was always stoked when I "got" to use mom's 1970-something electric typewriter.
posted by epersonae at 11:05 AM on November 20, 2012


I yearn to visit the qwerty monument in Yekaterinburg - I learned about it when I idly started plotting a Trans-Siberian trip. I like imagining future archaeologists uncovering it and being absolutely bewildered by it. "uhmmm, this was some sort of ritual site.." - how close to the truth and yet so far from it.
posted by kariebookish at 11:15 AM on November 20, 2012


I know this is a tangent, but are acoustic pianos really obsolete as long as expert musicians understand how to manipulate the mechanics in order to produce tonalities that digital keyboards can't quite match? (And didn't Korg, Carlos, and Wonder pretty much shatter the idea that an electronic or electromechanical keyboard instrument simply replaces its acoustic ancestors, in the same way that Les Paul proved that the electric guitar to be more than just louder?) Was De Homem-Cristo (arguably an expert in electronic music) completely off his rocker when he said, "We knew from the start that there was no way we were going to do this film (Tron: Legacy) score with two synthesizers and a drum machine."?

Musical instruments go in and out of fashion as household objects or commercial tools. That doesn't mean they're obsolete. After all, you probably won't find a set of kettle drums in a typical household either, but composers are still writing scores that include them.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:20 AM on November 20, 2012


I grew up around a Royal typewriter of some sort, it was big and heavy and beige and you could see the mechanism if you pressed a red "Royal" logo to pop the lid up. It was grand and I loved it.

We got rid of it in a move. I'm still sad about that.

Three years ago I picked up a Royal Mercury for $20 at a thrift store, the same day I bought my wife her engagement ring. I had to order ribbons for it online, but all the keys work and I'm pretty happy with it overall. I don't write with it often enough, probably because I don't write often enough in non-online contexts.

But yes, count me in with everyone who says that writing on a typewriter is just qualitatively different, as an act, than writing on a computer. It requires at once more care and deliberation, and more comfort with an imperfect finished product. It is a delight and I highly recommend it.
posted by gauche at 11:42 AM on November 20, 2012


It might be because I was up late shooting stompy robots, or the landmine post just above, but I read the OP as 'the last typewriter has been detonated'.

Oh, I thought vaguely. How wasteful.
posted by Sebmojo at 11:46 AM on November 20, 2012


Now I want to know where those 30 typewriters/day are going.

Etsy, griphus.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 11:57 AM on November 20, 2012


I still use both a typewriter and a Dymo for filling out stainless equipment tags. The impact actually deforms the metal making the text impossible to wipe off without destroying the metal label itself. Very handy in an industrial setting. It's a lot cheaper than sending the tags out to be engraved.

ROU_Xenophobe writes "Even better: daisywheel printer. It's like a selectric being typed on by a gang of rabid monkeys."

Pshaw. A chain printer is a daisy wheel with a gang of rabid moneys at each column across the page.
posted by Mitheral at 9:02 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


More news coverage; mostly rehashed but with the occasional new factoid. Los Angeles Times, Guardian, Huffington Post, The Register.
posted by Wordshore at 4:42 AM on November 21, 2012


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