The end of an era

April 25, 2011 • 3:57 pm

UPDATE: As Maddoxflower reports in the comments below, and which was verified not only on the NBC news last night but by this report, rumors of the typewriter’s death are much exaggerated. Typewriter fans: a few places are still making them.

There will be no more typewriters produced on this planet.  According to the Atlantic, the world’s last typewriter factory, Godrej and Boyce of Mumbai, India, has shut its doors.

With only about 200 machines left — and most of those in Arabic languages — Godrej and Boyce shut down its plant in Mumbai, India, today. “Although typewriters became obsolete years ago in the west, they were still common in India — until recently,” according to the Daily Mail, which ran a special story this morning about the typewriters demise.

Godrej and Boyce’s Prima—the last typewriter model on Earth

58 thoughts on “The end of an era

  1. I suppose typewriter ribbons will go the same way then. My dad used one all his life – I think he learnt before the war when he worked as an office boy. I never mastered any keyboard skills – two fingers descend from a great height smacking into the keys – see we even use the language of the typewriter, as well as the daft layout! Its ghost will remain with us.

  2. Ironic. The arrangement of characters on a keyboard basically copies that of a typewriter. Which is funny because most future (current?) computer users will have never seen a typewriter.

        1. Some day archaeologists will ponder the origination of the QWERTY keyboard layout…

          … and probably conclude we were making some kind of calendar or astrological chart with it.

      1. The point being, it is a terribly inefficient layout. We could all probably type much faster if we could un-learn QWERTY.

        I’d like to see a transition to Dvorak or Colemak keyboards, but they’d still have to make QWERTYs for us old folks.

      2. Actually, there’s some disagreement about that. After all, why would E, R and T be so close together?
        A more plausible explanation for the Questy layout is that it allowed typewriter salesmen to type the newly coined word “typewriter” easily, using only the top row.

        1. I can’t remember the details, but I recall a Steven Jay Gould essay in which he discusses the QWERTY keyboard layout, and says that it comes from an earlier typewriter design, that predated the design with which we are familiar. As I say, I can’t remember the details, but I do recall him giving a more convincing explanation for the QWERTY layout than I had previously heard.

        2. I don’t find that very plausible. Think how far the people who devised the keyboard layout would have been from the salesman, and how unlikely the designers would have been to defer to such an isolated whim. If they had had that in mind, a more stylish layout would be TPWI YER to alternate the fingers.

          I think that explanation was retrofitted to the existing layout, like the Eucharist being done “because Jesus told us to” when as Frazer explained in the Golden Bough, the ritual comes first, the explanation later.

          What’s the word for that phenomonon?

          1. “why would E, R and T be so close together?”

            The letter frequency sequence was in those days thought to be ETAOIN SHRDLU* (hence the sequence on a Linotype machine, where frequent letters need to take the shortest paths through the moulding machinery).

            It was also important to separate common letter pairs, notably th, he, an, nd, or, of, to, st. This the QWERTY keyboard does.

            *Herbert S. Zim, in his classic introductory cryptography text “Codes and Secret Writing”, gives the English letter frequency sequence as “ETAON RISHD LFCMU GYPWB VKXJQ Z”, the most common letter pairs as “TH HE AN RE ER IN ON AT ND ST ES EN OF TE ED OR TI HI AS TO”, and the most common doubled letters as “LL EE SS OO TT FF RR NN PP CC”.” – Wikipedia

  3. I had a Royal manual typewriter (red and black dual ribbon) in high school which was a pass me down from my father. During college I had an electric with the blue plastic body, which was out of date when I graduated because of the early home computers.

    I still have a nostalgia for the old typewriters.

    1. Like you, I grew up learning to type (in junior high) on manual typewriters, which were replace by IBM “Selectrics” in high school, and then finally by computers when I was an undergrad.

      I have no nostalgia for the old typewriters, merely reminders of cramped fingers and white-out fumes.

  4. I bought a Smith-Corona electric to have a typist type my PhD thesis, but she made such a has of it, well, to be fair, the mental breakdown didn’t help, that I re-typed it on the same machine. Cost me something like 300 Pounds.

    1. well, to be fair, the mental breakdown didn’t help

      uh, Bill? What on earth did you do to that poor girl!


        1. Lawyer AND broker, huh. Got some shady business deals that you want sealed with attorney-client privilege? 🙂

  5. Yay! Progress is fun. Out with the old, in with the new, I say. I actually didn’t get a job because I flunked the typing test. The reason? I didn’t perform a hard return at the end of a line and kept typing right off the paper and onto the roll. It was then I realized that typewriters were stupid and obsolete.

  6. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether printers can successfully address envelopes. I’ve never tried that hard, but I have tried and I’ve never been able to get the damn things to do it. From work I can always get the dept’l secretary to do it, and otherwise I just address those few anymore by hand.

      1. Personal laser printers do a good job, although they sometimes wrinkle the envelopes. If you use OS X, be sure to get Ambrosia’s free EasyEnvelopes. Simple and straightforward.

  7. As recently as 10-12 years ago, India was still making gramophones/victrolas (clockwork mechanism, steel needles, acoustic horn) for use in rural areas. You used to be able to buy them from specialty importers.

    I suppose that’s gone now, too. (Damn you, Steve Jobs!)

    My first typewriter was a portable Remington. In school I used a Selectric, and then I picked up a vintage Royal after college that I absolutely loved for creative writing. I could put some Miles on the stereo, load in sheet after sheet of paper into that thing, and pretend I was Kerouac all day.

    1. Windup victrolas were replaced some time ago by windup radios for the third world + campers. ~30min play for a crank – I also saw a painter using one not long ago. And now thanks to power-miser LED’s there are windup flashlights as well.

      1. there are windup flashlights as well.

        yup. I tried one. It even had an extension so you could use it to charge up cell phones and whatnot.

        the only problem? Unless you are by yourself, it irritates the HELL out of anyone around you.


    1. I think on the left is standard. You use the blade of your right hand to push it to the right.

      Just got out my Royal portable, and yes, that’s right. (I also have a Brother electric, but a tiny nylon cam is broken, and it cyphers* on the spacer. I wonder if I could scan it and get a replacement made in a 3D printer? It doesn’t have a carriage return lever, but a CR+LF key, a precursor to “Enter”.

      *term from organ music for stuck in “on”.

  8. I took typing in high school and learned to touch type. Did a test for fun some years ago and did 45 WPM. (At the Field Museum, while waiting for my Research Associate card.) A friend did a gangbuster dissertation back in the mid-60’s and has been expanding, modernizing and publishing sections of it ever since. He came to visit, and complained that my computer keyboard has the letters rubbed off. Turns out he is a hunt and peck typist, He said this is why it is taking him so long to finish up his dissertation work.

    Can you still take a course in “keyboarding” (PC for touch typing)?

  9. I was the only guy in my typing class (all girls), and chose a non-electric, since I played piano and guitar and wanted to build forearm strength. It was hard to break 100 wpm w/o closely adjacent keys hooking, but I did it on occasion.

    When going for speed, hard returns required foresight and reflexes, kind of like approaching a 2.8 second amber light in Chicago and deciding whether to run it or hit the brakes. (flash) f**k …

    So hard returns were a pain on manual machines, along with deciding on the fly whether or not to use a hyphen, and where to put the break. But even today, hard returns can be a pain, since copy-and-paste doesn’t remove them on some blogs and email clients.

    Anyway, it was fun, aside from the occasional, “Good luck with your new secretarial job!”

    1. I took typing in high school on a manual machine, since electric typewriters were still relatively rare and expensive. It was possibly the best class I had: it was full of girls, and it gave me a useful skill.

      In college I eventually got an electric typewriter, but by senior year we had a TRS-80 PC that was a huge improvement over that.

  10. Robert Krulwich of NPR was on a quest earlier this year to prove that Tools Never Die, in the sense of not being made new today.

    He had some rather exotic examples. It would be stunning to find a manual typewriter in this category.

  11. Other typewriteriana:

    * “Typewriter” was not only the machine, but the job.

    * The first typewriters were men. It was considered no fit job for a woman. The employment of women as typewriters was a major breakthrough to emancipation.

    * A major development was the shift key. Before that, the keyboard was twice as big, like a Linotype machine (What’s that?)

    * The shift key made touch-typing possible. The battle of the keyboards was settled in early typing contests between touch-typists with shift-keys and hunt-and-peckers with double keyboards.

    * Some machines took this a step further with only three rows of keys and a double shift for numbers and punctuation.

    * “Silent” typewriters slowed the type just before it hit the paper and pushed it rest of the way with a weight, making a soft thud instead of a click. They used them in courtrooms here in NZ instead of those stenographic things.

    All this is in a history of the typewriter I loved as a teenager, called “The Wonderful Writing Machine” by Bruce Bliven. It finished with electrics, at about the beginning of the IBM golfball.

    1. It’s not a “Linotype” machine, it’s a linecasting machine. Linotype was the most popular brand.
      Linecasters, which formed letters from molten lead, didn’t use the Querty keyboard. Most used a simple alphabetic keyboard, like some small electronic devices today.
      BTW, I’m an old printer and journalist. In my day, I could do 100 wpm on my full-sixed Royal manual. It took me a year to get used to the short, silent strokes of electronic keyboards.
      Like most old printers, I can still read upside down and backwards as easily as the conventional way. If I ever get stopped for drunk driving, I hope the cop asks me to recite the alphabet backwards! Piece of cake.

      1. I was a print journalist in the late 1960s, early 1970s, and we never called them anything but Linotype machines. (The printers may have, but they never spoke to us.) As I said earlier, the Linotype (brand of linecasting) machines had double keyboards, literally lower and upper case, each with ETAOIN SHRDLU layout (the two left columns, not the top row).

  12. Does this refer to manual typewriters only? Because Brother, a company in New Jersey, still makes electric typewriters. I know because I have one and still use it to write fiction. If you go to Brother’s website you’ll see that they do indeed still sell typewriters.
    I love the feel and sound of a typewriter. For whatever reason, a typewriter allows me to engage in the act of writing in a way that is not possible with a word processer. Let the masses have their flashing screens; I will cling to my awkward, clumsy, noisy machine until the very end.

    1. Quite a few people say similar things about architectural work done by hand. For me it’s not true. A mouse and autocad have done for me as a designer what word processors have done for writers.
      A tool is just a tool.

      I do understand you but I would never go back to the old ways.

  13. I’m rather fond of IBM Selectric typewriters. Not because they’re especially pleasant to use, but because they are not manual (no mashing of keys required), but still entirely mechanical. A Rube Goldbergian set of levers interact with a spinning cam shaft to produce all the characters.

    I’m certainly no Luddite (as a professional computer nerd, that would be silly), but I’m much more impressed by this kind of engineering than that which involves circuitry and embedded software.

  14. I had an Olivetti electric typewriter from my teens through university & used it even after I started using a BBC Micro, because the dot-matrix printers still weren’t good enough for “formal” documents. Well, mine wasn’t!

    I did write my Ph.D. thesis on my BBC Micro … I guess I’d got a better printer by then.


  15. I imagine most of us have anecdotes, but this one is second-hand: when I worked in (post-Soviet) Russia, my translator friends reminisced about the good old days when security used to lock up the typewriters on weekends and holidays, lest someone type up some anti-revolution propaganda.

    1. Yeah, I’ve seen where they remove and lock up the type element (ball) on IBM Selectrics when not in use.

      Makes sense, tho you could bring your own …

  16. You know what old tech I want to see finally die out? Fax machines. But they’re still in use quite often! I recently bought a house and had to fax so many documents. But I had a rad real estate agent that said scan and email to her, she has a fax.

    I wonder if people think it’s somehow more secure than email. I say a degraded copy is easier for forgery.

    Or maybe we’re just following what Back to the Future says and in 2015 we’ll all have fax machines in our living rooms. So advanced!

    1. My cousin is a towboat pilot (the boats that push river barges). Back before there were combo fax/copier machines, the towboat company would only put faxes on the boats. So, when someone needed a copy of something (why is unanswered) they’d fax it to another boat, which would fax it back.

      1. Was there a brief period when fax machines were incapable of copying?

        My parents bought a fax machine in the mid-1990’s, so by then the technology had matured. To make a copy on that machine, you inserted the document into the feeder tray, and pushed the send button without dialing a number. Your copy, on heat-sensitive and quickly-degrading paper would come out quickly.

        Did fax machines of an earlier era lack this ability?

  17. I worked for Olivetti back in the 80s. Just as I was mastering the art of aligning type bars the daisy wheel printer and word processor were becoming popular. They were quickly replaced by inkjet and laser printers and PCs but the typewriter took a little longer to die out completely.

    I always loved the old electro-mechanical typewriters – the Olivetti Editor and Lexikon and the IBM Selectric. They were real marvels of mechanization. Every action had to be derived from a single motor through complex gears, clutches, linkages, levers, springs, dogs, racks and escapements. The ingenuity required to derive proportional spacing from a rack and dog mechanism is awe inspiring. And there were thousands of adjustable bits, nearly all of which affected many others – if you touch this you’ll have to adjust that which means you’ll have to tweak something else which means you’ll have to check something else…

    Comparatively, computerized printers are toys. The big, heavy duty line printers had some impressive machinery in them but desktop machines are nowhere near as interesting as the old electro-mechanical typewriters and adding machines. Modern printers just use a separate motor/solenoid/actuator for each action required and everything is coordinated by little black chips and instructions. Adding a feature is just a matter of programming. How boring.

  18. My last typewriter was electronic, with a parallel interface that let you use it as a printer. That was cool. The output was way more professional looking than the dot matrix crap prevalent at the time and, instead of dragging stuff to an office to be photocopied, I could still use a spirit duplicator. (Mmm, duplicator fluid.)

  19. You still can’t beat a typewriter for filling in a preprinted form.
    They’re also handy for the occasional envelope.

Leave a Reply