Eras That Pass Silently in the Night

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, a colleague and friend, sends me e-mail alerts about news stories that might interest me. A recent e-mail contained a URL for a story about the closure of the last manufacturer of manual office typewriters. The story made a minor splash in the world media and then quickly disappeared.

The Science & Tech section of Mail Online, a web site service of London’s Daily Mail, dated April 27, 2011, noted that Godrej and Boyce closed its Mumbai, India, typewriter manufacturing plant, reputed to be the last factory still making office typewriters. Although computers replaced manual office typewriters in the Western world decades ago, there are global areas where manual typewriters still hold sway. But these areas are catching up with the West.

Godrej and Boyce, which produced 50,000 machines annually at the peak of its production, made less than 800 in 2010. Godrej and Boyce is selling its remaining inventory. A majority of the 200 machines that remain feature an Arabic keyboard.

As is often the case with news stories, some confusion followed. There are office typewriter manufacturers in China, Indonesia and Japan. New Jersey’s Swintec produces typewriters in America. However, these typewriters are “electric” models.

While researchers and reporters work to separate truth from fiction, there is one truth that is self-evident—the end of the manual office typewriter era is approaching. As with many technologies, the end occurs in steps. Although manufacturing ceases, products survive. Manual typewriters are a prison favorite, a safe tool when convict access to the Internet is not desirable. Police rely heavily on manual typewriters to fill out forms.

[Author’s Note: Have you ever tried to fill out a form using a computer? It is often frustrating, especially if the form asks for a signature. I do not have my signature scanned and stored on my computer. My copier incorporates a scanner, but I do not know how to use it. I do not want to know. If I learn, then clients will expect me to utilize it. I do not Tweet for the same reason. I prefer to keep my life simple for as long as possible.]

Manual typewriters, just like treadle sewing machines, survive in areas where there is no electricity. You cannot take an electric typewriter to the beach. You can take a portable computer, but only for the life of its battery. A manual typewriter is usable anywhere.

When I was younger, I marveled at technological change. As a historian, I learned to appreciate the technological advances of the 19th and 20th centuries. As recently as the 1990s, I felt that I would never experience the same level of technological change during my lifetime (I was born in 1941) as someone who was born in the 1880s or 1890s. The older I become, the more I realize I am mistaken. I live in an era of accelerated technological change.

However, I also admire how long old technology lingers. There are functional objects that are too good to throw out. Objects, such as the screwdriver, resist technological change. The latest is not always the best.

[[Author’s Note: I smiled last evening when my wife’s new iPod would not allow her to retrieve her telephone call list. “This darn thing keeps acting up,” she exclaimed. While it might take longer to use, my address book never breaks down.]

I am constantly asked to recommend repair people for key-wound clocks, stem-wound watches, electric appliances, phonographs, tube radios and typewriters. Providing an answer has grown more difficult. Today, I am more likely to recommend contacting a collecting club than a neighborhood repair person.

My initial thoughts for this column were to wax nostalgic for the typewriters that impacted my life—the Royal and Smith-Corona manual office typewriters in the mid-1950s business classrooms at Hellertown High School, my first portable Smith-Corona, the portable electric Smith-Corona, and my love affair with the IBM select. The wonderful thing about them is that I did not lose my work if I pressed the wrong key, having failed to properly back-up and/or save what I was working on.

[Author’s Aside: Excuse me for a second while I save what I just wrote. The last sentence of the previous paragraph evokes dozens of “oops” horror stories.]

A kitchen corner at The School—the former Vera Cruz (Pa.) Elementary School—houses obsolete computer equipment, representing tens of thousands of dollars of hard-earned money. The pile is a testament to how rapidly technology changes and passes without notice. Stacked in evolutionary order, the pile has an aesthetic quality. I have considered photographing it so I could reconstruct it as environment art at an Art Fair. Possible titles for the piece include “Resistance is Futile,” “Change Inevitability,” “Forgotten Past” or “Lost.”

Although the material on the pile is less than 20 years old, it chronicles the rapidity of change. There are dual disk, 5 ½-inch floppy, cartridge, and 3 ½-inch hard drive machines. Back-up units include large disk, tape and upright units. There are more than a dozen large monitors with various size screens. Boxes containing set up disks and manuals for programs such as Freestyle, Word Star and Pagemaker are scattered among the hardware. Everything is usable. There are only two issues: (1) it is obsolete and (2) no one wants it. I cannot even donate it.

The collector inside of me says: “Save it.” The voice of reason counters: “Are you out of your mind?” Three Zenith dual floppy portables, among the earliest portable computers, are scheduled for sale on eBay. The rest is headed for the landfill.

In the back of my mind, as I am writing this column, I am compiling a mental list of technologies that have come and gone in my lifetime. Approaching 70 is a plus. If interpreted as disappeared, gone is a difficult criterion. Perhaps, “almost faded from use” would be better.

I visited Uncle Bill Rupert’s home in the late 1940s and listened to a wire tape recorder. I grew up and spent the early and middle years of my life around the magnetic tape recorder. I used these recorders to tape dictation and record oral histories. Radio studios used metallic tape. Commercials on cartridge tapes were stacked on “decks.” Digital made tape obsolete.

Remember when BETA and VHS tapes were the rage. While BETA is long gone for home use, it survives in movies and television. My HGTV “Collector Inspector” series was recorded on BETA tape. VHS survives only because of the need to play “family” videos.

I lost track of the last time I used a battery-operated calculator. I am old enough to remember life without them. The craze was short lived. The Texas Instrument Data Math calculator that I own remains undiscovered among the material at The School. It is on my to-be-saved list.

How does this apply to collecting? First, collecting is about memory. In today’s rapid change era, many items do not exist long enough to create multiple generation memory. Linkages are not created. Little wonder today’s younger collectors do not want the objects their parents collect. Second, the ability to repair past technology is vanishing. When it is cheaper to buy a new object rather than repair an old one, the older objects have little to no value. Collectors want objects that work. Third, much of this material is of little interest to historical societies and museums. One example suffices. Besides, typewriters and similar objects are common and ordinary, outside the provenance of these institutions. Finally, typewriter collectors are reaching advanced age. Younger collectors are not replacing them. Typewriter collectors, like their machines, are facing the prospect of passing silently in the night.

Will the PC suffer the same fate? The answer is yes; and, I hope I live long enough to witness it.

POSTSCRIPT: I remember making a special point to save my Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter as a tribute to the role it played in my career when I moved from Bethlehem to Zionsville in 1980. I have no memories of it after that move. Will I ever see it again? I wonder.


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