Two intersecting trends have caught my eye of late. In fact, one is un-doing the work of the other. Today’s news of the closing of the last factory in the world to make typewriters prompts me to comment on these trends, and to juxtapose them.
I am not writing out of nostalgia for the heavy Royal manual typewriter that dominated the summer of my 13th year. I had argued with my mother about what to take in the enrichment summer school program. I wanted to take Creative Writing. She wanted me to take Typing I and II – with college in mind but also to give me a marketable skill should I need it. We compromised: I took both.
Thirty of us spent the morning pounding on cumbersome Royal and Underwood typewriters – IBM Selectrics with their interchangeable typeballs were still far in the future. We struggled to align the paper so our practice sentences didn’t tilt up or down the page. Every error was corrected by inserting a sliver of CorrecType paper and re-typing the error, then typing over. Our teacher frowned if we did this too much: the errors were pretty obvious. Soon we found ourselves learning to center a headline on a page, set manual tabs, and pass the required speed tests. At the time, I thought it a high price to pay for the privilege of learning creative writing in the afternoon.
By the time I went to college a few years later, small electric typewriters were commonplace, and Eaton’s corrasable bond paper had been invented – we could erase our mistakes. Too many errors, though, and the page would need to be retyped. A good outline was more important then than now: without cut-and-paste, the decision to rearrange the text meant typing it over again.
I’ve thought about some of those now-useless skills. No one counts backward half the characters in a line to center it: they click the Center icon and the computer does it automatically. It didn’t seem so important.
The end of the typing machine
As oil and electricity prices soar, and we are all urged to find ways to cut back on our use of energy, I’ve wondered if we might not want to revive some of our non-electric technology. Our messages might be more succinct if we had to pound them out on paper instead of zipping them out over the electrons; our thoughts might be better ordered if cut-and-paste did not let us rehash them. Those thoughts truly might be nostalgia. When the factories close, though, we begin the slow process of losing the embodied knowledge for building those devices. The drawings and plans might be maintained – although perhaps not forever – but all the details about the quirks of a particular design, the way a particular metal has to be treated – these will be lost with workers who cease to make the typewriters.
Recovering lost techniques – seeds, farms, and gardens
Heirloom vegetables and varieties are hotly sought after commodities these days. There is growing awareness that our monocrop (often mono-variety) form of agriculture leaves us vulnerable to crop failure. An aggressive new strain of wheat rust is devastating crops in Asia and Africa, where reliance on a single crop was imported from the West. Old varieties of food crops that matured at different times and were suited to different soils and settings have given way to high-yield varieties that mature all at the same time; the soil and setting have been adjusted to their preferences. Except for a few seed banks, the old varieties and their genetic diversity are gone. Those who do plant the old varieties are having to learn anew the special properties of each: the farmers who knew have passed from the scene.
A similar trend is seen in gardening, where pesticides and fertilizers are giving way to integrated pest control and plant rotations that add nutrients to the soil. This is very old technology, discovered by trial and error and passed down from generation to generation – until it was deemed old fashioned and set aside. Now it is being regained at great expense of time and scientific labor. Would that the knowledge had been banked along with the seeds!
The skills of an excellent typist have long been obsolete – few now would have the ability, for instance, to turn out PhD dissertations in physics and mathematics, with all their equations, on a manual typewriter. We don’t foresee with clarity the need to do that: but do we really know what the world will be like 50 years from now?
I hope a museum somewhere has safely stored away a typing textbook, a few spool ribbons, and one or two of those nice manual Underwoods. We might need them one day.
- Life photo gallery: In Praise of the Typewriter (boingboing.net)
- Click, clack, ding, sigh: Typewriters inspire the digital generation (jenx67.com)
- Typewriters Catching on with Young People (izabael.com)
- Godrej and Boyce: World’s last typewriter factory closes its doors in Mumbai (dailymail.co.uk)
- It’s Official: Typewriters are Back in Style (treehugger.com)