Last April, I heard that the world’s last typewriter factory had been shuttered. A part of my past closed along with it.
When I started seventh grade, my grandmother gave me an Underwood portable typewriter to write reports for school. But I also used it to turn out a newsletter for shortwave radio listeners (“SWLs”), typing on blue stencils instead of paper, and then printing the publication on an ancient mimeograph machine that I had purchased from the nearby Lutheran Church that I attended.
My first portable typewriter served me well through high school and college. Later, it, or a new model that I acquired sometime during my travels, accompanied me from Seattle to Monterey, and on to Okinawa and Indiana, before settling down with me in Northern California.
In the summer of 1974, I lugged my typerwriter from San Francisco’s Palace Hotel near sea level, where I had temporarily decamped from my apartment in Oakland on the other side of San Francisco Bay, up the steep slopes of Nob Hill to the Masonic Auditorium. There, over the next two and half days, I ground out answers to essay questions on the California Bar Exam.
When I opened my own law office in 1980, it was an IBM Selectric typewriter that churned out legal memos, briefs, motions, and correspondence. Even when computers took over the bulk of the document preparation two years later, the Selectric proved to be an easier tool for filling in pre-printed forms, earning it a brief reprieve from its ultimate demise.
The Selectric, and the portable typewriter I kept at home, eventually died the death of all technology that becomes obsolete. Presumably they were ground up into bits and pieces and remade into newer products, or sent to some far-off place in the Third World where they could still have a utilitarian existence.
The typewriter would produce sounds as it transformed my thoughts into words. Zip-zip-zip went the paper as you wound it around the platen. Clack-clack-clack went the keys. Swish-ding went the carriage return as you pushed it back at the end of each line, ringing a bell built into its inner workings. Unzip-zip-zip went a finished page as you extracted it.
But as I bang out this story, all I hear is a faint, tap-tap-tap on the keyboard of my shiny, nearly-new iMac desktop computer.
Has something been “lost in translation” as we went from communicating by the type-written word to the computer-regurgitated one? Maybe so.
But if you are still pounding away on a dying typewriter, and live near San Francisco, Duo Von Degrate, featured in “Typewriter talents, a love story” may be able to breathe new life into it.
(Dick Jordan recently returned to the Palace Hotel where he used his iPhone 3GS to send out e-mail, tweet away on Twitter, and check in on Facebook, tasks he could have never done on his portable typewriter. But even the smartphone will have a short life-span, perhaps to be replaced my some yet more ingenious technology showcased at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada.)