Telltale of a typewriter


Out of all the random happenings of the world, I somehow land on this documentary called ‘California Typewriter’ featuring Tom Hanks, a well-known Hollywood actor, who has acted in movies like Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan and others. After watching the documentary, I fell in love with this yester-century machine called the ‘typewriter’. I remember when I was 17 years old, I had learnt how to type using a Godrej manual typewriter. The typewriter that was a common writing tool in offices, homes, universities and other places for over a century, has now lost its stronghold due to the advent of personal computers. Typewriter, which was used until the last decade for typing legal documents, agreements, affidavits on revenue stamp papers outside all Indian court complexes, have now been replaced with personal computers. The ‘typist’ job profile has completely vanished from the classifieds column of the newspapers. Now, we are living in the digital age, an age of electronic computation, smart phones, artificial intelligence and machine learning, a time which has no place for an industrial revolution artifact such as the typewriter. The manufacturing of typewriters was completely shutdown by companies such Godrej, who owned the business of making office typewriters, both manual and electric, in India. Godrej was perhaps the last company in the world to close its manufacturing line. Other companies such as Smith Corona SCM, IBM typewriters, Remington and others had closed their production a long time ago. Why, in the year 2020-21, I still think of this machine to be of use, despite superior technology available in terms of personal computers, laptops and tablets? The answer to it lies in the purpose that the typewriter would ideally serve for me.


About a year ago, I took a detour from my usual work of software development and sought comfort in writing essays and blogs. Writing becomes a serious business when someone is committed to it. The typewriter is a tool that makes it ideal for writers to draft their thoughts and opinions on paper, coherently. There is no editing of any sort. Whatever comes to the mind, one gets it onto a paper and then, when those thoughts are captured, they can be edited and polished to churn out a well-written essay or article.

The problem with today’s technology is this that it lacks focus. It fails in maintaining the user’s attention for the work at hand. The screen of a laptop, tablet or a mobile phone for that matter, has lot of things popping up. The notification that constantly pops up, is a rabbit hole, that makes the user to get swayed away from the original work at hand. The rabbit hole is so deep that one notification can lead to so many other topics and advertisements that the user eventually forgets the intention with which they initially began working. There is a disruption in the thought process. This distraction is pervasive and infectious. To find focus amidst distraction, thus becomes a herculean task, considering what one is put up against. The notification rabbit hole is more powerful than we anticipate, as it swallows time without our conscious knowledge. The brain of ours is still ape-like when it comes to handling these tech-savvy gadgets. Psychologically, we are driven by our instincts more than our rationale. This unconscious behaviour involving our instinctual response is exploited by most user interfaces of social network apps, smart phones, games and applications on personal computers. As a result of which, the user becomes a product for the companies who build such devices, apps and services. The user’s information captured through usage is sold to data brokers and marketing companies, who in turn use it to feed advertisements to the user. These Ads are like zombies that follow wherever the user goes in the online world. Every website feeds the Ad somewhere or the other, based on information secretly gathered from user’s usage patterns and internet search history. All these happens with a simple click on a notification or a type of few keywords. Now, that makes notifications from these smart devices, if thought  about deeplya risk to human creativity.


Typewriter does just one and only one thing i.e type. Whereas, the computer or tablet is a multipurpose device. Due to its bloated features and all-in-one nature, it becomes a powerful device which does a lot of things but, compromises on the quality of work due to notifications and other quirks pestering the user, making them lose the attention span needed for achieving flow in their work. Therefore, if one were to draft a book chapter or an essay on a computer, then they might have to put in effort, trying to focus on the task at hand and also do that by not getting lured into the rabbit holes. One more important thing about the typewriter is its tactile feedback – every thought from our mind gets transformed into a tangible character and later into words and sentences. This makes it very real and heart-felt. Unlike the computers, where one needs to type everything into a document, save it and later take a print for seeing the draft, here in a typewriter - it’s all done with the strike of a single key. Every keystroke creates a tangible result. This is the unique feature that one has to look at to really appreciate the beauty of this machine.


I made an attempt to get hold of one such typewriter. I saw a listing for one on an online e-commerce website called eBay. The typewriter, a Smith Corona SCM Coronet automatic electric, was on auction starting at $30 base price. I made a bid for the same price and later won the auction unanimously! I became the owner of a vintage typewriter. Later, it was shipped from the seller’s site in Washington D.C. in US at a standard shipping price. The typewriter is a bulky mechanical device and would weigh at least 15 kilos with the suitcase. So, the shipping cost was about $130!

A total of $160 for half a century old typewriter. Was it worth it? Well, I thought it was worth it considering what was in store. It took about two months for it to complete its voyage across the seven seas to reach India. I was overjoyed to see it in real and was eager to power it on. I plugged the cord into the AC mains and turned the power knob on. To my agony, I witnessed smoke coming out of it. For a moment, I felt the time, money and effort that I had invested, blown into smoke. All the effort in ensuring the purchase, daily tracking for two months, all went into a thick cloud of pale smoke. I immediately turned off the power supply and opened the windows of my room to let out the toxic smoke. Later, I realised that the power rating for the typewriter was 110V AC. The standard AC power supply in India is 220V. I had accidentally given it twice the juice which fried up the typewriter's electric circuitry. How callous of me! After studying engineering for four years, and working for an electronics company for another four, I still couldn't figure out the power requirements first and later plug into the necessary voltage. My eagerness cost me dearly. I might have damaged it completely beyond repair. The typewriter died within few minutes of its presence around me. An old adage – “Curiosity killed my cat”, seemed to recur in my head. Had I acted with precaution and care, I might still be typing this article on that vintage. After the incident, I get into an endless search of finding a fix for the typewriter. I search online, I call up people, but I can’t find anyone who still works with typewriters, electric one to be precise. There are no service manuals online that I could use. It’s gone forever - the vintage. I wish I could bury it somewhere, but it would become an epitaph of my stupidity and callousness. That typewriter is a reflection of my lack of patience and due care. It now lies in a cupboard covered in its old suitcase where it rests as I continue agonizing over my mistake and misfortune.


My retro gadget – The SCM Coronet Automatic Electric Typewriter