Monday, 9 May 2011

Write Type

Reports say that Godrej & Boyce Ltd., world’s only remaining manufacturer of typewriters has announced that it will discontinue producing the machine for good. For good or bad, it will mean an end of an era.

The last batch of 500 typewriters manufactured by the Company in 2009 is being sold off. All other manufacturers of the machine in the world have already stopped producing it. During the last two decades, computers have been relentlessly pushing typewriters into disuse. Just as computers have done now, typewriters had brought a revolution in writing.
The news brought to my mind a sigh, a sadness that a machine, first manufactured in 1867, is going to become a relic of the past. In a few years from now, it may be seen only in museums. :((((((((((((((
The evolution of typewriter was part of the ongoing history the human need for communication. The concept of a ‘writing machine’ was first conceived by Henry Mill but the first practical mechanical typewriter was developed by Christopher Sholes, Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule. E. Remington & Sons and I B M were the first to manufacture typewriters.
The thought of writing took me back in the time-machine and my days in the primary school flashed back. Like all others, I used to a carry a flat ink-bottle of thick glass and the very old type long-tailed open pen (without a cap!) to the school. To make ink, we had to buy tablets of ink, put it in the bottle and add the just right quantity of water. We used to carry the ink-bottle separately lest it would spill out and spoil the books and note-books in the school-bag. However careful one was, writing always left the thumb and the fore finger smeared with ink.

In pictures, one would have seen pens made out of quills, the hollow basal parts of bird-feathers, sharpened to facilitate writing. The ancient writers are pictured holding such long feathers and writing with it. It is said that Vyasa Muni dictated the whole Mahabharat and Lord Ganesh wrote it down with a quill.

With the invention of ‘fountain’ pens, quills fell into disuse, like what has happened to the type-writer. These ‘nib pens’ replaced old ‘dip pens’. One had to dip the old-type pens into the ink-bottle at short intervals to get ink at the tip of the pen. Presumably, ‘fountain’ pens were so called because ink automatically flowed like fountains, into the tip of the forked nibs. Lewis Waterman improved the fountain pens. Ink was put into these pens with the help of ‘droppers’, a thin glass tube attached to a tiny balloon made of rubber. One had to dip the dropper into the ink-bottle, first press the balloon to expel the air in it and then release the pressure to suck ink into the glass tube. Then the tip of the dropper had to be put into the 'belly' of the pen and the balloon had to be pressed to drop the ink into it. Some fountain pens had a built-in mechanism by pressing which one could draw ink into it from the bottle.

While writing with the old pens, one had to use blotting paper to soak out the extra ink on the paper. Ink used in fountain pens had quickly evaporating spirit added to it for fast drying up. Sometimes, blotting paper was needed even while writing with fountain pens. Offices were supplied with small devices looking like boats to which blotting paper was fixed. These devices had small handles at top. This device was to be moved like ‘see-saw’ game over the written matter.

Our village-school had only up to Class III. From there, I went, in 1956, to a ‘Middle’ School having Classes IV to VII, and from there, to a High School which had Classes up to XI. I started using a fountain pen in the Middle School. I remember Sulekha brand of ink was our favourite. (When in 2005, I was posted to an Office of my Bank at Kolkata, I was delighted to see near my residence, the establishment of Sulekha Works Ltd., the manufacturers of my favourite ink in my school-days. By that time, the Company had fallen into financially bad days and was trying to survive by manufacturing other related products. Sulekha Company is still a landmark and the nearby bus stop is named after it.) I remember having come across during my college days, an advertisement of Quink brand of inks, ‘Don’t say ink; say Quink!’.

Fountain pens slowly gave way to ‘ball-point’ pens, with ink-paste injected into its refills. It was felt that that the former was rather clumsy compared to its cousin. The rather long name ‘ball-point pen’ later gave way to its shorter version, ‘ball pen’. 

When I joined my Bank, use of ball-pens in writing the records and instruments like cheques and Bank Drafts were prohibited. There was a specific clause in the Account Opening Forms wherein the customer had to undertake not to use ball-point pens in writing cheques. The reason was that forging writings and signatures is difficult by using fountain pens. It so happened that one Branch came under water due to a flash flood in the nearby river. After the waters receded, it was found that writings on all records written with fountain pens had been washed off while those written with ball-pens were in tact! Perhaps due to this reason, writing records and instruments with ball-pens were later permitted.

Till recently, typewriters were indispensable part of an office scenario. Clattering of typewriters completed the office-atmosphere. The cadence of typewriters clack-clacking in unison provided the background music of offices and their replacement by the far softer and almost silent tap-tap of key-boards has qualitatively altered the air of busyness though it continues to be business as usual.In those days, typists were specially recruited for the purpose. Advertisements for recruitment of typists stipulated a minimum speed of 40 for a candidate to be eligible. It meant that the person should be able to type 4o words a minute on an average. Interviews for selection to this cadre were followed by a ‘typing test’. Knowledge of typing was an added qualification for selection of clerks. Expert typists type out the matter by fixing their eyes only on the draft of the matter, without having to look at the key-board.Days are coming when one will not have to touch the key-board of a computer to type something. You will have only to speak or dictate. The computer will catch it and type it by itself.

However, one deficiency of the typewriter was that mistakes, unlike in the case of computers, could not be easily corrected. For striking out some unwanted matter already typed, one had to type xxxxx over them. This spoiled the look. Type-written matter often carried corrections by hand. Sometimes the matter had to be re-typed all over again and again to give it a perfect look. At most of the times, the matter intended for typing had first to be written by hand, and then typed. Now technology offers all kinds of options from spell-checks to completely erasing. This has lulled us to complacency bordering on laziness. There are new kind of problems. Anything 'unsaved' can disappear at the touch of a wrong button. 

It was Frederic Nitze who said, "Our thoughts and feelings are greatly influenced by the writing-instrument." It was from his personal experience. He felt that he was able to express himself better while using a type-writer. Many people do not agree with him. They feel that their thoughts and conciousness are best expressed by writing with a long hand.  

A sentence used in typing-lessons is: A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. This sentence uses all the letters of English alphabet!

Key boards are cited as examples of team work. Even if a single key becomes dysfunctional, the entire work becomes affected. For example: AN –NVEST-GATION WAS ORDERED –NTO THE –NCIDENT –N THE –SLAND. Here ‘I’ is lying horizontally instead of vertically!

Good bye, type writer. : :((((((((((((((((((((((((((


  1. I am not sure if you kept the second I in the example vertical deliberately if people really spot it out :)
    An interesting chronicle to read. I remember a few friends who had started learning the typewriter memorizing a-s-d-f and ;-l-k-j

  2. The CRT monitor, the floppy disk, the CD, the cassette tape - all have had/will have a shorter life than the typewriter.

  3. Arun,

    1. No it was not deliberate; it was a typographical error. But let it continue and give it an unintended but useful meaning :(((((

    2.The only permanent thing in the world is 'change'!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. I remember being so obsessed with the typewriter when I first came across it when I was a kid, that I wanted to grow up and become a typist! Yes, that was my career goal!!

  5. I started my job-career as a Lecturer in a Govt. College. There, during spare time, I playfully practised typing with one finger. I have not progressed beyond that.:((((((