Mechanical typewriters have disappeared from modern offices after the entry of personal computers, but those old machines have not been completely forgotten.
A few days ago, I wanted to make photocopies of some documents but found the neighbourhood shop closed for renovation. Looking around for another shop, I spotted a board some distance away, announcing that the place was a 'typewriting institute' that was also a cyber cafe offering a range of services, including photocopying.
I climbed up a few steps and at the end of a narrow passage, found a row of rickety wooden tables on which sat half-a-dozen typewriters that had survived the ravages of time. On one of the machines, the spacebar was askew and on several others, the keys sported painted characters because the original ones had long since faded away
Seated at two of the machines were a boy and a girl, both of them hammering away at the keys, keeping their eyes on the typewriting text and trying to master touch typewriting.
While waiting for the photocopier to warm up to the task, I got into conversation with the lady in charge, who also seemed to be running the cyber cafe. "We have been here for six years," she said. "We can't sell these machines and can't keep them just stored here. So we decided to use them as long as we could."
There were still people who wanted to prepare for typewriting examinations using the traditional machines, though it is rare nowadays to spot the once-ubiquitous workhorses in modern offices.
"It is difficult to get typewriter ribbons," she said, "and there is only one typewriter mechanic in the place. We have to pay him Rs.200 as travelling expenses, because he says he comes only to repair a few machines for us."
There was a problem with spare parts as well. Usually, the mechanic would bring them with him and would have to be paid whatever price he specified. There would be no guarantee that the spare parts would be new, for almost every typewriter manufacturer had stopped making the machines.
As I left the place, I recalled how at one time, typewriting skills had been considered a gateway to a lucrative career.
An aunt of mine who was a steno-typist in a government office, used to say that the most unnerving aspect of typewriting examinations was "surviving the beginning".
In a massive hall, there would be a large number of students waiting silently in front of their machines. At the sound of the bell, all the typewriters would come noisily to life as hundreds of fingers struck keys attached to metallic typebars.
There was the raucous clickety-clack of the striking heads hitting the typewriter ribbon onto the sheet of foolscap paper that passed over the rubber-coated, cylindrical platen.
Adding to the cacaphony would be the metallic rasp of the carriage return lever being feverishly operated at the end of each typewritten line. There was also the clatter of the carriage shift as the mechanism moved up and down to create capitals and lower case letters.
All this would continue until the bell rang to end the examination. Students would sigh with relief and massage their sore fingers.
Contrast this with the noise level in computer labs in colleges and modern offices that employ large numbers of people. There is nothing but a steady, rhythmic clicking, well below the sound of voices and creaking of revolving chairs.
In mechanical typewriters, the layout of the 'Qwerty' keyboard reduced the chances of adjacent typebars jamming each other because the typist was too fast with the keys. The familiar computer keyboard does not have this problem, but has inherited the 'Qwerty' layout anyway.
Though computer keyboards can be designed to be almost noiseless, manufacturers have found that people like the sound of keys being struck.
Over the years, typewriter companies made several attempts to create better machines, incorporating advances in technology at every stage. However, the move from mechanical typewriters to computers did not occur all at once.
Electric typewriters used a 'typewheel' driven by a motor, in place of the striking heads. Typing became easier, with less force on the keys. Golf ball typewriters had a 'typeball' that moved in front of the paper on the platen and some electronic typewriters had a 'daisywheel' to do the job. Soon, there came 'word processors' that made it possible to see and correct characters before they were typed on paper, a line at a time.
All these machines were swept aside when personal computers made a grand entry, accompanied by dot matrix, inkjet and laser printers.
It seems like the journey is not yet over. After all, if you can see a digital image on a screen, why take a paper copy?
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