All hands on the home row keys

Sampath Kumar, principal and co-owner, Saraswathi Technical Institute, Tiruchi. Photo: M.Srinath/THE HINDU  

As students clock in for the post-lunch session at the Saraswathi Technical Institute in Puthur, Tiruchi, the hall slowly fills up with the ‘clackety-clack’ of 55 manual typewriters. For S Sampath Kumar, the principal and co-owner of the school started in 1952 by his father A Srinivasan, the sound is proof that the typewriter has saved itself from becoming obsolete, at least in Tamil Nadu.

“There was a brief drop in our market in 2002 when desktop computers overtook the manual typewriters in all offices. But after the State government made typing skills mandatory for public service postings, we were able to regain our lost clientele. Most government exams grant 20 bonus marks to candidates who have completed an English or Tamil typing certificate course,” says Sampath.

As a result, his school sees nearly 200 students per year, attempting the Junior (30 words per minute) or Senior (45 words per minute) six-month certificate courses in typing.

Tapping away
  • In 1955, Mumbai-based Godrej & Boyce (at the behest of then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru) manufactured its first ‘Prima’ brand of typewriter, making India the first Asian country to produce its own writing machine in a market monopolised by foreign brands like Remington, Underwood and Olivetti.
  • The Godrej Prima, which had 1800 components, was a big hit as an essential piece of office equipment, and was among India’s first products to be exported.
  • Typing became a sought-after skill for women in the 1960s and ’70s, as it helped them to enter the job market.

Adaptable skills

The 1990s heralded the ‘Ice Age’ of manual and electrical typewriters, as desktop publishing (DTP) and digital technology upended the existing paper-driven model of working worldwide.

“Typewriters started turning up in junkyards. In fact, I picked my three samples from the trash,” says P Vijaykumar, a collector of antiques, coins and stamps in Tiruchi.

In Tamil Nadu, the manual typewriter’s revival has been scripted by public and private sector initiatives. That’s why, while many of the DTP and Internet browsing centres that opened in the early 2000s have closed down due to changing technology trends, the manual typewriter is back in vogue. The typewriter’s ‘QWERTY’ keyboard that has been replicated in electronic devices has helped it to stay relevant, say industry players.

“Computer centres often send their staff to us because electronic soft-touch keyboards get damaged faster than manual ones, when you don’t know how to type,” says Sampath Kumar. “Besides being accessible to students from Class 6 onwards, manual typing also teaches the typist how to spell words accurately. Our first lesson, after the history of typewriters, is to type the months of the year correctly.”

Educational institutions like the Bharathiyar University in Coimbatore have made it compulsory for students to learn typing as part of their curriculum.

Memories are made of this
  • Rajesh Sharma, 63, remembers growing up with typewriters in his native city of Indore in Madhya Pradesh, as his father Madhav Prasad used to run a job typing centre outside the District Court there. “My elder brother Bhanu Prakash, who is now 74, used to work with our father on the Remington Quiet Riter, and typing used to be the only source of earning for our family,” the advertising professional says in an email interview.
  • To show his gratitude to his late father and brother, Rajesh has set up the ‘Madhav Bhanu Typewriters Museum’ in a section of his home in Indore, showcasing machines that he has collected from 2012. “I started with 8 machines, and today the collection has grown to over 325 typewriters (manual, electric and electronic) from 1900 to 2000. Some of the brands that I have are Mercedes Std, Olivetti–Studio, Lexicana, Graphika, Letterra, Facit, Halda and Scheidegger,” he writes. The museum also has a Facebook page.
  • “The typewriter is possibly the only invention that was accepted and adopted by all the countries in their languages,” he says.
  • Hopeful of establishing a public museum for the typewriter in Indore, Rajesh has been contacting companies who are willing to sponsor display areas. “More than 90 typewriters in my collection are gifts from the owners or their family members. A museum will give a new life to these wonderful machines,” he writes.

Including the computer

The increasing emphasis on typing and correspondence skills in government offices has led to a fresh demand for people who can handle electronic and paper-based typing simultaneously.

The Directorate of Technical Education (DOTE) conducts the ‘Computer on Office Automation’ (COA) certificate course for students who have qualified in manual typing, to learn how to transfer their skills to electronic media.

“The Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission (TNSPC) exams have created over 5,000 job openings per year. At least 2 lakh students attempt them once every six months,” says M Sathish Kumar, the Tiruchi coordinator of Tamil Nadu Typewriting Computer Institutes’ Association (TNTCIA). Launched in 2015, the industry grouping has 783 government-approved institutes on its rolls, that train students in typing and shorthand. Around 20 schools from Tiruchi district are part of TNTCIA.

“We also cater to private Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) companies who ask us to train their fresh recruits in typing before they start work,” says Sathish Kumar, who runs a technical institute in Thuvakudi. “Those who have learned on a manual typewriter can easily adapt to an electronic keyboard. And with starting salaries of ₹15,000 to ₹18,000, typing has become an attractive job opportunity, especially for those from economically poor sections of society.”

G Manohar, among the last Godrej-trained typewriter mechanics working in Tiruchi. Photo: M.Srinath/THE HINDU

G Manohar, among the last Godrej-trained typewriter mechanics working in Tiruchi. Photo: M.Srinath/THE HINDU  

Secondhand glory

The manual typewriter is reliving its boom in Tamil Nadu with just used machines. Godrej and Boyce stopped manufacturing typewriters in 2009, so users have had to make do with secondhand machines, that in turn require specialist mechanics for maintenance.

“Typing was a novelty in my school days, so my father, who ran a photo studio then, asked me to learn it,” says G Manohar, 59, among the last Godrej-trained typewriter repairers in Tiruchi. “Usually we buy used machines for ₹4000, and sell the repaired versions to institutes for ₹7000,” he says.

He manages to rotate spares between English typewriters, but says that those for Tamil machines are hard to find. “The high demand for Tamil typewriters has led to a huge price rise — a secondhand machine can cost up to ₹24,000,” he says.

Most of the machines need an overhaul at least once a month, says Sampath Kumar, who also cuts and winds the Kores brand 60-meter cotton cloth ribbon for his typewriters on black metal spools.

“The lint from the ribbon and the dust in the air can jam up the keys,” he says. “But despite all these hurdles, we are sure that typing will remain an essential skill for many more generations.”

Rajesh Sharma a typewriter collector based in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Photo: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Rajesh Sharma a typewriter collector based in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Photo: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT  

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 12:38:16 PM |

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