New Delhi 2006. February, not too hot but dry and warm enough for dust to mix with exhaust as my India-experienced friend and I walk the last few blocks toward Old Delhi, on a mission for pink peppercorns from the spice market.
The dust mixes with a familiar smell of ink but it’s the sound that makes me look over first. To our right, a long stone arcade wraps around this part of the old walled city.
To my surprise, it shelters a long row of typewriters. Manual typewriters. Accompanied by stacks of paper neatly organized in wooden boxes beside wooden chairs, and men (only men) chatting as they wait for customers.
The bulk of their work, my friend said, would be multiple copies of lease agreements, all kinds of business permits, and applications for permits to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The clatter of keys and the intense focus of the secretaries who were working blended perfectly with the high energy decibel level of traffic and voices around us. I was too shy to go and look at what models they were using, but when I got back to Canada a few weeks later I was thrilled to find a portable Remington manual typewriter, in its carrying case, abandoned in an alleyway.
At home, the Deluxe Model 5 easily joined my Underwood Standard, a 1900-esque model, and my Hermes 3000 (Jack Kerouac used one of these little beauties from 1966 until his death in 1969.)
Little did I know then that mechanical typewriters were nearing the end of their swan song.
As many know, in late April this year, India’s Godrej & Boyce Co. Ltd., the last company on earth to make human-powered typing machines, decided to close their Mumbai plant.
The decline happened rapidly; the manufacturers were still making 12,000 mechanical typewriters a year in 2009, but orders have declined (though their electric typewriters are still ordered in large quantities by the US prison system).
Eager to maintain at least one form of communication not connected to prison or military systems (lookin’ at you, Internet), when I was “down South” in May I prioritized a trip to the Type ‘N’ Write Shop in Victoria. It was time to stock up on ribbon.
The store stocks typewriters and printers from roughly 1900 to today, and, whew, has the kinds of ribbons I need.
A photo taped to the glass countertop showed the first owner in the store when it opened in 1951. He’s perched beside his Hermes, looking confidently at the camera.
Half a century later, one of the shop’s main “products” is the service of outsourcing typewriters for film shoots. The most frequently rented model? The IBM Selectrix.
A spike of nostalgia. Selectrix, you’re the machine that seemed so magical when my job as secretary of Student Council suddenly became fun. At the small-town college I attended before the world opened up into electronic everything, we were the crew to switch from manual to electric. We were so fascinated that we would type notes to each other, especially text art, and leave them rolled into the machine.
Now, true story, a curious thing is that the friend I was with at the Type ‘N’ Write is the same friend who lived in New Delhi when I visited there. Her son just turned 10.
As we meandered through the time-warp of decades of machinery she said:
“I can just imagine him coming up to it and doing this” (tapping on a key lightly, with the gentle pressure it takes to type on this laptop’s electronic keyboard) “and saying, ‘It doesn’t work!’ And then as soon as he figured out how to do it, he’d be banging away.”
Dawson City, July 2011. The internet is down (again) and I bike over to a friend’s office to pick up a file on a data stick for this issue of What’s Up Yukon– handmail instead of email.
Who knows, maybe the manual typewriter will come in handy in a blackout next winter – or next week – or at some future point when the planet kicks the internet offline for a few months due to hurricanes, wars and other apocalyptic events.
For now, the Remington portable in my living room, existing here mostly as a sculptural presence, is now freshly beribboned.
Mechanical typewriters may no longer be made. They had a good run; Englishman Henry Mill made a prototype in 1714 and various models were developed before the first commercial typewriter, the Remington Model 1, was mass produced in the US in 1873.
I don’t think we’ll miss them practically, but if the need arises, I’m officially offering here to type up your lease agreements and business permits – in exchange for a 100-foot long stone arcade and a jar of pink peppercorns.
Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.