The End Of An Error

Media, Observatory

When typewriters went wrong – and they sometimes did – nobody ever said ‘Have you tried switching it off and switching it on again?’ You just untangled the keys, wiped the ink off yourself and carried on laboriously banging away.

I mention this because the last typewriter to be built in the UK has been produced at a north Wales factory.

The manufacturer, Brother, which says it has made 5.9 million typewriters since its factory in Wrexham opened in 1985, has donated the last machine to London’s Science Museum. The museum said the piece represented the end of a technology which had been “important to so many lives”.

This completes an arc I’ve followed since I began writing. My progress went something like this:

Remington ‘Super-Thumper’ upright typewriter (belonged to Mum when she was young)

Remington Portable (as above but slimmer and harder to thread ribbons into).

Selectric IBM Golfball typewriter.

IBM regular electric typewriter (second-hand; got electric shocks from it).

Brother dot-matrix electric typewriter (rubbish).

Anonymous secondhand PC eventually thrown out of window in frustration.

BBC Wordstar with cassettes – disastrously slow but you could play Chucky Egg on it.

First Mac. second Mac, third Mac through to 400th Mac.

Out went ribbons, Snopake, glue, carbons and those little white sheets – what were they called? (I miss Snopake and would still use it for handwritten letters.)

And suddenly, the typewriter, as an objet d’art, has appeared in antique shops after decades of being ignored. And I’d quite like the Remington upright, not to use – God knows where you’d get the ribbons from – but as a delightful piece of design. Or as a young friend of mine said when he saw one for the first time, ‘Oh wow, it’s a steampunk computer’.

11 comments on “The End Of An Error”

  1. Alison says:

    Oh wow, it’s a steampunk computer’…

    I don’t even know what that means… I am old.

    I have followed much the same arc as yourself. I learned how to touch type on a big old tank of a thing and now, when not at work, have a netbook. My how times have changed.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    My first typewriter was a used upright from my father and it taught me to pound on the keyboard! It was heavy. (You could have tied it to a mobster, tipped him into the Hudson River, and he’d never have come up again – without help from the fish, eels and bloodworms.)
    Good thing about the early ribbon typewriters – you could lift out the set of reels and carefully rewind the ink ribbon and reuse until the ink was invisible. (Inverted book plug that.)

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Alison – You posted while I was typing or I’d have included this in my above.
    Steampunk computer refers to William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s excellent 1991 novel “The Difference Engine”. “Set in 1855 the Industrial Revolution, supercharged by the development of steam-driven cybernetic Englines, is in full and drastic swing. The cumputer age has arrived a century ahead of time with Charles Babbage’s perfection of his Analytial Engine…and history has been permanently and irrevocably altered.” So part of the front-leaf blurb reads. Sterling followed this a bit later by editing “Mirrorshades” a paperback of “steampunk” short stories which was very successful. Now there is a genre of tales blending new tech with old lives and times. The Goths movement has a steampunk association – at least for some.

  4. Anne Fernie says:

    Richard Nagy in the States specialises in steampunk computers for anyone loath to ‘let go’ of the typewriter vibe – they are rather wonderful but cannot vouch for their practicality in everyday use……
    http://www.datamancer.net/

  5. Alison says:

    Dan – thanks so much for that. I need to do some research.

  6. Vickie says:

    I lost my great Remington somewhere along the road of life…still miss it (great finger/hand exercise: pound pound pound). Maybe Tom Hanks, a serious collector of typewriters, now owns it…

  7. snowy says:

    I’d forgotten all about ‘Correction papers’ about the same size as hand rolling papers. Designed to reduce the time spent waiting for the correction fluid to dry.

    Without them the hasty typist would be revealed by the white residue on the type, blurry letters, and closed loops coming out as solid print.

  8. Alan Morgan says:

    Steampunk is an alternative history genre where corsets are worn over the blouse.

    Underpants and britches work less well.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    (And my corset is blue satin with silver dragons on it, Alan) My Mother typed letters to keep her hand in and never used correction fluid or that white tape, but she did have a typewriter eraser. They may have erased the ink but they often took the paper with it. You really did have to pound on those keys, too, so the first couple of times I used an electric one there were a large number of repeated letters, sometimes almost a whole line.

  10. J F Norris says:

    Onion skin paper (Corraseable, I think was the most popular brand name) was the paper of choice for those of us who saw the value of typewriter erasers rather than using messy Wite-Out, Liquid Paper and correction tape. I wish I could still find typewriter erasers. They are very handy for cleaning up old books of stubborn handwritten inked prices on flyleaves. Now I have to use hydrogen peroxide to bleach them out.

    Among the many typewriters I owned the very last (as late as 1991) was a Brother electronic typewriter with memory. It was quaint to use, but a silly way to fool yourself into thinking you were really advanced and saving time. I still made mistakes that had to be corrected by re-typing because I rarely looked at the little window display.

    One thing I do not miss about typewriters — the pain in the ass task of finding a store that had the right ribbon. Back in the 1970s I had to have my Dad find my ribbons at one of the largest office supply sellers in Manhattan. We had tiny little discount shops in my hometown that never had the one I needed.

  11. snowy says:

    If you mean the blue eraser, with the slightly gritty feel. They can still be had, but you would need to visit an Art Supplies shop, rather than a stationers.

    They are also available from the largest on-line retailer, as a combination eraser with a pink soft graphite removing compound on one end and the harder blue ink compound on the other.

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