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Here In Africa: The Last Typewriter

As the final typewriter ever to be made rolled of the assembly line the other day Barbara Durlacher found herself musing on the birth and death of a machine that placed billions of words before billions of readers.

I heard something interesting on the radio the other day. This was that the final typewriter rolled off the assembly line last week. This heralded the end of the manual typewriter and a complete acceptance of the new age of digital technology.

It is amazing to consider that nearly thirty years since the first introduction of word processors which later mutated into personal computers and in subsequent years to the increasingly popular hand-held digital (cell) phones, the typewriter has managed to hang on for so long, but it seems that the reign of that wonderful machine which lasted from around 1870 up to today, has finally come to an end.

When the typewriter was first introduced onto the early business scene, it was a very primitive machine and was greeted with a mixture of disinterest and disbelief. Originally it was specifically designed to prevent the keys, housed in a horseshoe shaped bed between the qwerty keyboard and the roller, striking the paper too quickly. The rather quixotic explanation for this, considering that the typewriter was designed to take the labour out of handwriting everything, was the deliberate desire to slow the machine down.

Those of us who learnt to type on the old manual Underwood, Remington and L.C. Smith machines amongst others of similar design will recall that if you pressed the keys too quickly, they rose up in a bunch and became entangled, until they could be freed, one-by-one, by the long-suffering typewriter as typists were called in the old days. Then, after heavily carboned fingers had been wiped clean, operations could continue.

To overcome this design flaw, the early inventors, who were in the plural as so often happens when an earth-shaking design appears, decided it might be better to place the most commonly used letters of the alphabet as far apart as possible to prevent a skilled typewriter memorising their position well enough to strike the keys too fast. If this happened, the keys would all rise up at once and jam, and despite no written record being available, this has been the accepted explanation for years. It is said that the “useless” letters were placed close together to be operated by the left hand, while the most frequently used letters were scattered around the keyboard, and despite the inconvenience, this method has been applied ever since. This became known as the qwerty keyboard.

In fact, I can clearly remember speed competitions being held with tempting prizes for the winners, some of whom managed to reach speeds of over a 100 words a minute and more with zero mistakes. So it seems that despite every effort even this arrangement did not prevent high typing speeds being reached although with practice, the jamming of the keys happened less often and good speeds were maintained.

Efforts have been made in subsequent years to improve the the keyboard, but despite several attempts to change it, none of the alternative layouts have caught on and today’s keyboards still adhere to the old-fashioned pattern. Although modern technology and mechanics have made this arrangement unnecessary, the alternatives have not proved popular.

With the invention of digital phones which have rapidly evolved from simple portable telephones powered by batteries and activated by a small built-in microchip only able to transmit short messages (SMS), to the most sophisticated digital technology with video cameras, internet connections and other accessories too numerous to mention, the old keyboard layout is still used.

Today all the new digital machines, from computers to the most hi-tech handheld telephones use touch screen technology and, it is reported, today’s small cell phone, powered by a computer chip about the size of your thumbnail, has a greater computer capacity than was used to put a man on the moon in 1969.

It is expected that before long the need to use individual keys to type out messages will fall away completely, so stumbling and fumbling to pick out those maddeningly scattered letters will, like so much of our early mechanical past, disappear altogether. A few treasured relics will be housed in museums and will become a source of wonder to our great-grandchildren as they look on amazed at something so primitive. To them the early mechanical typewriters will be on a par with a runner carrying a message in a cleft stick, and future generations will find it difficult to believe that so simple yet ingenuous a machine could have been so widely used in every part of the world for the better part of a century years.

Billions of business people and thousands of authors have used a typewriter as an indispensible tool for writing of all kinds, and many famous books have been produced with its help, and much typed material from the most mundane to the world shattering, has been produced on a machine which entered our society at a time of great innovation and invention. In the hundred years of its existence the typewriter became a symbol of a new century thrusting towards the future.


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