Typewriter enthusiasts around the globe felt a bit blue back in 2011 after hearing that Godrej and Boyce, one of the world’s last operational typewriter factories located in Mumbai, India, closed its doors for the last time after an impressive one-hundred-and-fourteen year run. Once regarded as an indispensable device for any writer, the typewriter has long been regarded for both its beauty and functionality. Ernest Hemingway once said, “Typewriters write the way people talk.” Does this mean the end of a long conversation – a conversation that began almost three hundred years ago?
From Henry James to Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson to David Sedaris, the typewriter has helped shape the English language for centuries. In E.E. Cummings’ “Grasshopper Poem,” the writer intentionally uses the typewriter for poetic effect, and William S. Burroughs wrote of a “soft typewriter’ writing our lives, and our books into existence.”
As in the case of Italian inventor Pellegrino Turri and his design in 1808, many early typewriters were developed to enable the blind to write. Inspired by his affection for the Contessa Fantoni, a childhood friend in the early stages of blindness, Turri invented a machine that allowed the Contessa to communicate with the world. The affectionate correspondence between the two would later inspired the love story in Carey Wallace’s The Blind Contessa’s New Machine.
By the late 19th century, hundreds of typing machines were patented throughout Europe and North America, and while many of these patents would fail to see the light of day, John Pratt’s “Pterotype” would become the prototype and inspiration for Christopher Sholes’ invention of the standardized typewriter in 1867.
Perhaps the impending obsolescence of the typewriter began in the 1980s with the rise in popularity of the word processor and the personal computer. These inventions quickly overshadowed their precursor, primarily due to their efficiency and ability to store and retrieve documents. It’s that same efficiency that may have driven Henry Mill to obtain a patent in 1714 for a “Machine for Transcribing Letters” onto paper or parchment.
Interestingly, Godrej and Boyce’s top customers were Indian defense agencies, courts and government offices – citing habit and emotional attachment as their reason for keeping it old school.
Long live the typing machine!