Hold on to your ribbons and keys: The world’s last typewriter factory, located in Mumbai, India, is closing its doors. As late as 2009, the factory, Godrej and Boyce, was still rolling out 10-12, 000 machines a year (down from 50,000 a year in the 90s). But the ubiquitous computer just proved too much for it.
The concept of impressing ink-coated letters onto paper may date to a 1714 English patent held by Henry Mill. The first working typewriter was said to have been built in 1808 by Italian Pellegrino Turri. Our current typewriters (and computer keyboards) owe the most debt to the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer, produced in New York, beginning in 1873, from gunmakers E. Remington & Sons. Some of you may still have Remington manual typewriters.
Sholes, a newspaperman from Wisconsin, created the QWERTY keyboard that we still use today. The first one made only capital letters. There is more early typewriter history on this excellent site. This is another great site featuring lots of pictures and information about different models of early typewriters, from American Visible to World.
U.S. typewriter production was dominated by just four brands — Underwood, Royal, Remington and Smith-Corona — from the 1920s until they stopped production. Remington, then Remington-Rand, moved production to Europe in 1961. The last Smith-Corona and Royal typewriters came out in the 1970s. Underwood merged with Olivetti in 1963 and began diversifying. The last Olivetti portable typewriter was produced in Spain in the 1980s.
Though I typed a “novel” on a manual typewriter in 6th grade ( a tome in which terrible fates befell the fictional denizens of an elementary school, truth be told), and learned manual typing from typing teacher Stella Staley to prepare for high school, for most of high school I typed papers on a series of lovely IBM Selectrics. These were probably the slightly outdated castoffs from my parents’ ad agency office, but still — they were quite sleek, in lovely colors (robins egg blue or gunmetal gray), and they had fascinating metal balls that spun around to find the designated letter. Best? You could change the font by changing out the ball. (I also remember the change-over from white-out to type-out correction paper.) It turns out IBMs had been somewhat stylish (and electric) since the 1930s.
Now, of course, there is a collectors’ market for typewriter ribbons and other accessories, not to mention the typewriters themselves. And while news of this last typewriter rolling off the factory belt may hit some of us with an odd sense of surprise and nostalgia, I note that the same keyboard from almost 150 years ago is still with us, and that some people (even in high schools today) continue to say “typing” rather than the duller-sounding “keyboarding” or, God forbid, “word processing”.
This wistful change brings both and “end of an era” feeling and the notion that I personally can’t imagine how long-form writers ever typed complete novels without the luxury of inserting, deleting, copying and pasting at will — even if I once tried it myself.
Be sure to see: The typewriter dance number.
This just in: Some typewriters are apparently still being made, in the U.S., for the prison market. So, perhaps more accurately, the world’s second to last typewriter factory closed its doors.
Photos: IBM typewriter ads, top to bottom, Model Year 1954, 1930, 1948, 1948, 1959, 1967. These and many more on etypewriters.com. Early writing ball typewriter, 1903 Remington ad and popular 1920s Underwood 5 manual typewriter on this typewriter history site. Later Underwood 5 typewriter on Wikimedia Commons.