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A novelty with an expiry date A novelty with an expiry date
by Dr Elsa Lycias Joel
2023-09-16 06:47:15
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“It will have its brief day and be thrown aside”

That soothing rhythm of typing from an indispensable machine invented by one of the most unselfish, kind-hearted genius Christopher Latham Sholes, lent an endearing enchantment to users and nonusers as well. This piece of his inventive genius we call the typewriter was granted a patent on June 23, 1868. Thenceforward, June 23 is celebrated around the world as Typewriter Day.

Those sounds of clacking keys from the black machine are fresh in my head. It woke me up in a rather nice way far better than the screeching alarm of my analog alarm clock that gave me a jerk.  Yet, I loved the clock for its ticking noises that put me to sleep. Everything about this writing machine in my dad’s study was good. Awake or half asleep my toes, fingers and feet moved in sync with the clickety-clack. Dad wrote letters to editors of dailies with so much passion and the sounds coming from the machine made me think he was writing something special in a special way. The precision involved when typing to avoid going back over and over was amazing. Between returning the carriage to its original position and looking at my dancing feet, dad should’ve decided on the right word to type in without the slightest distraction. In our household, it was an unwritten rule and unspoken instruction that nobody should try talking to the one using the typewriter. Putting ideas into words without spelling mistakes, with maximum finger movements is like landing an airplane on a moving runway. To me it seemed like an athletic contest between fingers. The machine was powered just by his fingertips.  Unable to comprehend the mechanism behind how my dad’s fingers leapt from one end of the keyboard to another, type hammers that rose up and fell down, winding ribbon that moved from one spool to another, the ting of bells, carriage that was whipped back hastily and levers, I decided to believe that invisible hands were at work and a few faeries who read minds existed underneath the keys. Those two paper fingers were the long hands of the strongest one.

People worked without a delete option. Mistakes or errors could not be fixed in a click. I could see the frustration in their faces when they had to roll up the paper to get to the typo. That is why people of yesteryears admitted their mistakes and worked to fix it. Covering up errors and mistakes was neither easy nor fun. ‘X’ing through mistakes also meant handling an eye roll or a side eye or sometimes a rip up of the document by someone else. Typewritten records were permanent. The ink never faded. Minus Grammarly, Chat GPT, QuillBot and the like, writers honed their skills. I don’t know if shorthand is a tedious skill to learn but I know the look of accomplishment in the eyes of uncles and aunts who learnt it. The assertion in their voice made me think shorthand was something that none must ignore, whether we like it or not.

Only when the ink ribbon needed a replacement, I jingled my way with a handwritten letter to a typewriting institute, a few feet away from our home. The entire vicinity sounded of clattering keys, sighs and instructions. At times I read the letter in my hand as I waited and was proud that my dad was a bold man who could question even the Prime Minister. Typewritten letters were loud and bold in India with its values, freedom and democracy. When I didn’t understand the letter, I spent time observing the writers. Oh how fast and furious were their fingers against those keys! Here and there, few writers gestured, asking for that blue round eraser with a hole in it. And it was carefully kept away from the eyes of the instructor. Many times it landed in the wrong hands and the person would make sure the instructor knew who needed the eraser badly and often. Those who had to erase an error knew the right amount of pressure they had to apply while erasing, clearing the crumbs and dust if any. Rubbing too hard would mean a hole in the paper.

Our home felt incomplete without the sounds from the writing machine. Not a day passed by without a few family members using it, as if somebody’s got to work it at all costs. On certain days every adult in the house was busy trying to prove that they weren’t responsible behind jammed keys or hell bent on finding out who lubricated the machine as if it needed an oil bath. Most relatives knew how badly I wanted them to convince dad to paint the machine yellow. In the dark it looked like a depressed obese baby robot without legs and head that would pounce on kids, especially me because I was often the reason behind its jammed keys and oily look. I didn’t have to avoid angry stares or answer uneasy questions because I was the only child in our home afraid to walk past the machine in the dark. Any time anybody saw me scanning the typewriter with my eyes, they would remind me that I will never learn to use it since two different keys shouldn’t be pressed at the same time. So, soon after they went out of sight I would shut out the organist in me and try to awake the typist in me. Tiger, our dog got so used to the sounds of the clacking keys that he slept like a log even when the machine rattled throughout the day.

In truth I’m not sure when our typewriter left us or vice versa. Was it gifted to that typewriting institute near our home or gifted to a loved one or did it get stolen during a move? My parents and grandparents never trashed or replaced anything old for something new and efficient. Hence, I’m cocksure that we did not buy an electric typewriter for decades, after which we tapped away on the keyboard of a desktop. While using the desktop, my mind played some visuals of our typewriter’s components at work and how writers typed with tremendous focus, whole-heartedly. They lived in the moment. This tickled my curiosity to know more about the machine. Search engines gave me enough information on how typewriters evolved over the years. Its design never stood still. Writers bade goodbye to inky ribbons, jammed keys, correction fluids and erasers when electric typewriters came into use. Golf ball typing head picked up the pace and backspace correcting key would’ve been a breather for writers, mainly stenographers. Almost after a decade, the conversion from electrical to electronics offered a whole new set of possibilities to the typing table.

I wish times moved backwards bringing back people, even the Remington brothers, our loved ones, the stuff they used and those sounds in our homes. I yearn for the old as I celebrate the new. However, I try fathoming the disappearance of typewriters from the lives of antiquarians who try finding uses for Polaroid cameras, wish to take a ride in a steam locomotive, create the warm glow of lanterns in their homes, see a legitimate piece of history in a bottle and vouch for an authentic feeling for vinyl records. Whatever, I’m glad I succeeded in getting this bulky beauty talked and written about.

Who wouldn’t want to experience this tangible thing! To type a story on a machine that punches a paper with ink and metal with only a forward, all of us must slow down, think and re-think. This is one better way to realize our life is a blank page and time flows forward.

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