The last typewriter to be made in the UK this week trundled off the assembly line at Brother’s North Wales factory. It was the end of an era that was over years ago, some of us just didn’t want to admit it, because those heavy, noisy, cumbersome machines were part of our own history.
As a cub reporter, I earned hardly enough to keep me in beer and cigarettes, which is just as well, as I didn’t drink beer and never smoked. Even so, I had to sacrifice any number of Cornish pasty butties slavered in brown sauce to scrape together the £40 it cost me for a second-hand portable Remington Quiet-riter from the always-reputable Honest Dan’s (something for everyone, no questions asked) in Batley. Dan himself told me the precision machine was good-as-new as the Sun reporter who had previously owned it couldn’t string a sentence together. Some things don’t change, eh?
The Remington was anything but portable or quiet. I’m convinced my right arm is ten centimetres longer than the left from hefting it to and from my digs in Darlington, where I did my training. The tap tap tap of my machine joined tapping from all my fellow trainees as we hammered out stories to deadlines real and pretend.
In the office, a converted house sinking in its foundations, unused to the weight of so many machines, there was a cacophony as we hit the keys, sounded the bell at the end of each line and pushed the carriage return, pulling out the completed copy with a flourish. On a Wednesday afternoon, after the newspaper had been put to bed, we entertained ourselves by composing typewriter symphonies, first clattering the keys, then letting out imaginations take over, with one playing the squeaky door, another getting a tune out of the cast iron radiator with a wooden ruler and the piece de resistance from Smiffy who belched the chorus of Zippity Do Da. Oh how we laughed.
I loved my Remington, it was businesslike, solid and dependable, and old when I got it, maybe I should describe it as classic. The two fingers I use to type flew around the keyboard, though much force had to be used to get the letters to hit the paper. It offered the basics. Type, backspace, tab. It had neither a number one nor a zero, instead I had to use the lower-case l and capital O, they did the job just fine. Sometimes, when my mind’s drifting, I forget I have a lightweight, quiet, multi-font machine at my fingertips capable of squeezing any amount of text into any space and use the l and O just for old times sake. It feels good.
In the same week as we said goodbye to the typewriter, we said hello again to a computer which was dismantled more than 40 years ago. The Harwell Dekatron was one of those wonderful glowing valve and multi-switch giants that spoke through punched paper and tape. I cannot do justice to the geekery involved except to say it was very clever for its time, 1951, became less clever and obsolete by 1957, though was still used in 1973 (you couldn’t say that about an Apple Mac) before it was dismantled. Enthusiasts found most of the bits and bobs and re-assembled it, much to the delight of computer geeks everywhere. It’s now at Bletchley Park, ironically a place I now work near. Noel tells me I must definitely go see it when I’m down there as it operates in base ten. Well, there’s a sight for sore eyes, I’m on my way…!
Maybe in years to come and we’ve used up all the electricity in the world, someone will re-assemble typewriters. I’ve certainly no plans to get rid of mine.