Already a generation of kids roll their eyes and shift into "Oh, Dad" mode when their elders drone on nostalgically about museum relics such as record players and dial telephones. Now add typewriters.
Smith Corona Corp., one of the last U.S. companies to make typewriters, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection yesterday after a long illness. The company suffered from personal computers.
Typewriters are not entirely gone, just as there are still a few LPs in the bins. But it's easier to pick up a manual typewriter at a kitschy 1950s retro shop in Adams-Morgan than it is to buy one new at Office Depot.
Remington, Underwood, Royal -- the great nameplates of the typing century are gone.
The death twitches began in the '70s: Typewriters became objects presumed to contain charm. People who typed were spoken of as though they were a bit slow but had a certain gift visible only to a special few. "He writes on a typewriter, you know," we might say of a novelist who did not particularly function in daily life.
The Unabomber uses a typewriter. It's a fringy kind of thing. It marks you as different. It's neo-Luddite.
It's getting tougher to find ribbons. And if you need repairs, forget it.
Jay Fowler is in the hospital. At 85, he finally stopped repairing typewriters two months ago. "I kept going until there were no more typewriters," he said yesterday. He'd been doing it since 1929. From a shop on North Courthouse Road in Arlington, Fowler could rebuild or revive any cranky old machine.
"A good typist was almost talking to the machine. There was a rhythm to it. You can't get that speed on the electronics that you can on a manual. Some of those secretaries on the Hill reached tremendous speed on tremendous machines. They could really make it talk."
Shortly before Fowler retired, a man came in from Mexico with his 1920 Remington. Fowler rebuilt it.
Soon no one will know how to do that. "The IBM men are still around, but they're going to disappear too," Fowler says.
Fowler owns only one machine. It's a Smith Corona. His son is a poet. He writes on a typewriter. "He likes the old ones," his father says.
Mostly the rebuilt machines are for collectors these days. Only a dedicated few still actually use them.
"People still come in with the old mechanical typewriters, and we cannibalize parts off old machines," says Jerry Wittenauer, sales director at Allen Business Machines in Clinton, Md. "The old Smith Coronas from the '60s and '70s, the machine was just engineered real well. They took pride in the workmanship. The touch on those was real good."
"It's mostly older people on fixed incomes who still bring them in," says Wittenauer's mother, Betty, the company president. "But I don't think people have emotional attachments to anything anymore, do you? They hold on to those typewriters because they don't know how to handle the new things."
People at the few remaining local business-machine repair shops almost unanimously say their best customers for manual typewriter repairs are retired newspaper reporters. Ouch.
If you'd read a typewritten version of this article, you might have seen a few letters -- capitals, most likely -- in an elevated half-impression, as if they were launching off the line. They would have communicated instantly that the words were typed in a hurry, that the writer was anything but a trained typist, and that he had a manual machine, probably one whose every stick and smudge he knew and compensated for instantly, automatically.
But what you see here is only a computer imitation that can't capture the idiosyncrasies of the fingers' fickle ways.
It's all gone. The word "platen" will no longer describe the black roller upon which the steel keys slammed, literally pushing the impression of the letter onto the page.
No one complained about repetitive stress injury on a typewriter. You had to adjust the paper, hit the return carriage, fix those stuck keys. Your motions varied.
Gone is the powdery white gook that got all over your hands when you slipped that little rectangle of Ko-Rec-Type behind the keys.
Save this fact: It was Michael Nesmith's mother who invented Liquid Paper. Nesmith played guitar in the Monkees. Liquid Paper is Wite-Out. Wite-Out is -- no, we're not telling. Some things are lost to history.
The typewriter has made a lasting contribution to civilization: The QWERTY keyboard, the highly inefficient arrangement of letters created in the 19th century for typewriters, survives in the digital age. It is an example of what economists call the networking effect -- it doesn't work very well, but in the interests of standardization, it remains. No competing scheme has ever had the power to oust it.
And another relic of the typing era: Computer techies say the key that gets worn down the fastest on many computers is the Enter key, a holdover from those generations of former typists who still slam Return/Enter as a form of emotional punctuation when they finish a good sentence.
That grand physical flourish carries none of the danger it once did: No one will ever know how many cups of coffee went flying when the carriage on electric typewriters went shooting back to the right. No one can ever count the ruined manuscripts, the burned fingers, the shattered vases.
Today the typewriter is to writing what the adding machine is to computation -- a story to tell the kids. You can still buy an IBM Selectric, but it's not made by IBM. The company long ago saw the ribbon fraying and spun off something called Lexmark International, which manages its shrinking but still profitable business in Lexington, Ky.
In many ways, the story of Smith Corona is the story of the American economy over the past two decades. (Smith Corona isn't even an American company anymore: It's British-owned and makes its machines in Asia. Only a handful of its 3,000 employees are in the United States, most at a small headquarters in New Canaan, Conn.)
In the 1980s, Smith Corona saw its dominance in the market for portable electric typewriters gradually erode as the company was bought by foreign investors, its technology overtaken and its market share stolen by cheaper Asian imports.
As late as the mid-1980s, typewriting was still a $1.6 billion industry, including millions of portables, manuals, electrics and electronic machines. Smith Corona dominated the market for portable electrics, which it pioneered in 1957. But just as sales of manual typewriters began giving way to electrics in the early 1960s, electric typewriters reached their zenith in 1978, when electronic memory typewriters and later the personal computer began to nudge them into gradual obsolescence.
Typewriter companies tried to keep up. They went to word processors. Smith Corona hired an executive from the space program and put big money into a sonar-based typewriter -- you hit the key and a tone was transmitted to a daisy wheel that printed the letter. But the '70s were nearly over by then. It was too late.
"Typewriters had portability," says Bill Baxter, a former Smith Corona salesman who now runs the Prince George's County Board of Trade. "With a laptop, you still need a printer. But everything's electronic now. There's no room for that kind of personality that a typewriter had."
Smith Corona for many years was the students' standard, the ritual high school graduation gift. "They had excellent products, they had name recognition, and I'd be sorry to see them go," said Frank Fonteyn, an official with the Business Technology Association in Kansas City, Mo. "But the fact is that the typewriter is definitely yesterday's breadwinner."
The Business Technology Association itself may tell the tale. Until last year, the Kansas City group was known as the National Office Machine Dealers Association, but even that was a recent moniker. The group actually dates to 1926, when it opened for business as the National Association of Typewriter Dealers.
Even the Soviet Bloc understood that typewriters were yesterday's technology. In the colossal going-out-of-business sale after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, one Eastern European government after another filled warehouses and high school gymnasiums with thousands upon thousands of typewriters, trying to unload the past for about $2 a machine.
The sales lasted for months. People snapped up the framed portraits of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker. But the typewriters just sat there. Staff writer Steven Pearlstein contributed to this report. CAPTION: Typewriters: Fading into a double- spaced, carbon-papered past.