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The Last of the Typewriter Men (medium.com)
58 points by balbaugh on Feb 21, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 29 comments

I restore old Teletype machines as a hobby. Only WWII and earlier machines, ones that are much older than I am. The oldest machine I have is from 1926, and it's fully restored. It's currently in my living room, hooked to a Reuters RSS feed via a USB to Teletype converter I built and an old EeePC subnotebook hidden away in a cabinet. Push the button and the current news prints on a long paper tape.

A completed project: http://www.aetherltd.com/refurbishing15.html

A project in progress: http://brassgoggles.co.uk/forum/index.php/topic,43672.0.html

There's a hobbyist community restoring these machines, and full maintenance documentation is available. Restoring them isn't too tough. They were designed to be maintainable. The guys who try to restore minicomputer Teletypes from the 1970s have more trouble than those of us restoriong the 1920s and 1930s designs.

You, sir, are a badass.

I was thinking of giving my very young son my EeePC 701 when he is a little older, now I might change my mind.

Wish I were so advanced, I play around mostly with electric fans from the 10s and 20s (19xx). My favorite is an Emerson six bladed wonder I found off ebay; a great source of restored and those needing restoration. Daily searches of ebay nets me parts and fans merely needing cleaning though I have one in the garage that makes me want to scream at times.

A couple weeks ago, I had some paperwork to do at a county Recorder's office. As I'm standing there writing, I heard the rough sound of gears turning 3 times, and a chunk-chunk-chunk. Sounds at once both familiar yet distant in memory. Sounds which were so common yesterday--if yesterday was 20 years ago--now almost shocking to hear.Without looking, I knew an IBM Selectric was being used to fill out a form.

I stopped writing and just listened for a bit, letting the keystrokes, the ball strikes, and the platen and roller movements take me back in time.

I really like this comment.

If you don't mind, can you expand more? What do you associate typewriters with? How do you feel about their passage?

Offices: mostly Olympia mechanical desk typewriters with a solid and fairly quiet sound, some IBM Selectric(?) machines. Not continuous (I was a messenger and went from office to office) and the work was often typing into preprinted forms (bills of lading and telegraphic transfers for shipping cargo). Small rooms. You tended to have partitions in offices to isolate sound of typewriters (or may be just historical coincidence that the transition to open plan occurred around the same time as electrics/PCs came in).

Typing rhythm: my mother recovering from a stroke (early 40s) relearning typing on an ancient manual at home. The rhythm slowly getting more fluid as her speed increased and the hands synchronised.

How do I feel? Neutral. They just phased out into electric machines then early word-processors (Wangs with those printers in blimps to cut the noise down) then to regular PCs and some Macs for designers. I wasn't in offices too much during the transition phase, and I am not a trained typist. The sound of a manual typewriter links me back to early memories really quickly because of its rarity now.


I associate typewriters with a different era, which really wasn't that long ago. An era where we weren't (all) slaves to our work. You worked hard during the day, and went home to a life at night or on weekends. And by life, I mean getting away from work and anything to do with it.

Today--with laptops, tablets, smartphones--that's nearly impossible. And not just for technologists either; business people are just as bad.

It's not regret to see the passage of typewriters, but of the era they represent.

The subtitle is a bit odd: "A dynasty of repairmen is keeping the world’s typewriters from going obsolete"

There isn't much doubt they've already gone obsolete. They're preventing them from going extinct.

> From the 1920s to the 1950s, steel reigned.

Fun side fact: Straight razors are much the same way. Take a look at the sheer amount of material on an 1850's Wade & Butcher[0] vs. a more modern example[1]. I'd love to see some other examples of this.

[0] https://www.flickr.com/photos/104820964@N07/11037188944/

[1] https://www.flickr.com/photos/mriney/5683505146

Planes come to mind.

Basically, back in the age of the slide ruler, engineers "overcompensated" in durability. This is why older planes are much heavier (so more inefficient and costly to run) but also last forever.

PS: Not to crap on the structural engineering of more modern planes, don't get me wrong! Check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ai2HmvAXcU0

My dad did some consulting for the London Underground on the Power side a few years back and he commented that the stuff built in the 30's was more reliable than the 70's era.

There is a fellow in Los Altos doing this sort of work http://www.losaltosbusinessmachines.com/. He sold me a gutted typewriter for 10 bucks that I am turning into an xy plotter based typewriter. He had a few selectrics sitting around but no apl golf balls for sale.

This is interesting. I've been considering purchasing a typewriter but I fear the "clackity-clack" sounds would annoy my SO. I've heard of the noiseless variety but upon some YouTube viewing, it doesn't seem they're actually silent. This, in turn, has led me to consider an electric one.

On a side note, while attempting to solve a -50 error on iTunes, Apple Support told me "Apple does not support vintage or obsolete products." I have an original MBA (2008)... http://i.imgur.com/UR7HsZp.png

"One benefit of being the last one standing is that when competitors close, Schweitzer won much of their business, he says." --quote from OA

I have noticed this with electric organs (Hammond &c), (mechanical) pianos, film camera repair, vintage car maintenance. Legacy tech has a business model associated with it based on longevity! A few can consolidate and eke out the remaining volume aided by the discover-ability the Internet provides. Nice.

The typewriter lives on in spirit in our monospaced fonts, and our ASCII programming languages that can still be comfortably written on a typewriter from 1960.

I had a classmate in 1969 who told me that his father's career was repairing old typewriters. He was Egyptian, had developed this skill post-WW2, and there we were in the late 1960s. We lived in a middle class/upper middle class area -- the "poor" part of Beverly Hills -- so I guess he did well.

Nice article!

I use an electric typewriter. Nothing beats it for creative writing: no app or digital device comes close to a blank sheet of paper and silence.

I found a store like this once in Toronto. An "office machines" shop tucked away in a small corner of the city. It's really quite a trip.

> I use an electric typewriter. Nothing beats it for creative writing

There's another use case for typewriters that computer still aren't very good at: filling out forms. I haven't bought one yet but I can definitely see why some companies still use them to fill out pre-printed forms.

I grew up with word processors, but I still kept an electric typewriter handy for filling out paper forms. It was a pain to align the print head with fields on paper, and erasing was a chore if I had to go back than the machine's 5 word buffer would allow. But it still looked better than my handwriting would have.

I kinda miss having it around. But on the plus side, my handwriting's a lot better these days -- and most forms come in PDF format now, anyway.

Form Field PDF's, when made available, are pretty slick.


And the problem’s not only technical—it’s only been recently that companies have started accepting digitally filled & signed forms.

Can you remember the name of the store? Sounds like a great place to check out.

Gramercy Typewriter. I just had a 1920's Underwood refurbished there. Tiny, tiny place on the fourth floor of a nondescript building across the street from the flatiron building.

There's really not much to check out, but they really love to talk typewriters.

Edit: Oops. realized you were talking about store in Toronto. Oh well.

Quickly addressing an envelope is another thing I still use them for.

I feel the same way. It's why I use pen & paper.

The title photo is cool. I like how he stows his LaserJet where other people might stow an old typewriter that they will probably never use again.

The article says half his revenue comes from printer repairs and if you go to their website it prominently features being HP certified for repairing LaserJet printers.


I learnt to type on a typewriter the school district gave me one at 7 or 8 when I was diagnosed with dyslexia.

It's a shame. It's kind of a nice feelgood story, but unfortunately it's ruined by also being an ad. I find people trying to advertise to me ruins most things.

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