Last week saw the publication of a coffee table book that documents the lingering presence in India of the typewriter. It is published by Godrej&Boyce, the company that made the first indigenous typewriter in 1955 and continued to manufacture it at its plant in Vikhroli, Mumbai till 2009. The made-in-India typewriter competed with global brand names like Remington, Imperial and Underwood. First threatened by the electric typewriter from IBM and then in the 1990s by the personal computer, the manual typewriter's last home was India. Indeed many can be still seen clattering away outside courts and registry offices, where 'writers' will type out an affidavit on stamp paper the old fashioned way.
The book ("With Great Truth And Regard—The Story Of The Typewriter In India", Edited by Sidharth Bhatia, distributed by Roli Books, 304 pages, Rs 2,500, December 2016) is a collection of articles with priceless photographs by Chirodeep Chaudhari, who in his main job is photo editor at National Geographic India.
When Godrej finally closed its typewriter plant in 2011, it had unsold inventory of some 500 units, mostly Arabic keyboard machines. In its heydays, the 60 year old plant made 50,000 typewriters a year, a third of all typewriters sold in India. The other brand that manufactured in India– Remington—stopped more than a decade earlier.
The first commercially successful typewriter was the Sholes, named after its American co-inventor Latham Sholes. The makers sold the patent to Remington for $ 12,000 who began sales in 1873. It had the famous QWERTY keyboard – which lives on, the de facto keyboard standard of the personal computer. The word 'typewriter' is said to be the longest English word that can be typed using only one row of keys of a QWERTY keyboard.
In 1953 the American composer Leroy Anderson, paid his tribute to the typewriter in a one minute 50 second orchestral composition entitled –The Typewriter. In his 1963 film “ Whose Minding the Store” comedian Jerry Lewis mimics the action of a typist in an adjoining office cubicle – to Anderson’s music.
You can view the video clip of this nostalgic salute to a great instrument here.
The computer keyboard too has evolved. If, like me, you are old enough to have used the manual typewriter, you will long for the satisfying thump and tactile feed of its keyboard. This became extinct around 1990, when computer keyboards reduced cost ( and sacrificed durability!) by introducing a model based on plastic membranes. Press a key and a rubber domed switch pushed through a hole to connect top and bottom membranes to complete the circuit. All very smooth and silent but you never got the reassuring feel of pressing a real mechanical key. I spoiled many keyboards in the late nineties, bashing them with the pressure that became second nature to me after years of using manual typewriters since 1975. That was when I purchased my first typewriter—an Imperial Safari. I was a student in the UK and the cost of getting my MSc thesis typed exceeded the cost of a new typewriter—so I bought one.
Now it seems a move is underway to revive the solid mechanical keyboard of the early days of computing. Pressing a key, presses an actual physical key underneath—and results in an audible click and feel. And these mechanical switches are much more durable than the flimsy silicone membranes—so typically a mechanical keyboard is good for some 10 million, rather than 3-4 million key strokes of your vanilla keyboard.
Notwithstanding this retro salute to the mechanical, the Zebronics Max keyboard, which I have been using for a week now, adds some new features: the keys are backlit with different coloured LEDs, one for each row, You can adjust the intensity of the lights or turn them altogether. How is a well kept secret and not easily figured out, since there is no instruction sheet. Press Function Key at the bottom of the keyboard with the ESC key to turn all lights on or off. Press Function key with up or down arrow keys to adjust brightness. Press Function key with left or right arrow keysT to change light mode. The function keys have some useful additional controls—mostly pertaining to the multimedia player.
The keyboard is mounted on a sturdy metal body with good rubber grips—the whole thing weighs just over 1 kg. At Rs 2424, the Max is costlier than the standard computer keyboard. but for power typists, it will be money well spent. And gamers too will appreciate its solid qualities.