/ Technology

End of the line: the typewriter takes a bow

Close up photo of a typewriter's keys

The UK’s last typewriter has come off the production line, made by Brother. Production is no longer economically viable. Does the typewriter’s demise stir up any Tipp-Ex-scented nostalgia?

I’m not alone in attaching certain romantic connotations to the typewriter. It’s easy to view the BC (before computers) era in rose-tinted tones.

These machines – the early models in particular – conjure up a vision of beauty for many.

Typewriters in popular culture – and women’s emancipation

And it’s not just the mechanical qualities. The noise of the typewriter is also cemented in popular culture, with that distinct clacking sound and the ‘ping’ at the end of the line! For me, it always drums up scenes of ‘proper’ writers and ‘serious’ journalism – think All the President’s Men and James Caan in Misery. I can’t hear the theme tune to Murder, She Wrote without seeing Angela Lansbury’s fingers moving across her typewriter, spelling out the name of the show in that classic font.

But the typewriter – invented in the 1860s – also had a more profound role in society. It has been directly linked with the emancipation of women through bringing them into the workforce as typists.

Which? typewriter tests

Old photograph of woman using a typewriter outdoorsWhich? tested typewriters until computers took over in the 1990s, and it seems there were quite large differences between the different models on sale. Which? staff members must have had a keen interest in the results too, as they had to use the machines for their daily work.

A ‘portable typewriters’ article from the June 1968 issue of Which? magazine advises readers to ‘type at least half a dozen full length lines, in small letters and capitals, before deciding to buy.’ And to ‘inspect the line of writing critically to make sure that it is evenly spaced, and that letters are clearly formed. (Exacting consumers use a magnifying glass for this inspection.)’

Our tests utilised 15 professional typists and 15 amateurs. By the 1970s a specially designed ‘rig’ that typed automatically had also come in to play. ‘On this rig we typed about three million letters – more than there are in War and Peace’, a 1973 article stated.

Some machines had an ‘erasure table’ or ‘platform over the roller’,which gave you a solid base on which to blot out mistakes with correction fluid – surely the most irritating aspect of using a typewriter?

Gone but not forgotten

Brother’s final typewriter is being donated to London’s Science Museum for posterity. Retro fiends may keep an eye out for old Olivettis or Underwoods on eBay, but it’s fair to say that, despite their nostalgic appeal, most of us wouldn’t even contemplate exchanging our laptops for the typewriters of yesteryear.

What are your memories of using typewriters? Is there anything you miss about them?


Typewriters bring back lots of memories. Despite being of the computer generation, I was still just young enough that we didn’t have a computer in our house until I was about 12, and then I rarely got to use it because my Mum was studying or my brother and sister playing computer games. Instead, I had a fabulous electronic typewriter which my Gran gave me, as she didn’t need it any more. One summer holiday I spent the entire six weeks shut in my room writing what I thought was a novel. Reading it today it was more like ‘a pile of rubbish’ but still – I loved that typewriter, and that six weeks spent on it taught me to speed-type pretty effectively! There’s also something incredibly satisfying about hearing a big loud ‘clack’ when you press a key (mine had two settings – one where it would type in time and one where you could store a certain amount of text and it would print the whole line when you reached the end). I wonder if, these days, you can get a ‘typewriter app’ for tablets and phones, that will emit the ‘clack’ sound every time you press a key =)

I bought myself a Smith Corona electric portable typewriter in the 1970s and soon taught myself to touch type with the help of a 50p paperback. That made it very easy to type on computer keyboards such as an RM 380Z and a BBC B, and I could even do a passable effort at touch typing on a Sinclair Spectrum with rubber keys.

I am very surprised that we still have the QWERTY keyboard, which is reputed to have been developed to slow down typists so that typewriter typebars do not jam.

I remember using an IBM Executive typewriter in the 1970s. Unlike other contemporary typewriters it would do proportional spaced text, which seemed incredibly clever at the time.

Then there were golf ball typewriters, allowing a choice of fonts and finally daisy wheel printers that would produce characters that are more sharply defined than any laser printer I have seen.

Perhaps the most impressive invention was the introduction of lift-off tape to remove mistakes, because even the best typist makes mistakes. Since I was not a perfect typist, moving to a computer was a logical step.

Electric typewriters are easy to touch-type on but I have a lot of respect for those who mastered the skill on a mechanical typewriters, where the keys must be depressed much further.

In the Seventies I wrote a dissertation in lieu
of an examined paper, I hope the typist whom
I commissioned to type will forgive me for
being meticulous as to her punctuation marks
that I insisted she redo it spot on the way I wanted
it to be….. seems to be harsh on her that I
apologise, come to think of it, it was strictly
not absolutely necessary; yes, it took quite a
bit of time redoing it, God bless her.

I commissioned a departmental secretary to type my PhD thesis in her spare time, on her IBM Executive typewriter. Because the weather was good, she went to the Lake District and left a friend to do the job. It was full of errors and I had to get many pages re-typed, some of them twice. The external examiner spotted the one remaining typo.

After that experience I bought a typewriter so that all mistakes would be my own in future.

This takes me back to the days of quarto and foolscap paper, red & black typewriter ribbons, carbon paper, the messy correcting fluid to use on the waxy stencils for the Gestetner or Roneo duplicators, and – in the days before Snopake or Tippex – the hard erasers to make corrections to typing on paper [remembering to put some scraps of paper between the carbon paper and any flimsy paper copies being made to prevent a dreadful smudge on the copies]. Where I worked the typists and secretaries were unbelievably competent, producing page after page of text with nary a fault to be found and setting out tabular work and legal documents on brief-sized machines with a wide platten [bigger than A3!]. I wonder if there are any typewriter repair men left nowadays – they were an essential service in every district as the keys jammed, the shift stopped shifting, or the carriage flew off to the right and landed in the waste paper basket. There was even a radio programme that had a signature ‘tune’ featuring the sound of a typewriter being given a good workout with each phrase ending with the “ding” of the bell marking the approach of the end of a line [five characters left].

Phil says:
7 December 2012

Who else remembers this? (Fast forward through the bit at the start.)


Wouldn’t be the same done on a laptop.