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Nostalgia: Telegraph is past, are typewriters on extinction path too?

by Mahesh Vijapurkar  Jul 15, 2013 16:50 IST

#India   #JustSaying   #Russia   #Telegram   #Typewriter  

Yesterday, the telegraph died after 160 years of usefulness.

A few months ago, I had thought that even the typewriters have gone for good.

There were good reasons for this assumption.

One got to see them in Indian movies, where especially small courts in smaller towns had to be shown. But even there, unless power-cuts are a serious inhibition, the off-screen scene has changed. The job-work typists, who swiftly type out affidavits for lawyers either in a hurry or without offices, have switched to computers and printers.

A man works on a typewriter in India. AFP.

A man works on a typewriter in India. AFP.

One day, struck by a sudden bout of nostalgia for the typewriter I had used for years to bang out stories for The Hindu, I put in a request for it to keep. The cream coloured, Brother, Delux 760 TR model, was not easy to be found.

Old colleagues hunted for it from the store room but in vain. But it suddenly popped out of a cupboard. Even the accountants had not missed it when checking the inventories. In these days of fast computers and other means of writing, who would have bothered about a typewriter in an office where everyone had a computer?

That’s when it had struck me the typewriters were indeed history.

It was so natty, and slim, that once at an airport a senior IAS official had asked me if it was a laptop. They were talked about as they were barely in use in India; and there was some awe in the voice of the man. It had served well for years on end, never needing repairs despite being delicate.

To those who are born in the computer age, or those with short memories, typewriters are those machines which have a keyboard like the computers and instead of a screen, had a roller into which a paper was slid.

When you banged on the keyboard – it was never a gentle tap as on computer keyboard – the mechanical arms each carrying a letter banged on the paper, and the intervening inked tape called a ribbon, impregnated it.

The electrical ones operated differently. Instead of a letter at the end of each arm, they were on a ball which spun and hit the desired character. They were smoother, the impressions clearer.

When it reached me, it was put on display on the centre- table for a few days. It remained unseen, in a manner of speech, and youngsters who now know about Morse code and teletype only because of the media narratives about the telegram, showed no interest.

Attempts to steer a conversation to it was ignored. If that typewriter had a life, it would have felt insulted. But as a class of machines, they can – I am sure they would, if they were not inanimate – be happy that a former big power, Russia, has decided to bring them back into use.

They are back in news. Almost every news outlet – print, television or portals made at least one mention of this former must-have for any office. The provocation was that Russia decided to bring them back so its secrets can remain on paper instead of floating around in cyberspace to be peeped into, as Edward Snowden did with the US secrets.

The Russians are willing to pay up to US$ 500 per machine, which is over twice the price at which one Indian manufacturer levied almost three years ago. The point is, Godrej & Boyce, their makers in India, had ceased making them in 2009.

The machines, such as those available, are being already in use, and according to a SkyNews report, they are dishing out the “drafts of some official documents and reports presented” to the Russian supremo, Vladimir Putin.

Apparently, it is a knee-jerk reaction, as explained in The Hindu. Typed documents can be stolen, photographed, and easier to access and contents even memorised. They are harder to store and vulnerable to fire.

If the sender wanted to remember what was sent out, a carbon copy is essential. That means two copies are available for snooping, the original and the copy. The offices may now need to stick up on paper shredders, whose numbers are now declining.

Most diplomatic and defence related communications world over has always been in code. During the two World Wars it involved someone encrypting a mail in code and someone else reading it in code. The writers and readers had their exclusive code books, locked away in secure safes.

But that is Russia’s headache. Maybe it would have to bar people with cell phones which almost universally have a camera on it, from being brought to work. It may have to create space for stocking the files while former stockrooms are being converted to workspaces because computers need a small chip to store several GB of information.

My headache is different. After nearly a decade-and-a-half of not being used, the twin-coloured ribbon of the old portable has dried up and it has been hard to source one. Friends have been asked to scout for one but only assurances have been received so far. If one moved a lever up on the side of the machine, it types in black; if shifted lower, in red.

If it was kept in between, it typed without using up ink on stencil papers which in turn were loaded on to cyclostyle machines for mass producing copies, if their numbers were not big enough to be printed in a press.

But cyclostyle? Sometime later, perhaps?