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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Ode to Typewriter; of Typing Institutes.... and Austin Burt....

Do you know or heard of William Austin Burt, an American inventor, legislator, surveyor and more… who invented the first workable solar compass… more of him because he turned our lives…..

This morning received an e-mail which had spelling mistakes, not properly formatted and not at all in a presentable format…. More than exhibiting how people are indifferent….. it took me few decades back… when Godrej, Facit, Remington and Underwood were household names and when Tripicane streets were dotted with Srinivas, Padmavathi, Sarathi, Shivish Halda, Ganesh ………… and more …. .. ..the learning courses were usually of an hour duration… the last 10 minutes, if you are to enter the hall, you might be frightened with the silence that precedes typical sound – keyboards pressed, cylinders moving, carriages returned,  occasional paper change… people with total concentration seeing printed matter placed on their side and deftly moving their fingers.


It was the backbone of every office; you can see them sitting in front of Courts; Registrar offices ~ and all important places where documents were the key…. From marriage certificates – to divorces; property registration and every other service were documented neatly…. Mostly without mistakes by lowly paid people.  In case you are wondering what this is all about… it is typewriters, typists and typewriting institutes…


I learnt Typewriting at ‘Srinivas College of Commerce’, ~ 27 Car Street, Triplicane, Chennai 600005  and later honed my ‘Shorthand skills’ also there.  This Institution shaped the career of many Triplicaniites and ensured livelihood to many more… really great service by Mr MA Srinivasan and the batch of vivacious tutors who raised the confidence level of the youngsters that they sure would get a good job.  In early 1980s it bustled with activity ~ institutes would open at 6 am and would close by 9 pm with break from 12 noon to 4 pm….. at Srinivas there were 70 odd typewriters and in every batch there would be so many girls and boys……….. at street corners some groups would stand waiting to watch those going to typewriting institutes with couple of sheets rolled in their hands… and inside the institutes also developed the love-stories of some…

It was not meant to be place of romance, though it provided much for many……. Imagine adolescent girls and boys mingling at a place at a time when you had less of TV entertainment and practically no social media…. The typewriting Institutes provided regular stream of typists to all offices – be it small or big……. In fact Srinivas Institute was an ‘Employment Exchange’ by itself…. … the students upon graduation would sure get a job in one of the offices – would become close to indispensable – remember those days were the days of typed correspondence – letters – interoffice memos; invoices and more all got typed and were being dispatched by post…  once they were to leave for better pastures, their office would seek for a replacement – they would come to the typewriting institutes where they learnt the skills, pick up a smart upcoming person, take them to their office as a replacement…………..

and the cycle would go on.. providing employment opportunities for hundreds regularly….. life was so sweet and uncomplicated.  Parrys Corner housed thousands of offices and in each office there would be so many clerks, typists and stenographers – all typing documents speedily without mistakes…………..

There were many good typists who could churn out error-free documents – neatly typed on a typewriter ; remember typewriter has no correcting mechanism and a mistake made would remain to be seen by all….. yet there were quality typists who could type big statements- multi-pages, which would then be pasted together … quite an achievement indeed. 

William Austin Burt (1792 – 1858) was an  American inventor, legislator, surveyor, and millwright. He was the inventor, maker and patentee of the first typewriter constructed in America.  Burt also invented the first workable solar compass, a solar use surveying instrument, and theequatorial sextant, a precision navigational aid to determine with one observation the location of a ship at sea.   Burt  had a troubled childhood living in poverty.   His typographer of 1829 is considered a precursor to the modern day typewriter. 

Austin Burt, the great grandson of the inventor, built a working model for the 1893 Chicago's World's Fair working from a parchment copy of the original patent (No. 5581X). The replica built by Austin was returned to the model room of the Patent Office in Washington D.C. when the Chicago's World's Fair closed. There it remained until 1903 when the Patent Office model room was closed. The "typographer" was then shipped in 1903 to Hiram A. Burt of Marquette, Michigan. Burt searched far and wide for an appropriate name for his invention, but reluctantly settled with "typographer" which ultimately became "typewriter." It consisted of a wooden box and at one end there was a swinging lever for impressing. The typeface letters were mounted on a short sector attached on the underside of the lever. Pressing down with pressure imprinted the letter selected on the paper. When a page was full it was torn off like a paper towel, as the paper was on a large continuous roll. One could print both upper and lower case letters.

The first writing machine Burt built did not live up to his expectation, so there came improved versions which still were not up to the mark. The improvements were mostly in looks and appearance for marketing the machine to investors. While Burt's typographer generated a lot of interest and did a very good job of typing clear and neat letters it did not become a commercial success. The typographer was "born out of season" and was before its time, so no market was found for his typewriter or the patent in his lifetime.  Those days, it was ridiculed for being slower than writing by hand……….. 

This great invention rose to become one of the most indispensable tools of documentation and paved way for employment opportunities and for many other ancillary industries as – typewriter ribbon manufacturing; carbon papers for taking more copies, typewriter mechanics, cleaners  etc.,  ‘good things too come to an end’….  Quoting Alfred Lord Tennyson in Morte D’ Arthur ………. “old order changeth yielding place to new And God fulfills himself in many ways; Lest one good custom should corrupt the world” …… what was the backbone of all offices slowly started losing its sheen and significance in the late 1980s and later with electronic typewriters, word processors and then computers … in the age of templates and e-documents, the relevance and significance of typewriters will never be understood and it has now faded into oblivion….

The makers of typewriters also are no longer in business… due to falling sales, IBM sold its typewriter division in 1990 to Lexmark, completely exiting from a market it once dominated. As of 2009, typewriters were still used by some government agencies in the US. In November 2012, Brother's UK factory manufactured what it claimed to be the last typewriter ever made in the UK; the typewriter was donated to the London Science Museum.

In India, Godrej reportedly stopped production in 2009 ~ the last pieces were sold around Rs.12000/- approx…. When the company started making typewriters, the whole nation considered it the first step to an industrialised India. During its golden age in the 1990s, the company used to produce 50,000 machines every year, while the total output in India was about 150,000. When the company started its operations in the 1950s, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru mentioned typewriters as a symbol of independent and industrialised India. Once Godrej stopped its production in 2009, its typewriter plant at Shirwal, in Pune, morphed into a refrigerator manufacturing unit.  In its hey days,  Godrej exported typewriters to Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Angola, Mozambique and Morocco. Interestingly, the market for used typewriters remains vibrant…. 


The increasing dominance of personal computers, desktop publishing, the introduction of low-cost, truly high-quality, laser and inkjet printer technologies, and the pervasive use of web publishing, e-mail and other electronic communication techniques have killed that old useful machine used by millions ~ typewriter is almost ‘no more’ – though I could see a batch of young people at Srinivas Institute kindling my memories of days 3 decades ago when I was among the sprightly youngsters with papers on hand and dream in mind…. !!!

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
23rd July 2013


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