COLUMN: The typewriter is dead; we are not

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, May 8, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The typewriter is dead; we are not
By Aaron J. Brown

Artifact. This word conjures a dusty old object in a museum. The more imaginative among us might picture Indiana Jones running from a giant boulder to acquire that golden idol or sacred tablet. But, even then, artifacts eventually end up locked away, out of mind, stripped of meaning

The more accurate definition of the word artifact is an object that means something about people. If that old helmet from the Roman Empire is an artifact, so too is its modern counterpart lifted from the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan. Ancient ceramic pottery might be more valuable than, say, the latest gadget from Pampered Chef ™, but its meaning is the same. These are things we used. Their value in their time was intrinsic to their function.

In class I teach a scenario in which a volcano erupts out of one of our local mine pits instantly enveloping all of us in hot volcanic ash. Centuries later our robot-human-alien hybrid descendants will find us, and remnants of all our stuff. Those smart phones (somehow not melted) in our pockets must have been pretty important, and isn’t it interesting how no one under the age of 30 had a wristwatch?

The typewriter, an artifact important to the lives of those who lived in the 20th century – especially those of us who would become writers, has now reached its end. It goes down in history, next to the arrowheads and chamber pots of old. The last company in the world dedicated to the production of new typewriters closed its doors two weeks ago. Located in Mumbai, India, Godrej & Boyce shut down with about 200 new typewriters left in stock. I’d imagine those are gone now, snapped up by collectors quite possibly for museums.

Sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s I decided to be a writer after rustling an old typewriter from the closet of my childhood home nestled in the swamps south of the Mesabi iron formation. In retrospect I had to have been among the youngest people who could say they learned to type on a typewriter, at least without a trace of hipster irony. In high school I’d switch to computers. I’m writing this column on an iPad. And so it goes.

My favorite memory of typewriters isn’t even of the one we owned, but rather the row of new typewriters on display at the Kmart in Virginia, Minnesota. They would load the machines with paper and leave them out for customers to try. As a teenager I would sneak down the aisle and type funny phrases, proto-jokes, the faux existential musings of the typewriters themselves. It was my desperate hope that someone somewhere would read these notes and like them (me). An older girl on my school bus worked at the Kmart. One day, she told me that she heard I was the one who typed the funny things on the typewriters and that everyone liked them.

Everyone at the Kmart liked my work. I have yet to receive more timely encouragement in my writing career.

Today the kinds of things I used to write on the typewriters are produced by millions as Facebook status updates or tweets. I am one of those people. I have a clever thought and beam it out to my social network, hoping for a “like” or a retweet. Nostalgia merchants may lament this change, the narcissism and impermanence of it all. But the motivation to write has always been the same.

In “The Language of Crows,” Duluth poet Louis Jenkins remarks on a murder of crows squabbling over a piece of roadkill, each cawing sounds differentiated only by enthusiasm. He writes: “If you lie quietly in bed in the very early morning, in the half-light before time begins, and listen carefully, the language of crows is easy to understand. ‘Here I am.’ That’s really all there is to say and we say it again and again.”

With the era of typewriters behind us we cawing crows fly over to the internet. We leave behind the artifacts and, when we die, most words dissipate in the wind. But today, here we are. Here I am. I hope someone reads this. My fingers typed it quickly, tempered by the old bones of an ancient machine.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and college instructor from the Iron Range. His blog is and his book is “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”


  1. Great story. I learned to type on an actually typewriter too.


  2. A wonderfully evocative story, calling to mind images of typewriters past and the neighborhood K-Mart I remember as a kid. It sold living-room furniture, accessed by a staircase up to a second-story loft. I never went up there but dreamed about it from the ground floor, imagining it to be wildly glamorous.

  3. Great story, Aaron. My grandfather, who passed away last year, was a big fan of typewriters. He once told me, “You never know when yo may need a typewriter–not everything can be done electronically.” We recently cleaned out his house and discovered he had three electric typewriters and several replacement ribbon cartridges for each. He also had a manual typewriter, which I decided to keep because it reminded me of him (and frankly, because it’s a great conversation piece).

  4. I clunked out high-school papers on an IBM Selectric II. (In 1999.) I think it got tossed, but I’d like it back. Knowing this news, I’d pay to get it refurb’d.

    How will office workers neatly fill out triplicate forms in a few years, when their typewriters break?

  5. You type your columns on an iPad? Is it comfortable? I always assumed the lack of tactical feedback would cause a lot of mistakes, frustration, and discomfort.

  6. I have a Zagg bluetooth keyboard/iPad stand/case combo deal. I couldn’t type on the screen keyboard for the reasons you describe. Once you get used to the smaller keys, the bluetooth keyboard works very well. I almost immediately relegated my laptop to a device used only to do things involving Flash. Once the Apple lords kill flash, I could see using a future iPad incarnation for absolutely everything.

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