No carriage return for the Jurassic typewriter


New technology may be in trouble, but old technology is doing even worse. A few blocks from Wall Street, Peter Tytell (55), of the Tytell Typewriter and Questioned Document company, is preparing to close down the famous typewriter repair and rental business his father Martin started over half a century ago. Mr Tytell senior, who made or repaired machines for prominent Americans like President Eisenhower and testified about a typewritten document in the 1950 Alger Hiss spy trial, has retired at the age of 87.

Just a decade ago he was able to say: "We're getting more work than we can handle." Today there are rarely any callers. What was once a sort of typewriter-salon at 116 Fulton Street, where writers like Dorothy Parker and David Brinkley hung out while their portables were fixed, is now a quiet shrine, a museum to a vital component of world commerce for most of the last century.

There are no buyers for the Underwoods, Royals, Imperials, Blickensderfers, Smith Coronas, Olivettis and Remingtons stacked high on shelves, along with repair manuals and specialist textbooks. Nor is there any business use for the two million typefaces in 145 languages, from Gaelic to Sanscrit, the largest collection in the world, or the Selectric "golf" balls, keys, cogs, screws, rollers and assorted tools crammed into metal cabinets and desk drawers.

"The last time someone brought in a typewriter for repair was February of last year," said Peter Tytell, who loves the machines and is an authority on the history of typewriters which, he says, dates back to the first patent for a "writing machine" granted by England's Queen Anne in 1714.

Walking round the narrow passageways of the store, he pointed out old Underwoods with movements "as smooth as silk", and special machines with long carriages "like coastal defence batteries" which brokerage firms hired out every December to type up their year-end accounts.

He remembers Harrison Salisbury, the journalist who accompanied Mao on the Long March, coming in to have his machine repaired. "He became a friend of my father," he said. "Salisbury had a cheap portable but he was in love with it. He lugged it all over the world and wrote great huge books on it."

The business licence, hanging by the door, expires on July 31st. "That will be it," said Peter Tytell sadly. Much of the stock will probably be dumped. A few offices kept manual typewriters to address envelopes, and some Luddites simply liked to stick to what they are familiar with. "But the new generation does not know what a typewriter is."

Some machines, such as the Underwoods, have become collectibles. "It has reached the stage where they have a certain snob appeal," he said. "They are `quaint', like the stuff your grandmother was so happy to get rid of, and now fetch top dollar."

The end for the typewriter industry in the United States came last year when America's last old technology company, Smith Corona, filed for bankruptcy. It still sells a range of modern typewriters - from the Portable Manual Pica to the PowerWordMD with memory and spell-check - but its shares trade at one-twentieth of a US cent on the stock market.

Peter Tytell is busy transforming his premises into offices for the successful document investigation service started by his mother Pearl (83). Among the standard reference books on the shelves is a rare copy of Forged, Anonymous and Suspect Documents by Captain Arthur J Quirke, handwriting analyst of the Irish Free State, with foreward by John A Costello.

He will retain some of the machines as an archive, and for investigating the origin and authorship of disputed documents. "Typists and typewriters have characteristics that identify them," he said, "for example a trained typist will leave two spaces after a period, and indent five for a paragraph."

His favourite success story concerns a set of documents submitted by the Qatar government to the International Court of Justice in the Hague in a dispute with Bahrain over possession of islands in a stretch of oil-bearing ocean. He was called in as an expert and was able to establish that the "Royal Seal" on the "century-old" papers dated back only to 1956.

Typewriters are still in demand only in those parts of the world where PCs and electricity are in short supply. In India, for example, Godrej & Boyce still produces typewriters in 30 languages.

Still, the energy crisis with its rolling blackouts on the west coast of the United States has shown that old technology should never be totally written off, even in places like Silicon Valley. "In California they really ought to have more typewriters," said Peter Tytell, almost wistfully. "At least they are blackout-proof."