The typewriter, unlike the buggy whip, still being bought, used and treasured


Louise Chandler has been using typewriters since before they came with a "1" key. That was in 1960, when the new typewriters of the day featured an electric motor and all 10 digits.

In those days, Chandler spent up to four hours a day in front of her typewriter. Today, if Chandler, a secretary in the Student Life office at the University of Texas at Dallas, works on the office's typewriter for more than 30 minutes, she's put it to heavy use.

"I'd say I use it from 20 to 30 minutes a day at peak use. It kind of depends on what I'm doing that day," she says. "I rarely use it for memos anymore. I use it for deposit slips or if I have a couple of envelopes to address.

"Before everything went to computer, I might do 50 percent of my work on a typewriter. Now maybe 10 percent of the stuff I do is done on them. But when I need it, I'm glad it's there."

In a world of word-processing software and laser printers, the typewriter continues to find its niche, refusing to go the way of the buggy whip or vacuum tube.

Typewriter makers no longer make as many units, but sales are steady, manufacturers say.

Companies, schools and other businesses and charitable organizations still have needs for the venerable machines, which have come a long way from the nonelectric "writing machines" of the early 20th century.

Many users have discovered they just can't live without typewriters, even though many people born during the last two decades have never used one - or can recognize one, for that matter.

And with the gadgets that future machines are likely to incorporate, the typewriter could become one of the most advanced pieces of technology in the modern office.

From collectors items to workplace necessities, typewriters are defying extinction.

For Chandler, the typewriter has a very specific role to play.

"There are still a lot of forms that aren't available to us on computer. So they must go in the typewriter. That's mostly what I use mine for," she says. "A lot of our students come in and use it to fill out their forms. And it's especially good for addressing envelopes or making labels. I use my computer whenever I have to write something. But when I need to fill something out, I reach for the typewriter."

It's employees such as Chandler whom typewriter manufacturers are trying to reach. According to industry estimates, typewriter sales have stabilized over the past five years after yearly sales losses of about 25 percent in the early 1990s, when word-processing software matured and computers became standard office equipment.

However, manufacturers say, nobody's come up with a machine that fills out forms better than a typewriter.

And, say businesses that sell and repair the machines, there often is a sudden realization of how necessary typewriters are in offices.

"We don't repair as many as we used to because people don't own as many as they used to," says Sarah Littlejohn, assistant manager at All Valley Typewriter in Burbank, Calif.

"But when someone brings one, they want it fixed immediately. That's because they usually only have one in the whole office. They don't realize how much they depend on their typewriter until it's gone." Low price is another feature that has allowed the typewriter to survive the onslaught of the computer age.

"The opening price point of our typewriters is $79; that's something everyone can afford," says Dean Schulman, a senior vice president at Brother Industries Ltd., which claims more than 50 percent of the domestic typewriter market.

"Some of the newer models can do a lot of things personal word processors can do, Schulman says. "You can get a typewriter that comes with a disk drive, can send e-mail or print in color for about $300."

It's those kinds of features that typewriter buyers can expect to see in the future, as well as some that are definitely high-tech, says Vincent Abbatiello, vice president of sales for Smith Corona Corp., the second-leading manufacturer of typewriters. He says that within five years, typewriters will have new features to make them more functional.

"You could see function keys like you have on a computer that would make, for example, printing labels a lot easier. If it's a label you use a lot, you would just hit F2 instead of typing the whole thing out," he says.

"You could see special slots for labels or envelopes. You can expect to see memory that will automatically line up standard forms or even a laser that will automatically set up a form and make sure it's typing in the correct spaces. The typewriter will still be here a decade from now."

Schulman says the turn of the millennium, with its concern about computer failures, has spurred a spurt in typewriter sales.

"Now, more than ever, is the Y2K issue. With people hyping it, typewriters have become pretty popular," he says. "At $79, it's not a major investment to make sure you have a way to write correspondence.

You don't want to be in a place where you can't do form letters or mailings. A lot of people aren't sure whether all their computers are Y2K-compliant. They want to be prepared for when January 1 rolls around."

It's that kind of peace of mind that Chandler finds comforting, especially in the face of what she says is the growing arrogance of modern word processing programs.

"I don't like it when my computer decides it knows what I want to do when it automatically assumes I want to indent here or put numbers there. I don't like it when a machine tells me what to do.

"If my old Olympia was in good condition, I'd use that for my personal stuff. Sometimes it just makes me feel better."

Pub Date: 09/06/99

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