Technology: It's a qwerty business bidding farewell to the typewriter

  • @johnhenrywalsh

Edward Bryan, of the Japanese manufacturing company Brother, has earned himself a footnote in cultural history. Any day now, from the Brother's Wrexham factory, he will make the last-ever typewriter in the UK, just before the company donates it to the London Science Museum.

The gift will metaphorically stretch a final plastic cover over the history of a machine that changed history, invented the qwerty keyboard, simplified and speeded up the processes of journalism, publishing and business, and gave women, for the first time, an income and secure foothold in office life: in the 1850s there were 2,000 female clerks in Britain; by 1901, there were 166,000.

Overtaken by the rise of word processors in the mid-1980s, the typewriter is dead, after 130 years of rattle and clang, the rat-tat-tat fusillade of the professional touch-typist, the hesitant peck and tentative clack of the two-finger amateur. It was a machine that became a conduit of one's feelings. Mailer and Hemingway liked to think of it as an opponent that gazed blearily back at them, bruised and impressed, after their two-fisted drubbings at the keys for a few hours. Look at the concentration on Romola Garai's lovely face as she belabours her Adler portable in the new series of The Hour, and you can see how it can be imagined as an ally in the fight against condescending superiors.

Elderly journalists, who worked on the machines in Fleet Street before computers took over, will rhapsodise about the deep satisfaction of twisting the old-fashioned typewriter's twin knobs, sliding the carriage-return arm (with its peremptory "ping!") along after each line, and the strangely erotic business of typing on to eight carbons and tissue underlays, as though imprinting oneself on layers of frothy undergarments.

But we live in retro times. No sooner has the typewriter been declared defunct than a zombie avatar rises from the grave. At Edinburgh College of Art, Austin Yang, a student, has invented the iTypewriter: you plonk your iPad upright in a typewriter cradle and hit the keys, which send little hammer-prods up on the touch-screen. It's a pathetic echo of the glory days of the Remington and the Smith-Corona; but it might also be a squeak of protest that modern techno-communication has lost something vital: a bit of drama.