Low End Theory

The Clacking Never Stops


By Brendan I. Koerner

Of all the lessons I learned as a greenhorn journalist during the Clinton Era, the most valuable by far involved how best to judge the relevancy of reader mail. Every week, I'd get a few letters from my magazine's subscribers, most of whom fell into one of two categories: schoolkids who wanted me to help them with an assignment, or retired know-it-alls who quibbled with my facts. (Sample quibble: "In your June 20th article, you misstate the average diameter of a diplodocus nostril; according to my extensive research on the subject, it is five inches, not four.")

There was also the occasional letter from a reader who fell into category three—people who are absolutely buggin'. Often the level of such a reader's insanity was not immediately apparent, at least from the context of the letter—they'd start off with the typical salutation, or maybe a learned quote from Thomas Hobbes. But by the end, they'd be accusing me of conspiring with the Malaysian government to place radio transmitters behind their eyeballs, and would I please stop it?

After wasting far too many minutes reading through such dreck, a higher-up explained to me that there was a simple way to tell a crazy letter on sight: "The crazy ones," he pointed out, "always use typewriters." And wouldn't you know it, he was right.

So, where does today's slightly off-kilter conspiracy buff go for his/her typewriting needs, especially if they're short on cash? The gadgetry world is still churning out a limited number of these devices of yore, though the fanciest models are still surprisingly expensive—guess the economies of scale aren't working in favor of the industry. After the jump, everything you wanted to know about today's low-end typewriter market but were afraid (or simply unwilling) to ask.

Now, I know what you're thinking: writing about typewriters is the easy way out. I mean, we've all seen those USA Today and Akron Bugle bits, run every six months or so, about some lovable old coots who refuse to upgrade to the PC era. Okay, granted. But I've come not to praise old coots, but rather to ponder how the typewriter industry is able to soldier on in the age of the $288 Everex Explora.

As far as I can tell, there are only two companies still making typewriters in any sort of quantities: Lexmark, which purchased IBM's Selectric line, and the Italian company Olivetti, which has the manual market locked down. Smith Corona went bankrupt a while back, though there's still a branded website that offers two models, starting at a decidedly non-low-end $149.99. And don't even venture into the "New" section at Typewriters.com unless you've got Paul Allen type of money: even with an 80-character LCD display and a built-in spellchecker, no typewriter on the planet should be retailing for $599.95.

Thankfully for typewriter aficionados, there's plenty of old stock out there, particularly from Brother. The winner by a country mile is the GX-6750, with the trademark Perfectype touch keyboard and, best of all, "automatic carriage return." Prices start at $30 for units that have been slightly scuffed while sitting on the docks lo these many years.

Low End Theory

Of course, there's also a sizeable number of second-run typewriters out there, some of which betray signs of the industry's late 1990s effort to compete with laptops. There's no better example of that misguided fad than the Brother PY80, which weighs in at a not-that-impressive 2.8 kilograms. Eat your heart out, Fujitsu Lifebook.

All kidding aside, I do understand that there's a certain niche market for typewriters that's not gonna go away soon. They're still ideal for doing quick fixes to forms, which is why Brother pitches its typewriters to the government and education markets, rather than mainstream consumers. And at least for the manual Olivetti, I can see the usefulness in emerging markets; just because your village has yet to be granted reliable electricity doesn't mean you should be consigned to a life of pencil and paper. (Hat tip on that last point: Everyone who wrote in to lambaste me for not recognizing the Third World applications of the Polaroid OneStep.)

Also, of course, you've got that vast market of newsmagazine readers feel an overwhelming urge to write letters-to-the-editor regarding those secret Major League Baseball satellites. That's certainly not a consumer base that's gonna dry up anytime soon; the main challenge for the Lexmarks and Olivettis of the world is getting such folks to upgrade to new typewriters, which requires imbuing said products with a certain degree of affordability. (The overly conspiracy-minded, in addition to favoring weird margins and single spacing, are notoriously budget conscious.) Suggestions for how that can be done? Drop me a line.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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