Photo via Flickr user alexkerhead
Last month, New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm introduced a bill meant to eliminate typewriters from police stations by the end of 2015. This is a police department that's already equipped with secret drones (maybe!), specialized Windows phones, and advanced data collection and analysis technology, so the idea that they have to be told not to use typewriters seems somewhat anachronistic and surprising. Police officials have argued that certain forms officers must fill out have not yet been digitized, but until the files go in the computer, the typewriters stay in the stations.
The NYPD aren't the only ones still using typewriters in 2015. According to a 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal, the machines are also still used by funeral homes, where death certificates are often filled out on typewriters, as well as prisons, where inmates often use them in lieu of computers for correspondence. The machines are still widely used in areas of the world such as India and Latin America, where reliable electricity is sometimes not a guarantee. Olivetti, one of the last remaining typewriter manufacturers, is based in Brazil. The German government, for a time, resorted to using typewriters to write up sensitive documents to keep the NSA in the dark.
Typewriters have a certain mystique among authors, especially ones who came of age in the pre-internet era. Hunter S. Thompson used them up until his 2005 suicide, the science fiction author Harlan Ellison prefers them over computers, and Cormac McCarthy used the same typewriter for 50 years, because of course he did.
Young Americans use typewriters too—though their reasons are mostly aesthetic. Much like vinyl, which has seen a resurgence in the past few years, typewriters offer a tactile sensation that an mp3 or computer word processor cannot. Just as many argue that taking a record out of its sleeve, carefully placing it on a turntable, and positioning a needle over a groove offers a completely different experience than simply pressing "play" on a song, one might argue that the physical sensation of pushing down a key and watching words take shape on a piece of paper in front of you jogs different parts of your brain than sitting and churning out words into a Google doc.
Using a typewriter can be a way of signaling your seriousness or soulfulness or your appreciation for nostalgia. If you're typing by hand, you can imagine you're using the same instrument that Kerouac and Bukowski and Ginsberg used. By contrast, everyone uses computers. Your mom uses a computer. It's no surprise that Urban Outfitters, one of the companies most responsible for the commercialization of hip aesthetics, sold Olivetti models for a time, though according to the retail chain's website it no longer offers them.
Tony Abbadessa of Chicago, a self-proclaimed "philosopher, theologian, and poet," tells me he uses his Olivetti Underwood 21 to write poetry "pretty much exclusively." He tells me, "It's a really good tool. All of your drafts are saved, it feels great, and it's really pretentious—you can imagine whatever poet you like from the 50s doing it, too." He also points out that a typewriter is an easy tool for those with poor handwriting to write legibly on birthday cards and other bits of ephemera. "Everyone should have a fucking typewriter," he says.
"It's completely different from a laptop," Zach Schonfeld, a Brooklyn-based culture writer for Newsweek who inherited his Olympia manual typewriter from his grandfather, says. "You have to think before every word, because you can't backspace."
Jackie Shuman, who works in music supervision in Los Angeles, echoes this sentiment. "I tend to think about what I want to write BEFORE I use a typewriter. In an email I just type as a I go and whatever mundane crap about my day comes out."
Perhaps because of the premeditation involved with composing on a typewriter, those who write poetry tend to favor them. Charlie Ambler, a VICE contributor who occasionally writes poetry on a typewriter in his spare time, tells me, "It just produces text on a page, finished, immediately, it makes noise, and it's more physical than something like TextEdit." For Ambler, part of the novelty also lies within the typewriter's ability to immediately produce work on an array of materials. "I was drunk one time," he says, "and was like, 'These poems are so shitty,' so I started typing them on toilet paper."
Despite their passion, typewriter fans are a tiny minority—computers are so much better at doing so many different things, and most people regard typewriters as quaint at best and an affectation at worst. But companies like Olivetti and Brother soldier on, manufacturing typewriters for both home and office use, and there remains a small but dedicated community who collect them. Antique typewriters routinely go for upwards of $1,000 on eBay, and Tom Hanks is such a fan of them that he developed an iPad app called Hanx Writer that replicates the look and feel of three vintage typewriters from his personal collection. In an interview with NPR about the app, he said, "Typing on an actual typewriter on paper is only a softer version of chiseling words into stone." As long as a computer can't replicate that feeling, typewriters may always have a home in the world.
Drew Millard is on Twitter.