Two recent events were forceful reminders that the things we depend on every day, just like people, don’t last forever. These involved typewriters.
In one, the electronic typewriter I have used almost daily for odd jobs for 15 years, sighed, ran its ribbon-and-striking element over to the right hand side of its tracks and refused to budge. I looked in the Yellow Pages for “Typewriter Repair” and found no listing of any kind for typewriters in the city where I now live.
Only a few months earlier on the way to a doctor’s appointment on K Street in downtown Washington, I stopped for a red light at the corner of 21st Street, and looked up at the building that for years had been North’s Office Supplies. It was now a bank. North’s was a typewriter sales and repair company. In the 1980s we had taken our IBM Selectric typewriters—then the gold standard in office machines—there for service. Now, North’s was no more; its market dried up. I then remembered a newspaper article in which the proprietor said he would set up shop in his suburban home for the occasional customer.
How quickly times change. In the Washington office where I spent the last several years, a majority of the 150 people there have never used a typewriter. They are members of the Computer Generation. They even use computers for producing a single file tab label or addressing a single envelope—something that can be done much more quickly on a typewriter. No matter, the typewriter is on its way to extinction, just like the Dodo bird which was last seen on the planet in 1680.
Dodos were flightless birds that lived on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. They were killed by sailors for food. The pigs and monkeys the sailors brought to the island in the 16th century destroyed the eggs and ate the young Dodos. In the case of typewriters, it is computers that are driving them to extinction. Except for museum specimens, they will probably not make it to mid-century.
It was only 134 years ago when Remington, until then a small arms maker, manufactured the first typewriters. Christopher Sholes and other inventors had been developing working models for several years. By 1880, only 5,000 typewriters had been made. Then, almost overnight, the business world discovered the time- and labor-saving benefits of the new machines and they took off. Millions of typewriters had been sold by 1990 when desktop computers began to come into wide use.
Like typewriters, organ grinder monkeys are on their way out, not to extinction, but the organ-grinding trade is dying, thanks to axe-grinding. Organ grinders and their monkeys were a common sight on American city streets in the 19th century. Today, only a few ply the trade. One, Phil Monroe, is part of the historic interpretation program at the old customs house in Monterey, California’s first capital.
He’s been at it for 36 years, but doesn’t think it can last much longer. “In the next 50 years, the organ grinder will cease to exist in the U.S.,” says Mr. Monroe — done in by PETA’s animal activists and their allies who contend that activities such as this are unnatural for the animals, hazardous to public health and impede wildlife conservation efforts.
It took dodo birds tens of thousands of years to become extinct. It will take the organ grinder monkey trade about 200 and typewriters a little less. What’s next? If I were a fax machine — in general use since only the mid-1970s — I wouldn’t be taking any bets on longevity. Meanwhile, the number of people living to age 100 continues to grow, not defying mortality, but pushing it away into the future. What would Darwin think?
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