If Typewriters Could Talk: The Day I Found Out They No Longer Needed Me

Well, it finally happened. On Saturday morning Jack came into his office, took me off the desk, carried me out to a car that was double-parked on L Street, put me in the backseat, and drove me away. I’m now on a beat-up typewriter table in what seems to be a basement office in a house. Very different. No car horns, lots of birds singing and a big dog that looks at me and occasionally barks.

Not a big surprise but still kind of sad. I knew I was being used less and less but I still felt useful.

Yes, I knew the world had changed. I still remember the first hint way back in the 1980s: Jack was talking to a writer named Fred Barnes about joining the staff and he asked if we had computers. When told we didn’t, Fred said he couldn’t write stories on a typewriter. What kind of journalist would say something like that? Well, he didn’t come to work at the magazine and we did begin to buy some really dumb-looking computers.

I remember hearing the computer people say that if we spent $100,000 on their computers, we’d be able to save that much in salaries because the computers were so efficient. Ha! The staff is bigger than ever and we now have two people called IT managers and the attitude seems to be that they are now the most important people at the magazine.

Okay, we Royals and Underwoods were pretty simple but does anyone remember that we never crashed? The only care we needed was a new ribbon a couple of times a year. When we needed any maintenance, there was a place called North’s Office Machines on K Street and they were great at keeping us in top shape. About 10 years ago I heard Jack ask the man who ran North’s where he found people who could repair typewriters. He said, “I have two Russian immigrants. They love typewriters and they can’t bear to see a typewriter tossed out.” I’m not sure why the Russians loved us that much–maybe we made a difference over there.

I do miss the old days. On Monday mornings you could begin to hear the typewriters in the office come to life. Phones would start ringing. All the noise was actually pretty nice–it gave the office a feeling of life, of energy. Editors and writers walked around and talked with one another. Recently I’ve been the only typewriter in the office and on Monday mornings people come in and it’s very quiet–they sit at their computers and the phones never ring. It makes me nostalgic for the wire service days when the writers really used us. Plus there were 20 teletypes in the bureau that sounded like noisy typewriters and they sent out lots of bulletins with three bells ringing. Some days there were news flashes with five bells.

One thing I don’t miss about the old days was the cigarette smoke. I remember hearing writers say they couldn’t write if they couldn’t smoke–they really meant it–and by the end of the day the air got pretty bad. But I loved the way they caressed my keys when they were thinking–that made it easy to handle the ashes along with all the blood, sweat, and tears.

Okay, enough about the old days….I know there’s no going back. Jack has been writing and editing on a computer for a long time, and last summer he got an iPhone and began to use me to send notes about Facebook and Twitter. Some days he didn’t seem to pay me much attention and I felt a little hurt when visitors laughed at me like I was some Civil War relic. But then I think about Shane Harris, one of our new writers, and how he talks about the dangers of cyberwarfare. What if the Chinese did manage to shut down the Internet and blow up all those digital clouds? Then do you think that one of the writers or editors might ask, “Anyone know what happened to that old Royal typewriter?”
First published in April 2012 at jimromenesko.com; also published in the May 2012 issue of The Washingtonian. The old Royal now rests on a typewriter table in an enclosed porch room, the home office for this website. Lots of light, lots of noise and activity, and the old Royal continues to do its job very well.


  1. They actually do crash. But usually it’s from picking them up and tossing them on the floor (repeatedly) after one of the following happened:

    1) Rat in the newsroom (furry kind with a tail, not the one with a suit).
    2) Source called back to ask to read a story before it’s published.
    3) Publisher wanting to know how we could possibly have misspelled a hedline when he actually can’t spell or (apparently) use a dictionary.
    4) Reporter missed the entire point of the story on 1A and we go to press in 5 minutes. And, of course, he’s/she’s gone.
    5) Copy editor says “We’ve always done it that way.”

  2. Jack Limpert says:

    Andy – I’ve never seen a typewriter get picked up and thrown—the old Royals are pretty heavy—but have heard that an editor at People magazine once got angry enough to throw a typewriter (or maybe it was a computer monitor) out of a window of the Time Warner Building in Manhattan. Have heard a name but never was able confirm that the story was true. – Jack

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