The Mystery of the Typewritten Letter

Two Typewriter Faces
Top: «Leatherjacket» magazine # 2, June 1973; note the top left of the “p” and the “l”, and the top right of the “r”. The letters are less worn than in the image below, six years later. Below «Surfers Paradise» magazine # 2 (Steve McGarrett issue), 1979.

I began writing poetry with a pen, of course, but quickly moved to typewriters when I could. I used an electric Smith-Corona portable typewriter for many years. In the early 1990s, when I had been using a desktop computer for nearly a decade, but before the days of light and affordable portable computers, I took the Smith-Corona with me on a short visit to Melbourne and used it for a few weeks, but found the experience very frustrating. Every page was littered with mistakes that seemed to take ages to rectify, and I had aching shoulders from pounding the keys. The machine has been sleeping at the bottom of a wardrobe for a decade now. Here are two photos of two different magazine pages from the 1970s, printed from Gestetner rotary silk-screen stencils struck on the machine.

Then, in January 2012, I received a typed letter from somewhere in the USA. Typed? In capital letters? But typewriters are extinct, aren’t they?

Well, no. They still carry on a kind of ghostly after-life, but only in a few odd and shadowy corporate niches. So where did this letter come from?

The letter enquired about «Jacket» magazine’s requirements and rates of pay. «Jacket» is a free internet-only literary magazine I published for 13 years, and has never offered to pay its contributors, so I shall have to send the gentleman a gentle “no” letter. I gave «Jacket» to the University of Pennsylvania in late 2011, who archive all 40 of the original issues, and now run it under the moniker «Jacket2».

But why a typewriter? Why has someone who must have obtained «Jacket’s» mailing address in Australia from the Internet, sent me a typed letter?

Typed letter to Jacket magazine (excerpt).
Typed letter to Jacket magazine (excerpt).

Then I looked carefully at the envelope, and remembered a story I had read on the Internet a while ago, about how, in the USA at least, typewriters are still manufactured, sold and repaired.* Here is the essence of it:

IBM sold its Selectric (golf-ball typewriter) division to Lexmark in 1990, and the US firm Swintec is the last remaining dedicated typewriter company in the USA.

Typewriter repairman Tom Furrier clarifies the matter. “There are certain forms that still have to be typewritten and that are not computer-friendly, such as death and birth certificates,” he says. “Every maternity ward has a typewriter, as well as funeral homes, which might seem strange in this day and age, but is good for me, of course…. Many police officers also still find it easier to type up their reports at the end of a shift,” Michael notes.

But, while cops may choose to use typewriters, those on the other side of the law don’t have a say in the matter. “We have contracts with correctional facilities in 43 states to supply clear typewriters for inmates so they can’t hide contraband inside them,” Michael explains. “We even make clear cassette ribbons for them.”

Swintec transparent typewriter
Swintec transparent typewriter

Swintec makes slightly different typewriters for different facilities, depending on an institution’s specific regulations. The 2416DM CC models come in six versions, all with different memory capacities: 4K, 7K, 16K, 32K, 64K, and 128K, with 4K storing about 4,000 characters (the average business letter comes in at around 2,000). New York State permits inmates 7K of memory, Washington State allows 64K, and Michigan lets prisoners have 128K machines.

For the most restrictive institutions, Swintec manufactures typewriters with no memory at all.

In these days of computers with gigabytes of memory capable of storing a million novels, that is a surreal thought. A typing machine that instantly forgets everything you have said!

The envelope offered a clue to the typewriter’s owner and modus operandi: the postal franking machine had stamped the words “Inmate mail”, and the letter came courtesy the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Envelope, detail.
Envelope, detail.

Mystery solved.

__________
* From: http://www.minyanville.com/businessmarkets/articles/prison-typwriters-email-ces-tablet-death/1/12/2011/id/32146, date 2012-01-07