In case you missed it, this week heralded the end of an era in the UK, as the last ever typewriter rolled off the production line at Brother’s factory in North Wales.
But what perhaps surprised most people was that typewriters were actually still being produced up until this week. Even before the advent of the Internet era, typewriters were already massively in decline, with dedicated word processors and (un-networked) PCs very much the order of the day.
F**k it, we'll do it live!
Our biggest ever edition of TNW Conference is fast approaching! Join 10,000 tech leaders this May in Amsterdam.
So, I touched base with Brother’s UK boss Phil Jones to get the lowdown on the typewriter ‘industry’ over the past few years and, indeed, whether it could be called an industry at all.
Typewriters: The state of play
Between April 2009 and March 2010, Jones says Brother shipped 5,800 typewriters in the UK, a figure which dropped to 4,600 the following tax year and then 3,600 in the twelve months leading to March this year. In the six months up to this week, Brother shifted 2,000 typewriters.
In terms of the broader market, Jones says that Brother sold 30,000 typewriters in the past year to EU businesses.
While we’re hardly talking iPad-style numbers here, it’s probably still more than you imagined. So who, exactly was buying these prehistoric machines?
Well, it seems that typewriters are on the list of approved devices in prisons. This is consistent with other countries, with American prisons reporting a similar trend.
“We have manufacturers making typewriters for us in China, Japan, Indonesia,” explained Ed Michael, General Manager of sales for Swintec, a New Jersey-based company. “We have contracts with correctional facilities in 43 states to supply clear typewriters for inmates so they can’t hide contraband inside them.”
A recent report also revealed that cops in Philadelphia are still using typewriters for many parts of their daily routine, including property receipts and search warrants. But why?
“Cops have to use typewriters for these tasks because the reports are pre-formatted and numbered to keep track of them and to protect against fake versions,” explains Technically Philly. “The reports must be fed into the typewriter or handwritten. In simpler terms, the cops just don’t have a system to replace this one.”
As for the UK, it seems a section of the older population still have a penchant for the mechanical wonders of typewriters too. “Lots of elderly people just never went with the whole personal computing thing, they’ve stuck with the trusty old typewriter,” explains Jones.
However, it’s worth noting here that there hasn’t been a great deal of analytics around the demographics, a lot of it is based purely on anecdotal evidence.
Brother has been the only manufacturer of note in the UK producing typewriters for the past five to ten years, and this is probably the case for the whole of Europe too. So this helps to put the typewriter’s predicament in context…it really is a niche market. Jones says that Brother produced seven different typewriter models in the past year, ranging from £99 to £499 ($157 to $795 USD).
But even with a dwindling user-base, wasn’t Brother tempted to keep things going, even for its niche value?
“The issue was the component parts availability,” says Jones. “The typewriter designs were also old and many of the electronic components had become discontinued by other manufacturers, so we had to make some last-time purchases a few years ago. We have basically exhausted this stock so cannot continue. Any redesign of the printed circuit boards would be more costly than the expected return on investment.”
In the past year, Brother had ten people dedicated to the typewriter side of its business, who will all be redeployed to its toner manufacturing/re-manufacturing/re-cycling site. “We estimate that at least 2,000 people from the Ruabon area of North Wales have worked on the typewriter production line since 1985,” adds Jones.
For the record, this was the first ever unit off Brother’s UK production line, way back in 1985:
So typewriters may be on their way out, but there could still be a little life left in them yet. Beyond prisons, police stations and the older generation, they do hold a certain retro appeal. Plus, I’m sure many writers will see value in them – after all, you’re forced to consider your words a lot more if it’s harder to correct a mistake.
“I think a thriving eBay marketplace is about to be established, so if you can scoop one of our last ones up, do it,” says Jones. “The reality will be that they are probably going to have to be imported from the USA though.”
Then there’s the issue of catering for those who already have typewriters, in terms of ribbons, ink and the likes. The good news on this front is that Brother will continue to support spares for another seven years. After this, you could really be struggling to keep your machine going.
So, looking to the future, it is becoming increasingly difficult to source a new typewriter in many parts of the world, and for those looking to supply this niche demand, it really doesn’t make good economical sense. It’s just too difficult to source the right components.
“Never say never,” adds Jones, “however the economic benefits of undergoing such a project, matched to demand would probably make this an unviable business case.”
Meanwhile, if you love the idea of a typewriter but don’t want to get stuck in the past, you may want to check out this neat USB typewriter instead.
Feature Image Credit – Thinkstock