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Once upon a time in Mumbai

Updated on: 01 May,2011 07:28 AM IST  | 

In the last four days, the Godrej & Boyce factory at Vikhroli has received more than 500 requests for the purchase of manual typewriters. After downing shutters of their factory in 2009, the last one to manufacture office typewriters anywhere in the world, Godrej is left with just 200 pieces in stock; most of them in Arabic script. The mad scramble is the final page in the remarkable story of a machine that kicked off an industrial trend, turned into a symbol of national prid

Once upon a time in Mumbai

In the last four days, the Godrej & Boyce factory at Vikhroli has received more than 500 requests for the purchase of manual typewriters. After downing shutters of their factory in 2009, the last one to manufacture office typewriters anywhere in the world, Godrej is left with just 200 pieces in stock; most of them in Arabic script. The mad scramble is the final page in the remarkable story of a machine that kicked off an industrial trend, turned into a symbol of national pride and spurred a whole generation of women steno-typists to financial independence, says Yolande D'Mello

The phone at Milind Dukle's office hasn't stopped ringing for the last few days. Dukle's team has been keeping count. Five hundred telephone calls in two days. Each of these eager requests has been to grab what the manufacturing company, Godrej & Boyce says, is the last lot of office typewriters to be manufactured anywhere in the world.

A special design team at Godrej's Vikhroli factory was created to improve
the design and overall functioning of the typewriter. Challenges included
reducing the number of parts and the load on them, apart from making
sure they were rugged enough to last long hours of strain.

It's a skewed equation anyway -- just 200 pieces to go; most of them in Arabic script.

The end was near after Godrej downed its factory shutters in 2009, one of the last to put breaks on production after Halda (British), E Remington & Sons (America) and Facit (Sweden) shut shop.

Dukle, general manager, Operations, Godrej, who was part of the special design team at the typewriter plant, says, production peaked in the 1980s when they manufactured 50,000 pieces a year, mostly for government offices, defence establishments, courts and corporations, and their staff stood at a capacity of 1,200.
The story begins 54 years ago, when Godrej launched India's first typewriter factory, and the humble ribbon-and-key hero who spoke with definitive clicks, made his way into every office after that.

"We entered the market a little late but that was our only shortcoming. Remington and Halda dominated the market, and our typewriters had a long way to go to become professional and mass-produced," says Sudhir Kolatkar, retired general manager of Design, Godrej.

Every working day of his 36-year long career, Kolatkar tinkered with the innards of the machine, putting every bit of knowledge he had acquired on kinetics from studying mechanical engineering at IIT Kanpur, to good use.

"The machine is made of 2,500 parts. With each character typed, 400 parts are set in motion, and with the second character, around 200 common parts operate together. It's a small machine but a complicated one," he shares.

No wonder then that national leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru were proud about India's foray into its manufacturing, since we were also the first ones in the continent to do so.

Kolatkar's challenge was to increase the reliability of the machine. "The stress and strain on a typewriter is tremendous since it works for long hours, we had to make sure the parts didn't wear out. An endurance test was conducted to estimate how many times a day each key was used, and how much load it took to operate it."

And of course, the changes had to be easily reproduced and economical to mass produce. The fewer the parts, the lesser the chance of failure.

The company slowly built a range that offered models in 40 languages, three sizes, and evolved from mechanical to electric to finally electronic typewriters.

Just as video killed the radioman, the birth of the computer sounded the death knell for the technology of impressing ink-coated letters onto paper, one that dated back to a 1714 English patent held by Henry Mill.

In early 2009, Godrej's production eased down to 10,000 pieces a year and the staff was cut down to 100 people. Factory workers were re-trained and transferred to other divisions. The special design team's attention was diverted to designing vending machines. The typewriting plant in Shirwal, 50 km south of Pune, now produces refrigerators.

Five years ago, Godrej launched an archives section that houses the first model of their typewriter, refrigerator and locker dating back 90 years. Housed within Vikroli's Godrej Colony, the archives are not yet open to public but the large dome-shaped building that will house a museum of their products, holds the promise of tracing the history of everyday appliances and machines.

Some of them won't give up
For professor PK Ravindranath, news of the last surviving 200 pieces at Godrej is nostalgia-heavy. He sits at a table crammed with seven daily newspapers, typing away, while a laptop stands shrouded in a plastic cover in one corner of his Bandra apartment.

His first job was with a national daily, and his task was to sort and edit news copy, typing it out onto clean sheets to be approved by the sub-editor. "In the '50s, reporters would file handwritten copies. It was my job to make sense of it and type it out," says Ravindranath who began his career at the Free Press Journal and followed it up with a a 21-year stint at the Times of India.

"It's probably habit if nothing else, but when I sit at the typewriter, my thoughts flow and I can complete a 1,200 word story in a matter of 30 minutes," says the professor with a senior college.

The 84 year-old native of Kerala, Ravindranath arrived in Mumbai in 1947. Sound education back home meant a good grip of the language, making professionals like him a good catch. "Right at the railway station, we'd have recruiters standing around to inquire if we knew typing and shorthand. A lot of people poured into the city for jobs and there were half a dozen typing institutes around every corner."u00a0

For computer babies who can't imagine being deprived of the right to insert, delete, copy-and-paste at will, Ravindranath says he managed fine without the luxury, and did without whitener too. "We'd simply type an 'xx' over the error and move on. And yet, you couldn't submit a filthy copy to your editor. It was a matter of pride. I was known as a journalist who submitted one of the cleanest copies in the newsroom," he smiles.

For Ravindranath's wife, the clickety-clack is ambient sound for most part of the day. "He's up till late at night on that thing," she says with a slight shrug. Their home has four typewriters now, including an electronic one that's waiting to be repaired. The deluge of 2005 claimed close to 1,000 books in their ground floor home but the typewriters were barely affected, smile the couple. "Just some minor servicing, and they were as good as new."

The Ravindranaths have never bought a typewriter. The ones they own have been gifted to them by employers and friends. "But I will preserve them. And as long as I can buy a ribbon, I will continue to use them," he says.

The shrine for steno-typists

At Davar's College, one of Mumbai's oldest typing institutes, a stone's throw away from another landmark Flora Fountain, it's business as usual. Up on the third floor, it's a hush of modest clicks in the cool air-conditioned breeze. Thirty years ago, the ceiling fan-circulated air would've resonated with dings and cranks as students sat straight-backed, practicing their finger operation exercises under the watchful eyes of Principal Puran N Davar.

"We started the secretarial course in the 1950s but it was in the '80s that numbers peaked. We had 265 students per batch and lectures ran from 8 am to 6 pm, with each class lasting 45 minutes," says Davar.

Today, they accommodate between 35 to 40 students per batch, who learn typing on a computer keyboard.

Most of the 75 typewriters that the Davar's typing room housed were donated to a local charity in 1998 when they switched to computers. One sits locked away in storage. The keys bunch together when you hit the buttons after 12 years of neglect. And yet, it's a familiar sound for the walls of this 110 year-old institution that gave students from around Mumbai, mostly women, a skill that would find them a place in the corporate world.

"If you knew stenography, you knew you would get a job," says Silloo Chinigar, director of Secretarial Studies.
Chinigar arrived here as a student of the same secretarial course she now oversees. "I wanted to pursue catering but I couldn't afford it. In 1972, I joined the nine-month typing course and was immediately absorbed into the college the following year."u00a0

The popular Personal Secretary diploma made way for the Executive Assistants Course in 2010, with a new curriculum that included computer skills, knowledge of the Internet and archiving via computers. A four-month course priced at Rs 24,200 will teach you technical skills with a dash of personality development, public relations and business ethics thrown in. You graduate out of here if you cross a passing speed of 45 words per minute.

And it's a science, as Chinigar explains. "We tell our students to trim their nails. They don't like it but it improves productivity. Eyes on the paper, not on the keyboard or screen. The home keys include ASDF;LKJ so your fingers need to be placed on these, and then all you've got to do is follow a vertical linear format. It's not just about hitting the right key, but the right key with the right finger. That is what you get with a formal training."

That may sound more like a piano lesson but Chinigar promises her method will reduce mistakes and spiral your speed.

The Your Honour files
Adnan Sakharkar knows how crucial speed is. The typist for the Small Cases Court at Dhobi Talao has been providing a quick typing service for two years.

Busy knocking at the keys while filling out a court petition, he talks to us without looking up from his work. "The Court requires us to type out the copy, which is why we specifically need to use typewriters. Typically, I end up typing about 12 petitions each day. I'd much rather use a computer, though," says the 24 year-old, the youngest among a band of five senior, greying typists.

Down the road, resting along a wall of the General Post Office is Nair Typing Centre, a 3x3 feet stall owned by Parvesh Nair who has run the hole-in-the-wall establishment for 25 years. While earlier, he'd manage with just a typewriter, his most recent purchase has been a computer that sits among other sundry buys including top-up cards for cell phones and packets of mint and lozenges. The price has gone up from when he started at Rs 4 per page. One page will now cost you Rs 30, and Nair won't touch your assignment unless it's a minimum of 20 pages.

Bid & win!
Back at the Godrej factory, Dukle is still puzzled at the sudden spurt in curiosity and demand for their 'final' typewriters. "If you want one, you'll have to bid for it. It enjoys antique status and most callers want to purchase it as a collectible, it seems," he jokes.

The typewriter is now a hero in retirement and its contribution seems no smaller than the computer's, considering it gave the computer the QWERTY keyboard that was originally created by a newspaperman from Wisconsin for the typewriter.

So, were those crime novels pulling a fast one when they claimed that the killer was caught by tracking down a typed letter? "Actually, each typewriter does have a signature type because although the parts are identically produced, the keys are aligned manually," says Kolatkar solving that mystery.

Glowing tribute

Now, a typewriter you can rest your head on
Etsy, a New York-based e-commerce community of buyers and sellers from more than 150 countries mourns the end of the typewriter era by launching handmade crafts that preserve the essence of the typewriter. Pillowcases that say 'Just my type' to typewriter print towels and rings made from typewriter keys are on sale, and can be shipped across the world.

Not a machine, but an instrument of national pride

Sunday Mid day issue dated october 5, 2008

The cover story titled, Forgotten Truths by Vinod Kumar Menon told the story of the typewriter that Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar used to draft the Indian Constitution. Today it lies in Shantivan Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Vastu Shangralay, a museum in Chicholi village in Nagpur, in a shocking state of neglect. It took two years 11 months and 18 days for him to complete the Constitution. He started drafting it in 1947 and was done only in 1950. While typing, Dr Ambedakar was often helped by his assistant Nana Chan Rattu.

The launch of the Godrej factory was a matter of national pride. It was the first in the continent to manufacture typewriters, and it was seen as nothing short of an engineering feat. Seen here is Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru punching a few keys of a Godrej typewriter during an industrial exhibition in the 1950s.

They are still at it
Parvesh Nair owns a typing stall behind the General Post Office, and will type out a sheet for Rs 30; a princely sum since the days he used to charge just Rsu00a0 4. Pic/ SHADAB KHAN

Silloo Chinigar, Director of Secretarial Studies at Davar's College in Fort has been coaching students for over 40 years. Chinigar is seen here with student Sucheta Thakar, a resident of Kalyan. pic/shadab khan

The speedster who inspired a typewriter
Abhisekh Jain is the International Electronic Speed Typing champion. In 1993, Jain represented India at the World Speed Typing Championships at Istanbul and won the gold with a speed of 584 strokes (117 words) per minute with 99.9 per cent accuracy on a Godrej Prima. PIC/ GODREJ ARCHIVES

The handbook

Your guide to 3 iconic models

The first model of Godrej typewriters, The M-9 model is attributed to Naval Pirojsha Godrej, manufactured in 1955 with 1,800 components. When it first launched, typewriters cost Rs 630 each. The price went up to Rs 12,000 by 2009. Soon after this model, they diversified into Hindi and other language models. The next one was an improvement of the M-8 model launched as the Feather Touch M-12 in 1959. But it was declared unsatisfactory after complaints poured in.

In 1970, another model, the lightweight and ergonomic Godrej AB was introduced. This was offered in a number of Indian and foreign languages. After a nine-year stint, the Godrej AB was followed by the PB Godrej typewriter, which offered the optimum combination of light touch and speed. The ribbon movement was specially designed; it had a better key lever mechanism, and offered 33per cent more ribbon usage.

Godrej Prima was launched in 1984 after the Special Design Team members put their heads together to create a reliable model. This has been the most stable piece, and apart from minor changes, the design stayed the same till 2009. This is the last typewriter that was made in their factory and has been archived at the Godrej Colony in Vikhroli. PICs/ PRATHIK PANCHAMIA

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