In The New York Times this past Sunday was the obituary of Manson Whitlock, 96. Chances are you never heard of him, or ever required his services. But for nearly 80 years, Mr. Whitlock performed miracles on old-school technology. In fact, he was known as America’s oldest typewriter repairman.
I never met Mr. Whitlock, but I knew of him. My mother knew him as well, and she had a few of her typewriters repaired by him.
You remember typewriters, don’t you? I grew up with an old Royal manual. My mother taught me how to type. She was a whiz, at more than 65 words a minute. Soon I was close behind, at about 60 words a minute – using only two or three fingers (I rebelled at the more formal approach to learning to type).
My mother had a distinct typewriter style: She used special dark green ink ribbons she got from the folks at Royal (hard to find anything other than black or occasionally red ink ribbons).
My mother also loved her rotary phones, and I have them to this day. And yes, they still work.
There’s a lot to be said for old technology and I’m a firm believer in that if it’s not broken, there’s no need to fix it. Planned obsolescence simply for the sake of a new model doesn’t fit well with me.
I still drive a 1993 Mazda 929 (best car they ever made). And every time I take it in for service the mechanic begs me to sell it to him. I won’t. My other car — in New York — is a 13-year-old Chrysler minivan. Here’s the way I look at it: It’s got an engine, four tires, it runs and it gets me where i need to go — and I get to haul stuff in it. Why do I need a new car?
Which brings me back to the loss of Mr. Whitlock. I still have a few manual typewriters, including the last one I used when I left Newsweek magazine back in 1977. I paid them $100 for the privilege of keeping my typewriter when I left.
The other day, I was going through a desk drawer and found a completely unopened box of green typewriter ribbons, each ribbon still individually sealed in plastic…and I couldn’t resist. I opened one, put it in the old Royal from Newsweek, threaded the ribbon. Put in a piece of white onion skin paper (yes, onion skin), and…it worked beautifully. I then picked up the phone and dialed (yes dialed) a friend to tell them the news.
If the power goes off, if I lose batteries, I can still write and make a phone call. My only concern: With Mr. Whitlock gone, if my old typewriter somehow breaks, who will fix it?
By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com