One of the must-watch TV shows from my childhood was The Monkees, the completely madcap adventures of a pop group comprising three Americans and a young Englishman. The main piece of trivia associated with the show (apart from the fact that most of the backing tracks on the Monkees albums were not played by the Monkees at all, but by a band called Candy Store Prophets) was that the mother of guitarist Mike Nesmith (the one in the hat) invented correction fluid and it is a genuine rags-to-riches story.
Just after World War Two Bette Nesmith Graham was a single mother who was employed as a typist, but she was also something of an artist. She knew that artists often used white paint to cover their mistakes prior to repainting, and so she figured it might be possible to develop a type of paint to mask typing errors. She experimented at home, mixing her concoctions in a food blender and her early efforts were soon snapped up in the office where she worked. She set up a cottage industry making and selling her product, which was originally called Mistake Out, but which she later renamed Liquid Paper. Such was the demand for this almost magical potion among secretaries and typists the world over, she may well have called it liquid gold. For Bette’s cottage industry boomed and not long before her death in 1980, she sold the company for 47.5 million dollars.
And it was probably the perfect time to sell, for as the eighties advanced the typewriter became an endangered species, driven out by the unstoppable march of the far more efficient word processor. Sales of correction fluid fell as on-screen editing became the norm. The typewriter had come up against a rival it simply could not fight off and, just as CDs all but put an end to cassette tapes and the arrival of the tea bag saw many a teapot relegated to the back of the cupboard, the old Remington was consigned to the attic, another victim of progress.
For correction fluid wasn’t the only one to be crushed under the unstoppable march of the word processor. Typewriter manufacturers and companies that produced peripherals such as paper and ribbons saw demand for their products plummet.
As well as on-screen editing, the word processor brought us powerful new functions such as Find & Replace, where, for example, you have just completed your first novel, a 375-page saga about two feuding brothers called Tom and Jerry. Just before you send it to the publisher, however, a friend points out that the names of your central characters are the same as a cartoon cat and mouse. This presents no problem, as you simply use the Find & Replace function to change one of the names throughout the book at a stroke. Five minutes later your book is ready to go to the publisher’s with its new heroes, Ben and Jerry (yes, I know). If you wanted to make such changes on an old manual typewriter Find & Replace meant that you had to find a new sheet of paper, replace the one in the machine, and start again.
Many years ago I learned the basics of word processing on a full-time course. Having used nothing but a typewriter prior to this, I was quite amazed at some of the functions available to me. I discussed some of these with my dad, who put up a robust but futile defence of his electric typewriter.
Having told him that copy and paste functions allow the manipulation of text at the touch of a key, that the spell checker reminds us that i does not always come before e and that subject and verb must always agree in person and number, the humble typewriter, that dependable servant on which some of the world’s greatest works were written, suddenly looked its age; it was like comparing a cannonball to a cruise missile. He looked further into it and soon after this he was telling me about the wonders of Mail Merge.
And so another convert to word processing was born; another typewriter was consigned to the attic and another bottle of correction fluid was left to solidify.