Tom Clyde: How hard could it be to find a typewriter ribbon?
I use a typewriter sometimes. When it comes to filling out business checks with a “carbon” copy, the computer printer just can’t do it. I use it to address envelopes for paying bills. I’ve had this typewriter since college, which was a very long time ago. It qualifies as an antique, though it’s perfectly functional aside from an annoying squeak deep inside. Compared to the alternative of improving my handwriting to the point that anybody—including me—can read it, the typewriter is very handy and an important part of my office hardware.
The typewriter ribbon ran out this week. I don’t know how many years the ribbon cartridge has been in there, but a lot. It takes years of checks to burn through one of those ribbon cartridges. But like the ink cartridge on the computer printer, when it’s done, it’s done. Running out of typewriter ribbon is not an acceptable excuse for leaving bills unpaid.
This is where I can hear people wondering why anybody still writes checks. Isn’t that all done on the computer where you just click on things and money moves automatically? Doesn’t the bank write a check and mail it from South Dakota so they can float on your money for a couple of weeks? The computer enters it into the books, codes it to the appropriate category and produces a nicely organized summary. Why would anybody write checks, ever? I have a system, that’s why. When you have a system, you don’t mess around with it. In this crisis, I could change the system, or learn to write legibly, but the obvious answer was to buy new typewriter ribbons. How hard can it be to find a typewriter ribbon for a 45-year old machine made by a company that no longer exists?
The people at Staples were puzzled by the request, and pointed to the wall of printer ink. A second, somewhat more mature, clerk understood the question and suggested I look at their website. They had ribbons for adding machines, but nothing for my ancient machine. I would have to dive deeper into the web than that.
I found a website for a company that specializes in hard-to-find, but useful old technology. They cater primarily to the Amish population, who apparently shop on-line while expecting Amazon Prime to deliver by horse and buggy. They had some very nice butter churns. A cast iron apple peeler was functional sculpture. But when it came to typewriter ribbons, they came up short. Finally I found another company that actually specializes in typewriter ribbons. A bright future for them, eh? The website seemed as musty and cluttered as their physical store must be. I expected to find a half eaten, year-old Twinkie on the webpage.
They had exactly what I needed, but would only blow the dust off the box if I bought a package of three. These could be the last three on earth, so I ordered the box. They should last me through the rest of my life. It came with the “lift-off” tape that would back-space and correct errors. When that came out, it was life-changing technology. A vast improvement over “white-out” that you would paint on the page to cover up the mistake and then type over when it dried. And then computers happened.
I’m assuming that the new typewriter ribbons will arrive in time to type out the paper check (with carbon copy) before the power company decides to shut the power off for non-payment. They ship Parcel Post, Pony Express was extra.
Some people have become enamored with vinyl records, and insist that music played on vinyl is vastly superior to listening to the same thing in a digital format. They really object to the compressed digital format on our phones. With digital, you miss all the richness of the pops and clicks of a worn-out vinyl record, the odd tones from the turntable spinning slightly inconsistently, and of course the warping of a record that was left on the turntable when the sun comes through the window. The digital is so much more convenient, and can be taken anywhere. Try to get your turntable to talk to the sound system in the car. It’s just not going to work. But vinyl is pure, they say.
The straight edge razors that left our grandfathers hemorrhaging and scarred have also made something of a comeback. Like the perfect sound of Patsy Cline on vinyl, nothing can beat the smooth shave of a well-sharpened straight-edge razor (at least after the stitches from the learning curve are taken out).
If I hadn’t found new ribbons for the electric typewriter, the back up plan was blowing the dust out of the 1910 Underwood, and putting it back into service. The only problem is that the “e” sticks. There’s probably nobody left who can fix that.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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Columnist Tom Clyde’s family lights a hat on fire each Labor Day to mark the end of another summer on the ranch. It was only recently that he realized not all families partake in that tradition.