A MANUAL typewriter bears about the same relationship to a state-of-the-art computer as a horse and buggy does to a Concorde jet. But in a world suddenly dedicated to recycling, there is an important difference between being obsolete and being useless. For 25 years, a small green Hermes typewriter has been gathering dust in a cupboard in our basement - looking useless. It wasn't always so. During a four-month study tour abroad during my junior year in college, the machine served as a faithful companion - a simple '60s forerunner of a '90s laptop computer.
Every evening, I would prop it on my lap in a succession of modest hotel rooms and tap out a daily journal entry - part of the academic requirement for the trip. It saw me through deadlines for weekly essays on subjects ranging from European cathedrals to London at night. It also banged out countless airletters to family and friends back home.
By today's high-tech standards, this ``Rocket'' model was almost comically misnamed. There was nothing fast about the carriage return. The stiff action of the keys resisted the fingers. Yet its utter simplicity offered a comforting reliability. It never pretended to be more than it was.
Still, small typewriters have their limits, and once the trip ended, mine took a back seat to a succession of increasingly sophisticated keyboards ranging from portable electrics to an IBM correcting Selectric. But always the simple little Hermes held an affectionate place in my heart.
Yet what does a sentimental owner do with something that now belongs to prehistoric writing technology? Selling it seemed out of the question. Money is no match, after all, for the emotional Superglue that binds certain possessions to us long after we cease to need them or use them.
The solution came last week when a friend called with an urgent request: Any chance we had a spare typewriter we would be willing to give a visitor from Africa whose own typewriter had been stolen?
Of course - the globe-trotting Hermes!
I dusted off the case. I ran my fingers over the mint green keys and studied the indentations made by hundreds of thousands of thumbnail taps on the space bar. I even inserted a sheet of paper and began typing, surprised by the mechanical fitness of the machine and the relative clarity of the ribbon after all these years.
The Little Typewriter That Could.
The next morning a pleasant man from Nigeria stopped by my office. After a few words of instruction on my part and a few words of gratitude on his, he and the small Swiss typewriter were off on a journey halfway around the world. More than a machine was being passed on. Any tinge of sadness I might have felt at the parting was offset by the pleasure of knowing it had a new use, a second career.
As if on cue, a laptop computer I had ordered several weeks earlier arrived later that day. Here truly is a technological ``rocket,'' able to propel words and sentences from any telephone in the world directly into my editor's computer terminal.
Yet as I grapple with this complex new world of modems, disk drives, software, and battery packs - all explained in no fewer than six instruction books - I find myself longing for the mechanical innocence of my old typewriter, however out of date it was.
Typewriters, of course, are not the only writer's tool on the endangered list. Even the lowly pencil is a subject of debate among environmentalists, forcing at least one manufacturer to announce that boxes of pencils will soon carry a disclaimer reading, ``Contains no rain forest wood.'' Similarly, yellow legal pads have all but disappeared from the shelves of our newsroom supply cabinets. In their place are white tablets made of recycled paper, bearing the motto ``Giving back to the future.''
``Giving back to the future'' - the phrase can sound a little presumptuous. But it expresses what I felt when I handed over my typewriter to a member of the emerging generation, a citizen of an emerging country.
May he find it as useful as I did, and, if it's not too much to hope for, may he too become fond of it as a writer becomes fond of an instrument that faithfully records not just the thoughts of the mind but the feelings of the heart.