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The Typewriter as Protagonist: India’s New Age of Technology, 1890–1920

Typewriters around the world: machines, practices, cultures

We invite you to a series of distinguished presentations that situate typewriters, typewriting, and related communities of practice within a rich diversity of languages, interactions, and interfaces. Each presentation in this series offers a glimpse of critical historical enquiry around everyday technologies for different writing systems around the world.

Upcoming talk • 10 June 2021

DAVID ARNOLD (University of Warwick)

The typewriter as protagonist: India’s new age of technology, 1890–1920

Typewriters are special kinds of ‘things’: they have a voice, a signature, a generative power of their own. They are ‘things’ that produce ‘things’. They are also harbingers of a transformative techno-modernity, in which from the mid-nineteenth century onwards a cluster of small machines — the camera, bicycle, sewing machine, gramophone, typewriter — began to isolate, mimic, and augment specific human functions. Combining ‘thing theory’ with the discursive and material idioms of modernity, this presentation asks what makes typewriters special and in particular poses this question in relation to society, politics, and the techno-culture of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century India. It ponders the semantic significance of the hyphenated hybrid ‘type-writer’ and the use (before the rise of the ‘typist’) of the term ‘typewriter’ to designate both the machine and the person who operates it. The presentation further examines how, in contrast to standard notions of ‘colonial knowledge’, India reacted to an assertive American take on modernity — with typewriters as the stylish exemplars of speed, uniformity, and efficiency, from the re-gendering (and re-racializing) of office work, through technological mobility and physical portability, vernacularization and commercialization, to newspaper advertising and brand recognition. The typewriter spawned a new pedagogy, with secretarial courses, business schools, instruction manuals, and sales leaflets. It stimulated new levels of functional literacy, office and business skills. It also necessitated new forms of technical expertise, from the typewriter repairman to the handwriting and typewriter specialist of the Criminal Investigation Department. These overarching dynamics are read against two specific episodes — the Parsi postcard case of 1915 and the Lahore conspiracy case of 1914 — which highlight the internal tensions and contradictory impulses in India’s emergent typewriter culture.

David Arnold is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Warwick and a Fellow of the British Academy. His principal contribution to typewriter scholarship is Everyday technology: machines and the making of India’s modernity (2013), which also considers bicycles, sewing machines, and rice mills. His earlier work has ranged widely over the history of medicine, science, technology, and the environment in modern South Asia, including Colonizing the body: state medicine and epidemic disease in nineteenth-century India (1993) and The tropics and the traveling gaze: India, landscape, and science, 1800-1856 (2005). His latest book, Burning the dead: Hindu nationhood and the global construction of Indian tradition (2021), discusses cremation in India and the South Asian diaspora, but the ‘everyday’ in technology remains an abiding interest.

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