Crime, Punishment, and Typewriter Tape

We blogged a while back about how cassette tapes have found a niche in prisons, where the retro tech is considered a safe alternative to CD’s. Where else is old technology hanging on? In New York City police stations, where typewriters are still regularly used to fill out paperwork. The N.Y.P.D. spent nearly $1 million on typewriters in 2007. Just because a technology has been superseded doesn’t make it completely irrelevant. [%comments]


This reminds me of The Wire. In the first season the BPD uses typewriters and complains about them bitterly. In season 2 they are just starting to get computers up and running. From then on the cop characters use computers regularly and without special comment. As the other technology on the show grew more sophisticated so did the use of computers. More evidence that Simon & Co. knew exactly what they were doing.

Johnny E

Superseded (obsolete) technology is never irrelevant. People used mortars and pestles thousands of years ago, but they exist in many kitchens today, despite blenders, mixers, mills, etc. Cooks choose to use many tools.

However, the NYPD using typewriters has nothing to do with this thesis. The NYPD is a victim of bureaucracy, internal politics and budget constraints. $1 million buys many more typewriters than computers. Ask any cop if he or she would prefer a computer to a typewriter.

You might as well point to the 1950s cars that are still on the road in Cuba. They work, but the folks who use them would probably prefer to drive something else. They use the old cars because they have to.


LOL.. very interesting. I betcha the guys who supply NYC cops can charge a premium as the 'supplier' base drops... dead... literally.


In FY 2009 the NYPD purchased 213 typewriters at a cost of ~$65k. The "$1 million" written about in media reports is a three-year, multi-agency (i.e., not just NYPD) contract through Citywide Administrative Services that covers fiscal years '08, '09 and ‘10.

This January the NYPD awarded a $25-million contract to completely automate the property clerk's office with a new property evidence tracking system. (Typewriters are often used to process property vouchers, which are not yet automated.) It is expected to go online in 2011, when the recording of all property will be done with computers, not typewriters.

With the Mayor's support, tens of millions of dollars have been expended on the ongoing computerizing of station houses and police cars, and developing the Department's Real Time Crime Center, as well as rebuilding the technological infrastructure related to 911 calls.

Bas Schmitz

What amazes me is the fax machine. It became popular in the 1980s, and hasn't undergone may changes since then. And even though computers, the Internet and email should have made the fax obselete, it is still a vital piece of equipment in many organizations.

Is it perhaps because noone wants to be the first to discard their fax? Every fax involves 2 machines, so you can only really get rid of yours if they get rid of theirs. For that you need some kind of mutual agreement. But that is already getting far too complicated...


Look at the ease with which DJs still scratch records.


Seeing as I do not work for the NYPD I can not speak for anyone there, I however, find typewriters to be wonderful instruments. Old fashion typewriters involve the writer in a physical way which has been all but lost in the age of computers. Nowadays nobody thinks about when to go to the next line, because computers do it automatically for us. There is something so satisfying about hearing the clacking of a typewriter's keys. Also, typing involved thinking about what you wanted to say before putting it on paper, something which not all writers do now.

In defense of the NYPD office, typewriters can also be very helpful for filling out paperwork, more so than computers. For paper documents with blanks that need to be filled in you can't beat a good ol' Blickensderfer.


Hopefully these are the IBM Selectric ball version typewriters...picture from CNN looks like a manual version.

One thing they should NOT be doing is buying new typewriters- surely there are enough old ones to refurb...

Eric M. Jones

Old technology hanging on?

As noted above, typewriters are used because they fill out forms specifically designed to be filled out with typewriters. The superseded technology is the form.

I usually handwrite the addresses on envelopes, but keeping a typewriter around to do it would be a silly luxury.

When tools are made to do a specific job, and the job stays the same, the tools don't need to change much. An example is basic surgical tools. The basic 4000 year-old Egyptian surgical tools are usable today.


@Coby -typewriters are better for filling out old forms. But the NYPD could hire college interns over the summer to key in old forms into adobe or word documents that could be downloaded as needed and the boxes filled in on a computer. They probably could lay off enough staff due to automation to recover capital costs in a couple of years.


You can really date yourself when you call the "enter" button "return." It really freaks out my kids.


up until very recently the Film and Television business still used Polaroids to snap shots for continuity purposes while filming.
The wardrobe person and the script person would use their Polaroid camera to snap a shot of the most recent wardrobe change or the set "As-Is" so they would have a very recent reference that could be pinned on a bulletin board and referred to.
I don't know what they are using now that Polaroid film has stopped being produced.
They were very very slow to adapt to digital still cameras for this use.

Another niche market in Film Production is flashbulbs.
When you are filming a period piece and need a photographer in the frame "taking photos", they need flashbulbs in those olde cameras!
Also- off-camera flashes tended to work "better" with flashbulbs rather than electronic strobes as the flashbulbs "burned" longer and you would be sure the flash would show up on motion picture film. The strobe was bright, but short in duration and did not always show up when filming at 24 frames per second.
I made a good chunk of change for a while tracking down old flashbulbs, buying them in bulk and re-selling them on film shoots. You could not just go out and "buy" more of them.



Interesting note. I have a friend whose father is a typewriter repairman. One would think his job would be obsolete, but the reality is far different. He is busier than ever. A lot of offices still use typewriters for multi-part forms. Usually small businesses or government offices (school districts particularly). I guess it is too expensive or time consuming for these groups to make these forms electronic.
When the typewriter breaks it is easier and cheaper to have it fixed. And since there are no new people going into typewriter repair, his competition is shrinking (dying?). He can basically charge what he wants. Last I heard he charged around $50 an hour plus materials and travel time.


I guess the NYPD has never heard of fillable PDF files.


I dont understand why republicans wouldnt want to pass have crime legislation.


Some water pipes in Philadelphia are made out of wooden staves. I believe Telex's still exist. And France still runs their cruddy Minitel system. And at that, the space shuttle remains the pinnacle of 1976 technology: there's more raw computer power in an iPhone than a space shuttle.

Eric M. Jones

#11 — Kaonashi

Yes! And after long thought and careful deliberation I disabled the Caps Lock key on my keyboard by removing the key and placint an O-Ring in the annular hollow of the plastic key.

By the way, I always use Model M IBM keyboards, which at least keeps that clicky "Selectric" feel in the typing process. See:
This is a piece of antique technology that I grew accustomed to and intend to use for the rest of my typing life. There are even collectors groups online to support it. I keep several spares for the future.


I still use my old olivetty lettera 32,in blue color!
Two years ago I bought ten cartridges in order to recreate the children of my family and of the neighborhood the big experience of being very careful with my words,because if I failed an accent,or if I typed incorrectly a word,I had to erase carefully and spend precious time alligning the papaer again!

The kids look at me amused that i spend at times more than a half hour just writing a single page!
But I say that I was in my student days able to finish my essay even when electric light had failed!
They then say "ooooooo!",..and I think they understand me!


Many hospitals still use pagers.