Reports that the last typewriter factory has closed its doors are slightly premature, but it won’t be long before that happens; the wonder is that it managed to survive as long as it did.

The advent of this then revolutionary device in the middle of the 19th century was greeted with much the same suspicion and occasional outright enmity as the desktop computer in the early 1980s — a mixture of the defence of vested interests and blinkered conservatism. In a couple of decades, it put out of business an entire and now forgotten class of professionals — the scriveners, copyists and engrossers who were the princes of the clerkly classes.

Anyone, almost always male, who could write a fine, elegant hand could earn a moderately good living in legal or commercial firms and a practitioner would serve a fairly lengthy apprenticeship from copying to engrossing, the pinnacle of the scrivener’s art, which was the final fair copying of elaborate documents, including wills, contracts, indentures, treaties and other instruments of power.

The documents themselves were often things of beauty, frequently adorned with flourishes and graphic furbelows, and each copy had to be as far as possible identical.

At the other end of the market, freelance scrivening and copying provided a slender means of survival for lonely eccentrics, wasters and ne’er-do-wells such as Melville’s Bartleby and other unemployables, while their more respectable colleagues could often find a post as amanuensis to a prominent author, a gentleman scholar or a busy public figure.

But still, it was drudgery. George Bernard Shaw opined that ‘Of all the damnable waste of human life, clerking is the worst.’

The drudgery was swept away by the typewriter, which — horribile dictu — could be and usually was operated by women. The machine made it possible for many single women to live independently and respectably and may be credited as one of the factors in the early stirrings of the women’s movements.

But it merely replaced the drudgery of scrivening with drudgery of another kind. Anyone who has used a manual typewriter for any length of time will know that it is debilitating work, and in the case of copy typing, profoundly tedious. Photocopiers did not appear until the late 1960s, so large firms had typing pools — enormous rooms full of women and the clack and rattle of hundreds of machines.

Typists’ fingers became calloused and spatulate and they developed a characteristic hunch from leaning over the keys, pounding away to produce three or four carbon copies. Accidentally skipping a line or a paragraph early in a document meant the whole thing had to be done again when the error was detected.

The physical effort was considerable and, to give one egregious example, it played a large part in hastening the premature death of the ailing George Orwell as he sat in his sickbed banging out several versions of the manuscript of Nineteen Eighty Four.

The electric typewriter removed some of the physical drudgery for typists and for authors, but it took little of the pain out of the process of writing. Drafts were laboriously typed and retyped, cut and shuffled with scissors and paste, corrected in places with toxic white-out paint — and then began the arduous task of producing the final fair copy. It is little wonder that the first acquisition of a successful author was often a secretary-typist.

The computer, with its capacity for cut-and-paste, for tracking changes from draft to draft and restoring earlier versions, has now almost supplanted even these, especially now that it can take dictation with ever-increasing accuracy and ease. The clack of fingers on keys is less and less heard along the corridors of Knocklofty Towers; it has been replaced by the murmur of writers talking to their machines.

Not even the most hidebound among them mourns the passing of the typewriter; objections on the grounds that manual typewriters didn’t need electricity have been banished by the imminent appearance of small computers powered by the sun.

There is one lamentable consequence of all this progress: so much of the physical and mental labour has now been taken out of the task of writing that a major excuse for procrastination has become even more pitifully thin.