Did you know you can still buy adding machines these days? You know, the calculators with the tape rolls that, before personal computers came about, you saw on every desk in every office in America? I hadn’t seen one in years. Decades, maybe. I figured they’d disappeared long ago, made obsolete in the wake of the new-fangled PC. But while strolling through Staples looking for a printer cartridge, I was both shocked and delighted to stumble across a display of what else? Real live adding machines. The fact that they weren’t exactly prominently featured made my discovery that much more enchanting. It was as though Staples had intentionally hidden them away in a dark aisle onto which few ever wandered. A store clerk named “A.C.” assured me that the adding machine market still has a pulse. “Small businesses, churches, anyone who wants a quick paper trail of their numbers will buy one of these,” he said. “A regular calculator won’t give you a printout, and a laptop is overkill. Every once in awhile, someone will come in looking for an adding machine and we sell them one of these, only now we call them printing calculators.” That’s a mouthful, I thought. I’d just call it an adding machine. It’s fewer syllables and everyone knows what you’re talking about. I couldn’t resist another question, though. “Hey, A.C.,” I said, “any word from O.J.?” He just looked at me.
I found my printer cartridge when another item caught my eye that surprised me even more than the adding machines—carbon paper. This is some nasty stuff whose only purpose is to let you make a duplicate copy of a document at the same time you make the original, usually using a typewriter. Carbon paper was once so prominent in office settings that we still use the term today, carbon copy or CC, to refer to a second copy of an email. Silly me, I thought carbon paper had all been replaced by NCR paper, and later by the PC printer which will render as many duplicate copies as you like without getting black carbon all over your hands. Yet there on the Staples shelf was a box of carbon paper: five dollars for ten sheets. “Wondering about the carbon paper?” asked A.C. “I think it’s mostly for people who don’t use PCs. I’ve only sold one box since I’ve been working here, and that was to an old guy who didn’t want anything to do with PCs or software or anything that was made after 1955.” A.C. has a sense of humor.
Sufficiently intrigued, I decided to go for the trifecta. Carbon paper has to lead to typewriters, right? “I have two,” said A.C., and showed me a couple of Brother models that made me shudder as I recalled staying up all night desperately typing term papers that were due at 9 a.m. No excuses. Anything late gets an F. Just before the PC took off, typewriters had evolved into word processors with LCD screens so you could see what you were typing before it printed. They even came with floppy disk drives to let you save your work. The typewriters I was staring at now had no displays or drives. Just basic typewriters with daisy-wheel fonts. “People buy these just to keep handy when they have a form that won’t go through their laser printer,” explained A.C. “I’ve sold several to doctors offices that use them alongside their PCs.”
I paid for my printer cartridge and left the store. I’d gotten over the shock of seeing what I’d considered outdated items in a modern office store. In fact, there is something reassuring about knowing that such tools are still part of our working world. Obsolete to some, adding machines, carbon paper, and typewriters provide real value to others.
In fact, as I think about it, I have a friend who still uses a Commodore 64, which he bought new in 1982 for $595. He’s no throwback. In fact, he’s got a couple of pretty nice Pentium PCs that he’s built himself. But the Commodore is a tool he uses to break his kids into the computer world. It’s small and non-threatening, and it has simple programs that the kids like. I suppose if it still meets your needs, there’s no such thing as an obsolete product.
You won’t find a Commodore 64 at Staples, but you can sure get one cheap on eBay. A quick search shows one “in the box and untested” selling for $10.50. Coincidentally, also selling for $10.50 is a seven-record set of The Commodores, featuring Lionel Richie. Believe it or not, I could buy both the computer and record set for less than I paid for a single printer cartridge. Now that’s value.
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