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It is 1950. I am a rich and crazy entrepreneur, who wants to replace pens with typewriters. I can try to influence (or lobby) any government in the world. I want my typewriter to be cheaper than pens, although that typewriter may have an extremely limited set of glyphs. With the hindsight available to you people (from the 21st century) is there any practical way for me to achieve my ambition?

  1. I am willing to use any major writing system for my typewriter. The term 'major' here is intentionally vague, and means that it is used by millions of people daily.
  2. I want millions of ordinary laymen to replace pens with my typewriters. It need not be a worldwide success.
  3. I want my typewriter to be cheaper than pens.
  4. I want this to happen in 20th century.

A combination of the answers from Monty Wild and user535733 is the best choice. I am in a moral dilemma that it is not possible to select them both. A modern version of index typewriter marketed using a loss leader strategy might be the best option. I still welcome better ideas, or more historical examples for such attempts, if any.

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    $\begingroup$ "I want millions of ordinary laymen to replace pens with my typewriters": Oh that's easy. It actually happened; from the 1960s to the 1980s typewriters were ubiquitous in many places of the world. In America, for example, almost all high-school students learned to type. For example, one type of typewriter, the IBM Selectric, sold more than 13 million units. (And it was an expensive typewriter.) (As for prices, the typical price of a typewriter in the 1960s was about 400 dollars. A very good Parker 51 fountain pen was about 20.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 7, 2022 at 8:58
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    $\begingroup$ Assuming these will remain mechanical typewriters. #1 will be tossed out immediately. The QWERTY and Dvorak keyboards were designed to both A) Minimize mechnical jamming. B) Ensure customer loyalty because once you learned a system you wouldn't bother with another. I don't believe had the supposed more efficient Dvorak been released before QWERTY that it would've significantly altered sales. That said, what you describe did happen. Typewriters did replace the pen in all cases appropriate, just as computers did the same thing. That doesn't mean the pen or pencil became obsolete today. $\endgroup$
    – user93359
    Jan 7, 2022 at 9:13
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what you do here is sustainable. At least not if (until?) you successfully eliminate handwriting ability entirely. Pens are significantly cheaper to manufacture. The good news is, a pen is not the default way of interface with a computer (and thus the internet.) $\endgroup$
    – Nuclear241
    Jan 7, 2022 at 11:05
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    $\begingroup$ can you make a typewriter smaller and lighter than a ball point pen? because you would need that at minimum. then you need to teach typing in elementary school, before handwriting. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 7, 2022 at 19:13
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    $\begingroup$ One huge advantage of pens is that they can be used to write in bound sets of paper, like notebooks and notepads. Typewriters could never conquer this niche and only pocket size computers (smartphones etc.) had been able to do that. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jan 8, 2022 at 3:47

12 Answers 12

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Index Typewriters

American index typewriter No. 2, 1893, image courtesy of https://site.xavier.edu/polt/typewriters/american.html

Photo source: https://site.xavier.edu/polt/typewriters/american.html

Index typewriters tried to solve this very problem: Typing for household and occasional use. The user must use two finger movements to type each character (instead of one), which slows typing...but reduces the number of parts required and the corresponding cost. They were popular 1880-1920, and cost around 5% of a classic business typewriting machine. Portable models existed.

Of course, these examples of 120-year-old machines cost more than a pen of the time, and take up more pocket space. Your inventor must do a bit of the inventing work themselves.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks - Upvoting. This is the sort of answer I wanted. Any attempts to make them cheaper (or more practical)? I have 2 very good answers, and I don't know which to select. I shall wait before selecting the answer. Let me see if we get more good answers like yours. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2022 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ Wow, I had to look at this a second time. I had one of these (smaller, lighter, much cheaper) as a toy right after I learned to read, a couple years before starting school -- that would be 1963-1964. The one I had was mostly brightly painted stamped "tin" and couldn't have weighed half a pound (even at age 4-5 I thought it was lightweight). Actually wrote letters to my grandmother on it. It resembled the red Mettype here (scroll down): hisforhomeblog.com/tag/typewriter $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jan 7, 2022 at 20:11
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The manufacturing cost of the cheapest pen is never going to be more than the manufacturing cost of the cheapest typewriter. In fact, the manufacturing cost of an average pen is never going to be more than the manufacturing cost of the cheapest typewriter. Typewriters are complicated.

However, the disparity in cost between pens and typewriters need not be an obstacle to typewriters becoming ubiquitous. The sale price of items need not reflect the manufacturing cost of that item. With sufficient funds or other sales, the manufacturer of typewriters could sell their cheapest, simplest model for less than the sale price of a pen.

Why would they want to do that? As a form of advertising. Sell the basic model so dirt-cheap that everyone who might be considering buying a pen will seriously consider buying one of these typewriters instead.

How could a manufacturer afford to practically give away typewriters? Higher-grade models and consumables. Sell both for a large markup to cover the manufacturing costs of the cheapest model.

Additionally, a manufacturer could give basic typewriters to schools to encourage the teaching of typing, and teach the latest generation to prefer typewriters.

Why, when a basic typewriter is so cheap, would anyone buy a much more expensive model of typewriter? Put simply, the much more expensive models would be much easier to use, with lighter keystrokes, better placed controls, capable of more things, and with a range of much nicer, more readable fonts than the ugly font used in the cheapest model.

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    $\begingroup$ Or they can gow ith the Adobe/Unity/AutoDesk business model, sell it under cost to students to make it the relevant skills ubiquitous and charge a premium to professionals. $\endgroup$
    – user93359
    Jan 7, 2022 at 10:18
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps one of those overpriced products may include support for custom glyphs. Partial or full Greek letter set, math and scientific symbols, IPA, and other stuffs. Maybe even alphabets in the work of fiction, like the green ones scrolling down in the Matrix movies. Compatible to all models except the cheapest. Oh my. $\endgroup$
    – Nuclear241
    Jan 7, 2022 at 10:57
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    $\begingroup$ The cheapest typewriters last only one semester of students using it. In order to have something that can last, you have to buy a more expensive model. Most people will buy the cheap version, use it once or twice, then toss it. Businesses will buy something that lasts (especially when the government forces them to depreciate it over five years). $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Jan 7, 2022 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ This is a very good answer, so I have upvoted. If you can please suggest any plausible scenario for making this a successful business strategy (in 20th century), it would be helpful. Another answer is also good. I don't know which to select. I shall wait before selecting the answer. Let me see if we get more good answers like yours. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2022 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ I've already stated the business model: charge more for consumables and higher-end models. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Jan 8, 2022 at 1:58
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Allow me to introduce the Berwin toy typewriter!

Your timing is impeccable! In 1950, pens were not cheap. Typical pens of the time cost several dollars. These, of course, were fountain pens. The biro had been introduced a few years before, but were far more expensive.

Seeming to be the natural descendant of the Index Typewriter mentioned in another (excellent) answer, this little tin litho toy will fit your bill perfectly.

enter image description here

All you have to do is turn the type wheel and press a key that pushes it towards the paper! Unlike standard business models, there are hardly any moving parts here. The keys are just litho decorations. The original price was probably a dollar or so.

If you need a much smaller, even more portable device, then check out the Cole-Parmer printer! It operates on the same basic principle as the previous, turning a little print wheel and pulling the trigger to impress the letter into the plastic strip medium. Even in our time, first quarter of the 21st century, they're cheap! Twelve dollars now is approximately the same as your every day Franklin half dollar!

enter image description here


From Comments:

Need directions? Just type them out!

Adding up a bill is trivially easy. Integrate either device with an "Add-a-Matic"!

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Upvoting - you have shown an example of a narrow niche where this really worked. That is a good information. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2022 at 10:06
  • $\begingroup$ add up a bill or draw a map with either and it might have a chance. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 8, 2022 at 14:52
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Put their eyes out.

Your handy (patented) Braille ring doodads (which make a typewriter-like clack as the spring tension rams the mold into a substrate such as a softened wooden or bamboo strip) allow trained users to produce Braille glyphs quite rapidly, and they can read them better than a letter in pen.

(To save time on the blinding, you might consider spiking their polio vaccines with some sort of toxic alcohol akin to methanol or ethylene glycol, but slower acting and more potent ...)

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    $\begingroup$ The protagonist is a rich entrepreneur, and not a super villain. Also, which government in the world would allow such a terrible thing to happen to their own population? $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2022 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ @JayadevanVijayan You should specify the first part in the question - it can be hard to tell the difference. As for governments, well ... they let chemists brew up fake lard with partially hydrogenated trans fats that are still killing 500,000 people a year. They let companies put psoralens in sunscreens to agonize kids who forget to reuse them. I could go on about PFAS and ethylene oxide and patents/exclusivity on medicines... it remains to be proven they can't be bribed to do something. And it's so cheap to hire a PR person to say "tragic accident, totally unforeseeable" afterwards. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2022 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ Upvoting, although this is not what I had in mind when I asked the question. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2022 at 17:49
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for being so far outside the box you can't even see the box. $\endgroup$ Jan 7, 2022 at 18:22
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    $\begingroup$ Mike wins this week's award for Most Evil Answer. Congratulations! $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2022 at 4:38
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There's only one way to get everyone to quit using pens, which is what will be needed to transfer everyone over to typewriters.

Law

Draconian law.

First, you'll ensure that all typewriter manufacturers are prepared to run three shifts at maximum capacity for a period of years, until the need for writing instruments is filled.

Second, you'll place a legal prohibition with severe penalties on the manufacture, import, use, or mere possession of any kind of pen, stylus, pencil, or crayon (sorry, kids, but coloring is more fun with watercolors and a brush anyway). Ink, too. Our modern society's "War on Drugs" can be a fine example of how well this can work.

Third, you'll similarly outlaw teaching handwriting or even manuscript block lettering -- if people know how to do it, they find ways to make the tools. Sadly, pens are so simple that they predated the invention of anything you might reasonably write on, and ink isn't much harder.

Now, prepare to take on organized crime for at least three or four generations, because where there's a demand, someone will step up to fill it.

In the end, even if typewriters are free, and with all the above measures, I doubt they'll replace handwriting -- they're just too heavy to carry around, where a pen only weighs 15-30 grams and fits easily in a pocket or can even ride behind your ear.

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  • $\begingroup$ Patent law could help: your rich entrepreneur can buy up pen patents, and then make pens impracticably expensive. Another option is advertising: convince people that they really need to use a typewriter for a message to count; pens are dirty and low-class. (Maybe hire the agency that convinced people that they need to buy diamonds.) $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2022 at 1:58
  • $\begingroup$ @KenShirriff, that idea would depend heavily on having a system of extremely draconian patent law, where patents not only never move into the common domain, but where designs that predate the law can be patented and manufacture made illegal. It's an outdated skill, but I've personally made serviceable pens out of feathers and really, really bad pens out of sticks. $\endgroup$
    – Karen
    Jan 8, 2022 at 3:39
  • $\begingroup$ This idea seems far-fetched, but you definitely have a valid point. Upvoting. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2022 at 10:04
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Can't happen

you have three major problems

  1. Cheaper is nothing, they also need to be smaller and lighter than a ball point pen. I can put a pen in my pocket and write on any document I come across.

  2. People need to learn typing before they learn handwriting, a large number of people will never learn both, so you need teach typing before hand writing, which means you also need to replace pencils, crayons, chalk, and markers.

  3. The last nail, I can draw with a pen, that alone makes a pen far more useful. I can underline, circle, sketch, trace, I can write on skin, wood, paper, cardboard, pictures, ect. I draw a map, or a cartoon, or a math problem or chemical formula, I can make a diagram or draw an arrow, or thousand other things a typewriter cannot do. I can write in multiple languages with the same pen. A pen is a far FAR more versatile tool. A typewriter cannot replace pens because it can't do most of the things a pen can do.

The people who could benefit from a portable typewriter already had them, basically just people who needed a single dedicated machine for writing large amounts quickly in a single language, but they still carried pens for corrections, sketches, or a dozen other uses. the typewriter is too specialized to replace a general purpose tool. It is like asking a farmer to replace all knives with axes, or replace paper with audio recordings.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, it might work better if his plan were hatched before Ball Point came along. If pens were less practical, not disposable, and subject to leaking, people might want an alternative. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jan 8, 2022 at 0:34
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz even a stylus pen is way lighter and easer to carry, and again I can draw a map or a math problem with a fountain pen I can't with a type writer. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 8, 2022 at 0:47
  • $\begingroup$ Upvoting, but I have some questions. You are saying about the cost of manufacturing the device, right? Considering the cost of employing people who have good handwriting, or subsidies by governments or the "sell at a loss" marketing strategies by businesses, may be typewriters can be cheaper in some situations. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2022 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ @JayadevanVijayan I didn't say anything about the cost of manufacture except to acknowledge the OP's statement about it. the cost is the least of the considerations. the limitations of a typewriter and of carrying one are far larger barriers. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 8, 2022 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ And when we consider the earlier version of a pen, a feather, it is impossible to wipe out something that is essentially free. Pull a feather from a chicken, cut off the end, dip in ink, and ink can be made from oak galls or walnut husks. Writing is free. In the past, paper was the expensive item. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Jan 8, 2022 at 15:15
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First, you realize pens are inherently portable. So the first step is to make the typewriters small enough to be easily portable. With a genius-level foresight (or a dumber than dumb 21st century hindsight) it is clear that mechanical typewriters will not quite fit the bill - electronics is the way to go, especially the newly discovered semiconductor devices.

Something like this, replacing the hard to operate mechanical construction with an electrically operated printing ball and an easy to type keyboard s an improvement:

IBM selectric

Still too heavy. So then comes the next model:

Silent Writer

That's better, but for quick notes, paper is still cumbersome, big and heavy (in reasonable quantities). Replacing the paper with a built in display is an improvement:

TRS80 model 100

It could be made smaller, but then typing would become more difficult.

The next step is to make these (first luggable, then portable, or perhaps even pocket) typewriters to be widely accepted and used by the population worldwide. Granted, with prices getting low enough, these will be used, but mostly by enthusiasts and typewriter geeks. So, in addition to writing down notes (which is the main use of a pen), what can our typewriters offer as their killer app? Well, we people are social beings, so the ability to communicate remotely... while nothing new under the Sun, making it ubiquitous and portable (and with some far reaching imagination, even wireless) would have some appeal...

So, after some iterations, your typewriter fits into a pocket and either has a reasonable keyboard, but a bit heavy:

Nokia 9100

through smaller, but still very usable:

NokiaE61

to the poor man's typewriter with a limited keyboard, requiring multiple presses of a key to enter the desired letter:

Nokia 3310

And who knows where the future development leads, but one thing is clear, the devices will have a keyboard - although we can imagine technological development to allow us other input methods, who would want to write on anything that is slower, error-prone and clumsier than a keyboard?

That's for the two way written communication... but can we do better? Obviously, N-way (where N>2) is better - imagine a worldwide network, with hundreds, nay, thousands of discussion groups, where you can type you opinion, read the responses from your peers on your pocket typewriter screen, even communicate in real time... I can imagine this to be the major timesink and a new most indispensable thing since the television. And once this becomes widespread, people will use handwriting (and pens) less and less and eventually even the school system will catch on.

And, if the development starts with the transistor and continues in its natural leisure pace, prompted now and then by generous investments in the right spots by your entrepreneur, and if in the 1950 he is young and healthy, with a bit of luck he might live long enough to see his dream come true.

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    $\begingroup$ Upvoting. That technological progress is exactly the metaphoric wave which our entrepreneur wants to ride on. When he rides this wave, it's not his struggles which propel him (to greater profits or glory), it is the strength of the technological phenomenon. $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2022 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ The TRS-80 Model 100 keyboard was actually quite good. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jan 10, 2022 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ If you're looking at technological advancement, not just a plain key=glyph mechanism, let me point out the phenomenon in China. Typing is displacing handwriting and people are forgetting how to write. I've seen cases where my wife had to stop to think about how a character should be stroked out. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jan 10, 2022 at 15:01
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Typesetters Guild

The typewriter will always be more expensive than the pen. Your business model is that, once the guild is established, it can lease a typewriter and typist for cheaper than a pen and scribe.

Why are typists so cheap? It is because you recruit your typists from poor families. It is easier and cheaper to train a classroom of typists to type neatly and quickly than it is to train them to write neatly in cursive script with flowing letters on old coarse paper using a fountain pen -- without them nicking the pens. You don't have this problem with nicking typewriters because they are big.

You save money on manufacturing the first load of typewriters, by selling them to the library, for the purposes of making copies of books. This is extra cheap since the duplicators don't even need to know how to read. They just do it letter by letter.

More money is saved by mass-producing typists in factory schools. For example students have to correct each others' work to save on teacher costs. The largest overhead is actually the price of paper.

To alleviate the price of paper, you re-use each sheet several times. First with pale grey ink, then medium-grey over that, and so on until the last use has black ink.

Extra points if part of the schooling process is to copy a book from the library. You make more money by selling the copy to the library than the cost of training the student.

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There is no question in my mind, how best to do it.

British Empire, especially its Civil Service

The British Empire dominated world politics during the first part of the 20th century. It set social and cultural norms for countries from India and what's now Bangladesh, to the Carribean and much of Africa and Micronesia (Pacific Isles). It's why the Indian Civil Service is so desirable to get into, why English is so global, why countries worldwide wear British clothing such as bowler hats or shirts that weren't part of their traditions, and many other things.

If you want typewriters to overtake pens, mandate it to your colonies. You have at least 2 angles:

Cultural pressure: If the British do it, others will see which way the wind blows. It'll be too shameful to not have that skill. Parents from remote Indian villages to Jamaican mansions will slap their children's hands for using a pen ("Do you want Teacher to laugh at you? You want a job as a chai-wallah/sugar worker? What girl/boy will marry you if people say you use a pen!?"). Rich people will acquire tutors for children poor families will indenture themselves if needed for one shared between them, so their kids can have a cjance in life and not be shunned. You can influence it in schools, police, government offices, the works....

Formal requirement: its part of the prestigious Civil Service Entrance Exam. Its mandated by government practice documents and required of anyone who works for them. If you know history, you'll know just how hard people drove themselves to get such jobs, meet such demands.

And yes, let them indenture themselves. Its cruel, but embeds it even harder in the culture. What you have to sacrifice for, you are even more determined won't prove wasted.

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Get schools to only teach typing

Typewriters may be much more complicated than pens; but handwriting is a much more difficult skill than typing. Donate generously to the top political party/parties to "prepare pupils for the future" by dropping slow, archaic, difficult to read handwriting for modern, efficient typing. Buy millions of typewriters for primary schools, and get them while they're young, and they will never learn to write using pens.

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    $\begingroup$ Upvoting - "prepare pupils for the future" by dropping slow, archaic, difficult to read handwriting for modern, efficient typing is a great point. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2022 at 9:49
  • $\begingroup$ @JayadevanVijayan except you still need to teach them handwriting, because they need to do math and draw diagrams. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 8, 2022 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ @John Draw diagrams, yes - although I don't see that requires handwriting - and I suspect it'd be easily reduced in importance; but I don't think there's any need for maths. You'd just adapt the notation to one easily achieved with a typewriter. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2022 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ @JackAidley I'm not talking about just simpler arithmetic, you need to be able to go geometry, balance equations, simplify, move numbers on a grid, write exponents. you can build a typewriter that can do some of this, but it stops being the small portable device the OP wants. I have a computer in front of me but i can't put in a simple chemical formula without an extra program. Also reinvent math a far bigger hurdle than anything else, we couldn't get people to switch to the metric system even though it is demonstrable easier to use. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 8, 2022 at 15:03
  • $\begingroup$ @John: To simplify, all you need to do is cross stuff out, you don't need to handwrite. mathematical and chemical formulaes - written properly - do require complex equipment but there have been easy computer printable alternatives for decades. People figured this stuff out very quickly when it was necessary. If you can corrupt a political party to introduce typing-only then solutions would quickly be found. $\endgroup$ Jan 8, 2022 at 15:09
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Widespread hand damage/deformities

Ironically enough, I just read this story on the BBC news about the 1921 census. Everyone filled out their census form in handwritten ink - apart from an ex-soldier who did it on a typewriter. Part of his right hand had been blown off during the war.

You can invent your plot-based reasons for this. But if you don't have hands that can grip a pen, a typewriter is your best option. Sure, people do use their mouth or feet instead - but a typewriter where you can simply hit the relevant key with any available body part is simple, reliable and useable by everyone, with guaranteed readable results.

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Too Many Lawsuits

You're not going to make the cost of making a pen less than the cost of a making typewriter, but you may be able to make the cost of pen ownership higher than the cost of owning a typewriter. In the time leading up to your story, contracts, deeds, wills, etc. were still by-in-large hand written. Now imagine someone got a lot of publicity successfully suing to break a contract over the argument that his handwriting was too illegible to be understood by the person signing the document.

This leads to a series of lawsuits that get more and more ridicules as business arrangements of all kinds come under litigation leading to untold billions of dollars in damages left and right . It gets so bad that insurance company's and law makers adjust thier polices around pen use being seen as a high-risk behavior. Basically your civilization goes cancel culture on all things hand written.

So sure, you can still buy a pen as a "novelty item" and it's still cheaper than a typewriter, but the second you move into "real world applications", the liability of using a pen for anything is so great that after all the fines, pro-rates, riders, and excess taxes associated with them make them more expensive to own than the typewriter.

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