A surprising number of tears were shed when the world’s last manual-typewriter factory announced its shuttering a few days back. Once again, generations of technological know-how are set to evaporate as a once state-of-the-art invention tumbles into museum mode.
The manual typewriter industry’s long-anticipated demise got me thinking about engineering wizards whose skills have been outmoded by the relentless march of technology. As a New Yorker, the first folks who popped to mind were Kim Gibbs and Alan Campbell, the so-called Slug Kings, who made minor fortunes in the ’80s and early ’90s by manufacturing counterfeit subway tokens. Operating behind a Midtown front business called KG Delivery Service, Gibbs and Campbell churned out untold thousands, if not millions, of brass discs that would permit their bearers to enter the city’s subway system for a relative song. In 1991, Campbell described the technology and expertise invovled:
Around 1970 – the year the fare increased from 20 to 30 cents, triggering a mad run on all available slug supplies – Campbell was introduced, by chance, to the wonders of the reciprocating press, an industrial-strength hole puncher. He bought his own.
“The metal is slipped into long coils – really big ones are 300 pounds – and fed through the press,” he recalled. “I believe it was Russians who figured out that a submachine gun could be made from a reciprocating press. Making a slug is the easiest and simplest use of the reciprocating press. You could make up to a million if you kept the machine going.”
How many was he selling? “As far as the total, I didn’t want documents like that in my possession,” he said. “Sometimes I used newspaper articles to track it.” In those early years, one could read that 2,000, 8,000, 10,000, slugs a day were being collected from turnstiles. On his prices, he is vague – “variable rates; at one point I raised it to 15 cents” – and while he has a diary somewhere, he believes any figures would sound deceptively large.