Category Archives: Typewriters

Tom Hanks, Olympia, and Me

I had the pleasure of seeing a photo of mine get the Ken Burns treatment on CBS Sunday Morning’s story this weekend about Tom Hanks, his new book, and his love of typewriters:

One of my colleagues got an advance copy of Hanks’ book at a library conference back in June specifically because she knew I’d love it—and I did, enough to write my first typecast review. For the accompanying image I thought pairing the book’s beautiful blue cover with my Olympia SM7 (acquired at the splendid Retro-Revolution in Madison, WI) of almost the same shade made sense and looked great:

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Since I posted it far enough ahead of the book’s publication date, the photo (along with the images of my typewritten review) had time to climb up the ranks of Google Images under searches for “Uncommon Type”, which no doubt is how the CBS producer found it.

I knew Hanks’ book would give typewriters A Moment; I didn’t realize I’d be part of it! But I am happy to be. The book is out Tuesday: go get it and then get a typewriter of your own.

The People’s Machine: On ‘California Typewriter’

As was the case with Tom Hanks’s new typewriter-inspired short story collection, I was the easiest mark in the world for the new Doug Nichol documentary California Typewriter, which profiles the titular typewriter repair shop in Berkeley and the wider place of the typewriter in modern culture.

Though I’ve been anticipating the film for a while, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It turned out to be partially an adaptation of Richard Polt’s seminal The Typewriter Revolution and partially a meditation by figures famous and otherwise on the machine’s enduring value in the midst of its obsolescence. All together a collection of vignettes revolving around their common theme, the film works as a primer for the uninitiated as well as an adoring homage for the converted.

There are three main stories weaving throughout the film: the collector Martin Howard on a pilgrimage to snag an original 19th-century Sholes and Glidden, the California Typewriter shop struggling to survive in a defunct industry, and the artist Jeremy Mayer reusing parts from decommissioned typers to create some pretty incredible sculptures:

Together they neatly represent the past, present, and future of typewriters, but the shop narrative is the lynchpin. Owned by an African-American family for over 35 years, it’s now the most prominent representative of a dying breed. Even with the recent resurgence of interest, the decades of experience repairman Ken Alexander and his cohort have is a finite supply. And without high-quality typewriters being manufactured, that supply will only dwindle from here.

Still, notable typists have their reasons for sticking with typewriters. Tom Hanks has over 200 of them, many of which he gives away. (He names his favorites, two of which I own and share his opinion on.) David McCullough has been using the same hulking Royal Standard for over 50 years now in his drool-worthy writing cabin. (Against the conventional wisdom of modern gadgets, he says, “I don’t want to faster. I want to go slower.”) John Mayer got one in a bid for more permanence with his work and started writing lyrics with it. The late great Sam Shepard waxes eloquent about his Hermes 3000 and speaks to the benefits of its rituals, like how rolling in a new page is akin to saddling a horse for a job or journey.

The film is beautifully shot and edited by Nichol, whose eye as a commercial and music video cinematographer finds lots of lovingly framed images and scenes. A junkyard pile of cars that mirror the piles of discarded typers in Mayer’s studio. A reading of the Typewriter Insurgency Manifesto contrasted with footage of Apple fanatics lining up for the latest iDevice. But Nichol’s best decision was picking a subject that is already damn photogenic.

One collector mentions the typewriter subculture is almost exclusively men. Though technically inaccurate (for starters, typewriter poet-for-hire Silvi Alcivar is featured in the film, and there are the good people of Poems While You Wait) the film does insinuate a majority male enterprise given the people represented. This is a shame because many women are involved in the online community and at type-ins; and more broadly, the beautiful thing about the Revolution is that it’s a fully inclusive movement.

Typewriters are for everyone. Anyone can take up typing and for so many purposes, free from abstruse Terms & Conditions and free from the surveillance and proprietary influence that are built into digital technology. It’s a machine that is subservient to human will and not the other way around, whose sole function is to imprint letters on paper at the creative direction of the user.

In that way the typewriter truly is the People’s Machine. It’s your birthright, and it’s waiting for you. All you need is paper and ink—both of which are cheap and abundant—and desire to get started.

One Year in the Revolution

Tom Hanks, the most famous typewriter enthusiast in the world, couldn’t be a better ambassador for the field. Whether in a podcast or film or newspaper, he tells the Good News with his trademark charming gravitas. Though I’m sure longtime collectors wince at the thought of prices rising with such high-profile boosterism, it’s ultimately good for people and for typewriters—if only to save some from key-choppers or the dumpster.

A little over a year ago was when I first read Richard Polt’s The Typewriter Revolution, which set me off into this new world. I’m typing this draft on a Smith Corona Electra 12, the first typewriter I bought after enlisting in The Revolution. ($5 at Goodwill, still the lowest I’ve had to pay.) The Electra set me off into a typewriter mania, and my collection quickly burgeoned. Every antique mall and thrift shop was a potential holder of The Next One. I joined the Antique Typewriter Collectors Facebook group, read up on repair and maintenance, enlisted loved ones in searching for typewriters, annoyed friends and coworkers talking about my new hobby, and even took the plunge on an eBay purchase.

But once I hit my apartment’s MTC (Maximum Typewriter Capacity), I knew I had to temper my passions and come to balance. Once I realized I didn’t have to buy every decent typewriter I saw—that I had developed discernment (and a price limit) for what I really wanted—the ardor subsided and I’ve been able to appreciate what I have, while always keeping an eye open for a deal. All throughout, my wife has remained supportive (especially after I got her a pretty yellow Kmart 100), and continues to indulge me every time I describe my latest repair success or grumble about a particularly vexing dysfunction.

I wasn’t the tinkering kind of kid. I liked Legos and building forts, but lacked the mind for creative engineering that I saw in others. Even today I’m not a car guy and can only do basic home repairs. But I’ve really enjoyed learning typewriters. I’ve gradually gained the confidence to dig around inside them and learn how their innards work. Unlike computers, they are complicated but still able to be discerned. Though stunning works of art, they aren’t meant to sit in glass like an heirloom; they demand to be used and figured out.

When I casually grabbed The Typewriter Revolution off the library shelf, I couldn’t have guessed it would lead me into a new world of discovery and joy I enter every time I uncase a typewriter and roll some paper around the platen. But after a year of that, I’m still ready for more.

Track Changes

A good argument could be made for several different technologies being the ideal tool for writers. Pen and paper have proved durable and flexible but aren’t easily manipulated. Typewriters provide an attractive single-purpose distraction-free environment but don’t allow for easy duplication. Modern computers are powerful and multi-purpose, but easily distract.

We all are fortunate to live in a time when we can choose between these options. That wasn’t the case until certain benchmarks in history, which Matthew Kirschenbaum explores in his new book Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (which I learned about from the review in The New Republic). I was born in 1987, so I missed the period Kirschenbaum covers here (mostly the 1970s and ’80s), but I distinctly remember Windows 95, floppy disks, and everything going much slower than they do now. I wouldn’t chose to be transported back to the early 80s, when having a home computer required so much more work than it does now. Some people liked that work, and hey, to each’s own. But I’m a late-adopter. Whether it’s a new device, app, or other web service, I’m happy to let the early-adopters suffer through the bugs and relative paucity of features while I wait for things to get smoother and more robust.

The book explores several things I’m moderately interested in — chiefly literature, philosophy of writing, and the technical aspects of early personal computers — so I thought I’d give it a whirl and see what it came to. Since Kirschenbaum goes deep on those things I’m only moderately interested in, I found myself skimming through several passages that someone more invested in the topic might find more worthwhile. Overall, though, I thought it was a nice niche history, with perspective on where we’ve come from as a creative species and how the tools writers specifically use have shaped their work.

Typewriter Files: 1960 Smith Corona Electra 12

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This might be my prettiest machine. I found it not long after I read The Typewriter Revolution (which set me off on this maniacal hobby in the first place) in a cardboard box for an AT&T electric typewriter at a Goodwill. It was marked $5, either because it didn’t have its original case, or no one actually looked in the box and assumed it was a most unsexy 80s electric typewriter, or whoever set the price wasn’t a Smith Corona fan.

Overall it was in great shape. A steady electric hum accompanied the crisp and quick clattering of the typebars. But the lowercase and uppercase letters were misaligned, and the motor that powered the typing would periodically shut down before eventually crapping out for good. Also the second “c” in Electric on the front decal was chipped off:

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I gave an amateur’s shot at fixing the alignment, to no avail, and I knew I couldn’t fix the motor on my own. So, because it was such a beauty, and because of the circumstances of its acquisition, I decided to bring it in to one of the few remaining repair shops in Chicagoland to see if it could be rehabilitated. A few weeks later I got it back: the motor ran smoothly and the letters typed true, and on a brand-new ribbon. The grimy keys cleaned up nicely too.

Haven’t been able to find much info on this specific model. (Mine is currently the only Electra 12 on the Typewriter Database.) With a serial number starting 5LE, it’s a slight variation on the Smith Corona Electric Portable 5TEs, though what their differences are I’m not sure. I see the extended 12″ carriage on other portables; honestly I think it looks a bit awkward compared to the carriages that fit the width of their bodies.

But I’m happy to have this one, and have used it for a few morning writing sessions already. It’s an awkward carry without a handled case, so I’m actively looking for one at a decent price. It fits perfectly into my Classic 12’s case, so if I could fit another cheap Smith Corona along those lines that I could use for parts, I’d be golden.

To the hunt!

The Typewriter: A Graphic History

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Janine Vongool’s The Typewriter: A Graphic History of the Beloved Machine is a gorgeous compendium of ads, photographs, and other artwork depicting typewriters and related ephemera from their invention in the late 1860s to the 1980s, when personal computers began to supersede their analog ancestors.

In other words: straight-up typewriter porn.

Some interesting tidbits:

The Name

Charles Weller, a clerk who witnessed the early development of the machine, talked years later about how the typewriter got its name: “Typewriter was an unusual name and had a unique sound, and so it was finally adopted, and then for the first time was heard a name, sounding oddly enough at that time, but which has now become so common throughout the civilized world that we wonder that any other name was thought of.” Other names like “writing machine” and “printing machine” didn’t quite fit, and in retrospect were clearly inferior choices to typewriter, which indeed is an unusual but perfectly apt name.

The War

Typewriters were recruited to the World War II effort just as other industries and product were. The Royal ad below: “Uncle Sam wants every typewriter you can spare because the fighting forces need typewriters desperately today. They’re needed to speed up production, the movement of supplies, orders to ships and planes and troops. The typewriter industry can’t supply ’em – we’re busy making ordnance.” Manufacturers implored customers to either sell theirs to the government or maintain them better, as supplies and repairmen would be at a deficit due to war production.

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A Secretary Is Not A Toy

Sex and sexism are common themes throughout the decades of typewriter advertising shown in this book. Early 20th century graphics often depicted the office secretary as the “temptress at work” or an idle daydreamer, with the word typewriter “often used to describe both the machine and its operator.” The ads above make winking reference to these assumptions with the bait-and-switch headline that’s actually just selling carbon copy paper. The ads below promoted using bright red fingernail polish to contrast with the style of the machine; in a brilliant move of synergy, Underwood even made its own “chip-resistant” polish secretaries could sample by writing in on their office stationery.

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Typewriters and Self-Worth

Showing us that some things never change, some mid-century ads promoted typewriters to young people as statements of social standing, self-improvement, and self-worth. One Corona ad from 1921 just comes right out with it: “You probably suspect that we are trying to sell you a Corona. Nothing of the sort. We are just trying to convince you that you need a Corona. That’s different.” Royal really hit the self-improvement theme hard, promising a 38% rise in grades due to all the “exclusives” the 1958 Royal Portable provided.

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While I would have appreciated more contextual information accompanying the artwork, Vangool mostly lets the many images speak for themselves. Overall, it’s a superbly made coffee-table book that fans of typewriters and the graphic arts especially will enjoy.

Typewriter Files: 1959 Royal Futura 800

I don’t remember how long ago this 1959 Royal Futura 800 typewriter came into my possession, but I know it sat in my old room at my parents’ place for about a decade before, in my recent typewriter mania, I eagerly reclaimed it for examination, restoration, and loving use.

As outwardly there wasn’t much wrong with it, the Before shot I took looks quite similar to the After:

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The body is undamaged and mostly quite shiny all the way around. Mechanically it’s sound too, typing smoothly and with no apparent malfunctions. Its insides, however, were filthy: cat hair, dried padding dust, and the detritus of decades had accumulated on its oiled architecture. Initially I was ill-equipped for the thorough clean job it needed, but after a quick trip to Walgreens my supply cache was filled with Q-tips, cotton wiping pads, a compressed air can for spraying out hard-to-reach areas, and a pen light for peering into the innards.

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Pre-cleaning serial number.

Piece by piece I went along and wiped down what I could, making sure not to disturb any of the mechanisms. The very middle section, wedged between the escapement and the carriage, was a tough get. Without taking the whole machine apart — a process I feared that, past a certain point, I wouldn’t be able to recover from — I couldn’t touch every piece that needed cleaning, but with the compressed air can and some swabs I got to damn near everything I could. Since nothing was obstructing the machinations I figured I’d leave good-enough alone.

The most difficult parts to clean were the glue remnants from the padding pieces, on the removable side pieces and inside the ribbon cover (which pops out when you push the red Royal logo in front):

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The aged padding crumbled off at the slightest touch (unfortunately falling into the body), but the hardened glue remained recalcitrant, even after a few rounds of goo remover and scraping. I could have kept at it but wanted to move on, so I just made sure the pieces were otherwise clean.

As this was my first major typewriter clean-up project, I learned a lot. Though each typewriter make and model will present its own challenges, the biggest mistake I made with the Futura will apply to every typewriter I work on. I realized only after it was too late that I didn’t make note of which screws went where. During disassembly I thought “The black ones go here” and “the short silver ones go here”; but a day later, after I’d spent so much time and energy inside the thing, as I was bringing the body pieces together I realized my error. Oh crap, where do these go? Trial and error got me the rest of the way and all systems returned to order eventually, but I was very happy when it finally reconstituted and typed without a hitch.

The low-grade panic I felt did inspire my first lesson: Document. Right after the Futura was restored back to health, I put a bunch of loose leaf paper into a three-ring binder, wrote Royal Futura 800 atop the first page, and took notes on everything I’d done and seen: initial impressions and observations, notable blemishes and potential problem spots, its serial number, and suggestions for further repairs and cleaning. As I’d be moving on to other typewriters, I didn’t want to start mixing up what I did on which machine and which required which maintenance. I’ll do a typeface sample on each of the notes pages, too, so I can compare them at a glance.

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The Futura came with an orange wooden case lined with a golden metal trim, but it was missing its handle, making it a cumbersome carry. Someone in the Typewriter Facebook group mentioned using a belt as a replacement, so I got a thin leather belt (that unfortunately doesn’t match very well, but it was free, so I have that going for me) and wound it around the remaining metal loops. Works great.

Finally, using the Typewriter Database I narrowed down the manufacture date of the machine to 1959, based on its serial number. I then uploaded it as my first gallery on my Typewriter Database page. Still need to add a few more photos and a typeface specimen, but for now I’ll enjoy notching my first typewriter before quickly moving on to the next.

Until next type…

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The Idea Owl approves.