Tag Archives: The Typewriter Revolution

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.

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!