Make Magazine on Manual Typewriters

Make magazine begins its ‘Lost Knowledge series with an excellent detailed post on manual typewriters. Lost Knowledge goes ‘in search of the technology of the future in the forgotten ideas of the past’. It also occurs to me, thinking about machines like the typewriter, that part of their legacy is in language and the words they have left behind. Many of us ‘type’ every day, but we’re not really typing any more, at least not in the sense of making a mark on a piece of paper. How will we explain where the word ‘typing’ comes from to children born in 2009? Certainly not without pictures. Will they believe us when we tell them that for a brief period ‘Typist’ was a career choice?

Today, we look at antique manual typewriters. Typewriters are enjoying something of a resurgence these days. They have obvious antique/collectors appeal, they’re amazingly cool machines (as the photos below can attest), and in these increasingly cash-tight times, a manual typewriter requires no electricity, there’s no subscription fee, it’s relatively cheap and easy to keep running, and it doesn’t come with its own bundle of distractions and time-suck black holes like the PC I’m typing this on (while fielding IMs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook updates). [Link]

That sounds so good I may just have to take a look at the non-functioning Imperial Good Companion Model T I unearthed last autumn and see if I can fix it.

Typewriter Art


Since discovering monsters in the attic I’ve become increasingly fascinated with typewriters and what you can do with them. You’d think that ‘writing’ and, erm, ‘writing’ would be the extent of it, wouldn’t you? But no, this picture was created using a typewriter by artist Paul  Smith, who died in 2007 at the age of 85.  Created using just a handful of characters–?…@ # $ % ^ &* ( )_ –these are fascinating images, made all the more remarkable when you learn that Smith was born with cerebral palsy and had very restricted movement in his arms. The mental calculations needed to create images like this one must be quite considerable so it comes as no surprise that Smith was also a great chess player.

Here’s a link to the Paul Smith Foundation gallery.

 The excellent Virtual Typewriter Museum has more on Typewriter Art, which it claims goes back as far as 1898. This example is from the 1920s by Pauline L. Hulvey:


Donald E. Westlake, 1933-2008

westlake1Donald E. Westlake, mystery writer, died on New Year’s Eve, 2008. There are obituaries, interviews and reminiscences all over the place, but luckily for us they have been collected and collated by Sarah Weinmann at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind in her usual thorough way. Westlake wrote 100 novels under several different names, and was also a screenwriter, most famously adapting Jim Thompson’s great novel The Grifters in 1990. My favourites are the novels written as Richard Stark. Start with The Hunter (1962) which became the movie Point Blank. The writing is perfectly paced and as tough as it needs to be.

This wonderful photograph by Laurie Roberts of Westlake at his desk comes from the excellent book Behind the Mysteries: Top Mystery Writers Interviewed by Stuart Kaminsky and Photographed by Laurie Roberts. The Smith Corona typewriter is something of a Westlake trademark and seems to be more of a collaborator than a tool. Westlake was a typewriter collector.

Imperial Good Companion Model T

As every four year-old knows, up there in the loft space, in the dark underneath the tiles, hiding in the shadows, are monsters. Monsters you couldn’t imagine in a lifetime of bad dreams. Monsters just waiting to come down into the light and terrorize your daydreams as well.

I have only a vague idea where this one came from–I think it hitched a ride on a removal van some time–and I didn’t know it was up there. It’s an Imperial “The Good Companion” Model T and has seen some action since it was built in Leicester, probably some time in the 1930s. It doesn’t work, I’m afraid; the carriage return is busted. But it has very nice round keys with inlaid lettering.

Edit. 19 November 2008: More glamour shots below.

Making Space: My Olympia Traveller Deluxe S

Over at the Huffington Post Sophie Keller gives the following advice:

“Tip 1: Have less stuff! It’s true that some creatives thrive in a messy environment, but they really are in the minority. Most of us need to clear up our clutter. I have always been of the mind that if you haven’t used something in the last 6 months or year at the most, then get rid of it.” via

In the last month or so I’ve been having a clearout too. Alan Bennett’s papers may have been deposited at the Bodleian, where they belong, but mine have also found their place, at the local tip. In all about eight feet of shelf-space, dating back to the mid-1980s: all my undergraduate essays, PhD notes and research, early articles, research and manuscripts for books, and writing of all kinds. I discovered that once upon a time I wrote quite a lot of poetry of extremely poor quality. I hadn’t looked at any of it it for years–perhaps two decades–and I’m never going to again. Besides the papers, the volume of junk was extraordinary. Who wants a broken radio, covered in emulsion paint, that was cheap and nasty when it was new, in 1983?

There was a lot of junk, but in amongst it there was some lovely stuff, such as the typewriter in the picture. It’s an Olympia Traveller Deluxe S. Look at the styling: the squared-off modern lines, the contrasting colours. It tries its best to be an up-to-the-minute piece of technology. It’s essentially a 1960s design but it’s trying to fit in with the gently humming IBM clones and Macintoshes of the 1980s. These were the dying days of typewriters and this is one of the last. I think it’s beautiful.

I bought the typewriter as an undergraduate in 1986, by which time its days were already numbered. I’ve always had terrible handwriting and I thought that my grades would improve if I started typing out my essays. I was right. It cost me £35 and although it is heavy its great advantage over any of the computers available at the time was that it was genuinely portable. I used it all the way though my undergraduate years and kept using it as a cash-strapped post-graduate until around 1992. By then I was already using computers some of the time, but I typed three drafts of my MA dissertation on Joseph Heller–a total of 60,000 words–on that machine. The arrival of large numbers of public access PCs in university libraries put a stop to it, but it is worth noting that although I was able to read the drafts typed on my old Olympia before I threw them away, the floppy disks I used in the early 1990s, which hold my writing from that period, have long since stopped working.

So a week or so ago I brought the old typewriter down from the loft and put it on the table in the sitting room. I took off the protective cover and slipped a piece of A4 into the carriage. It was surprising how familiar and normal it felt. I wound the paper into position and hit a key. It hurt my finger and I didn’t hit it hard enough, but after nearly 18 years of neglect the ribbon still had enough ink in it to leave a mark. My four year-old daughter couldn’t believe her eyes. She’s had her own user account on our home PC since she was old enough to sit up and bash the keyboard with her fists and is happy now to login with her name and password. She thinks that when you click the ‘Print’ icon a printer in another room comes to life and out come words and pictures for her to colour in. On this thing she’s hardly strong enough to leave the shadow of a letter on the paper. She’s fascinated.

There is more junk to go, but the typewriter is going to stay. I don’t know if I will use it. There seem to be ribbons available still–yes, I already looked–and with some oil and a good clean this machine will be in perfect condition. It seems mechanically sound despite being filthy, but you can see how much I used it from the way the paint has worn away next to the space bar. The sensation of pressing the keys and seeing things move is quite magical, but it is also a reminder of how much slower life must have been back then. The mechanical effort involved, the drafting and redrafting, must have taken a very long time.