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TODAY

Wednesday, July 17

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Airbags

Visitors to my apartment invariably notice the typewriters. Nestled in bookshelves and tucked away in corners of the living room, I've several machines that serve as killer conversation pieces.

But they're more than simple objets d'art. They represent an era when writing was a labor, a process of clacking keys, pounding levers, and the archetypal ringing bell at the end of each line.

It's good to be reminded of this while "typing" up an article on a word processor and sending it off to an editor via electronic mail so that it might be published on a website.

LC Smith No. 8

The swollen furniture of my Grandmother's basement-cum-rec room was upholstered in those inexplicable late sixties hues of avocado, goldenrod and an unnamed, ferrous orange. Muted earth tones tiled the floor. A long neglected bar in the corner sported unused, dusty beer taps and sheltered an angular pile of vinyl covered stools, Christmas ornaments and plastic fruit. The collected scrap of decades.

It was here that I found my first typewriter, an LC Smith No. 8 that stood for years in my Grandfather's service station. With greasy fingers, he'd type up receipts and place orders for auto parts. By the time I discovered it, it'd long ago seized up into a solid and inanimate block. The keys were frozen at various levels, its type bars halted in mid swing.

At the time, it merely served as a prop in games of banker and newspaper reporter. I'd feed sheets of paper into it and pound at the stubbornly static keys. Once my fingers began to hurt, I'd tear the page free with a flourish; something I'd seen on television.

Twenty years later, it sits in my apartment next to the couch and near the window. Two hundred dollars in repair work bought a new ribbon and unjammed the keys. It writes -- insofar as I can tell -- as well now as it did when purchased.

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Fig1. LC Smith No. 8

So it's my Grandfather's fault. His old typewriter fostered a consuming interest in writing machines that's been held in check only by penury and a lack of display space.

Royal Portable De Luxe

I have poor thrift store and garage sale karma. It was unusual then, when I felt the stars come into alignment at the sight of a nondescript black box in the back room of a Halsted resale shop. It bore a price tag fashioned from masking tape and permanent marker: $5.

Therein lay a pristine example of art deco engineering, a gleaming, fully functional Royal Portable De Luxe with touch control. These things don't happen, at least not to me. I was afraid my face would melt with the claymation gore of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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Fig2. Royal Portable De Luxe

Introduced in 1936, the Royal De Luxe was the Cadillac of writing machines. The instrument of choice for writers like Hemingway and Steinbeck, there was no better way to put ink to paper.

Billed as "the only portable with touch control" the De Luxe offered typists an unheard of luxury -- the ability to adjust the tension of the keys. While undoubtedly a key selling point, I suspect the benefit was purely psychological.

The De Luxe is a sexy machine. Its clean lines and chrome trim begged to be touched. Its keys cry out for a Hollywood epic, for fan letters to the stars of the silver screen.

Corona Folding Portable

Perhaps the most successful writing machine conceived, the Corona Folding Portable was introduced in 1912, and manufactured continuously for more than 30 years.

It was the ultra-light laptop of its day, with a special hinge that allowed it to be 'folded' into a small case easily carried when traveling or -- as was often the case in the press corps -- hauled onto the battle field.

I discovered this specimen after scouring the web for individuals afflicted with a similar hankering for old typewriters. After a bit of wrangling, I purchased it from a collector looking to unload a duplicate. The price? $25 including shipping.

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Fig3. Corona Folding Portable, closed

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Fig4. Corona Folding Portable, open

The Empire

My descent into madness was complete with the eBay purchase of The Empire. I'll not discuss it further than that, or you'll undoubtedly question my sanity. Suffice it to say I spent more than I could afford on a machine that, while in good condition, does not function. I paid cash money for a broken typewriter.

Produced in 1892, The Empire was based on a German patent and functioned in a fundamentally different fashion than most typewriters. Rather than swinging forward to strike the ribbon, the type bars on the Empire moved with a thrusting action, sliding forward like the drive shaft of a steam locomotive.

09222003_empire.jpg

Fig5. The Empire

Though somewhat novel in its mechanics, Empire machines were incredibly long lived, used throughout Europe well into the 1960s.

Mine, however, is long retired. It sits comfortably on a bookshelf wedged between books about documentary filmmaking and a copy of McLuhan's Understanding Media.

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Comments

Andrew / September 22, 2003 11:46 AM

I love typwriters myself, but I've never gone out and bought one. I've got enough stuff clogging my condo without more moribund machinery.

jeremy / September 22, 2003 1:47 PM

A victim of the same debilitating ailment, I find myself in possession of a Royal Portable, sans-Deluxe, which resides nestled in a cozy bookshelf nook (possibly even a cranny, though this is still up for debate). Surely the remaining hollows would be filled as well with similar antediluvian paraphernalia, were it not for the incontestable influence of the wonderful young woman with whom I had the good fortune to share nuptial vows with.

Phineas Jones / September 26, 2003 8:13 AM

Ok, you antique typewriter perverts (anyone else here seen Cronenberg's 'The Naked Lunch'?) you can collect the old clankers as much as you want, but you can't be taken seriously until you build one of these

Dave / October 23, 2003 8:50 AM

It's nice to know I'm not the only one crazy enough to collect stuff like this. I also like steam locomotives. It's a good thing I can't afford them or I would probably have a few of those setting around too. There is a Remington Noiseless No. #8 in my closet, and I really don't want to count the number of 1950's vintage manual portables that I have. Stay crazy. I need the company.

 

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