My friend Robert recently posted a writing exercise he’d done from the prompt: “What is your metaphor for the fear of writing that first line?”
Well, it seems I face that fear with every line when I first sit down to write, whether it’s the first or halfway through, so when I couldn’t come up with a next first line for the story I’m working on, I wrote this instead:
And here is the OCR’d version, with minor edits:
I finally discovered why my hands get tired typing on the Olympia SG-1 even though it appears to be in perfect condition and doesn’t have a carriage shift. The keyboard is half an inch to an inch taller than all the rest of my keyboards. And when you consider that modern computer keyboards are practically flat, that’s quite an incline!
The hideaway typewriter desk that my wife got me for Christmas, while undeniably cool, only really fits one of my typewriters. The carriages on the portables are level with the sides of the top of the desk and don’t really have freedom of movement. The SG-1 and the Hermes Ambassador are too big to fit on the typewriter shelf. Only the Royal KMM fits perfectly–the carriage sticks up a little above the level of the upper desk, and the base of the typewriter fits perfectly on the lower shelf. It’s a good thing that the KMM is one of my favorite typewriters to use.
But, not being satisfied with only having one typewriter easily available to use, I was hoping to get another small desk to serve as a second typewriter desk. A friend of ours was making an IKEA run, so I decided to see what their options were. I found the Laiva for $17.99, which was unbeatable. After an evening spent with an allen wrench and wooden dowels, I had a surprisingly sturdy desk. It’s simple, but a perfect cheap typewriter desk. Highly recommended if all you need is something simple. It’s been a wonderful base to give the Olympia SM-3 the workout it’s deserved. Even though the carriage shift is wearing out my pinky.[Top]
The only problem with using typewriters to compose my first drafts, is that I somehow have to get those words into the computer. I’m currently using PaperPort, but I’ve tried MS Office’s OCR (Optical Character Recognition) tool as well. The computer has mixed results at translating the typewriting pages into document files. I don’t think I had the resolution turned up high enough on this last batch because it was particularly bad. Here’s a funny example:
A painting still hung where the headboard would have been, years of neglect transmuting the colors into a stat brown sky over a burnt orange ocean with sunbeasts that looked like pies raining down from heaven.
Now I want to know what “sunbeasts” are. And why do they look like pies? Mmmm… pie.[Top]
Odds and Ends
There are a few other typewriters in my collection that don’t fit into the three main brands of Royal, Olympia, or Hermes. I’ll wrap up with them.[Top]
Hermes: The Last Gasp
After my Olympia phase, I thought I would just go back to my Royal KMM to finish up the manuscript I was working on, but another brand that was fondly spoken of was the Hermes. (I thought I remembered one being up for auction a while ago used by Cormac McCarthy, but that was an Olivetti. However, Kerouac did use a Hermes 3000.) Unable to be content, I went on the lookout for Hermes typewriters.[Top]
The Quest for Olympias
Beginning to type my manuscript on the little Royal Arrow gave me a tactile connection to the machines that I’d never had before. I had to research and find more about these curious creatures, partly as a practical matter, to get the typewriters in working order, and partly to find out what other options there were. So far, I’d only had Royals. What else was out there?
A name I ran across frequently was Olympia. Certain of their typewriters were supposed to be the best, a marvel of German engineering and some of the finest machines to type on. Harlan Ellison continues to write with the Olympia SG-3. In fact, the standard of their line was described by some as the Cadillac of typewriters. I had to have one.
The first opportunity came when I spied an Olympia portable on eBay, the SM-9. Turned out the seller was not that far away, so I drove down to pick it up. It is in excellent condition and works like new. The feel of the keys is very nice, and much more forgiving than the hard glass keys of the old Royals that I own. It still scooted around a little because even though it is big, it’s still a portable. If I had only been interesting in writing by typewriter, I probably would have stopped here, but I was obsessed.
I wanted to get my hands on the Cadillac of typewriters, with a paper loading lever that looked a bit like the arm of a slot machine. I wanted an SG-1 (no relation to the Stargate crew). I found one on eBay for a reasonable price and purchased it. It took about two months to arrive. By the time it showed up, I had given up on the sellers, and assumed that I’d been taken for a ride. Instead, they were just very slow and had no idea how to pack a typewriter. It came in a big cardboard box loosely stuffed with bubble wrap. The SG-1 had probably rolled around like tennis shoes in a dryer while in transit. It smelled like the bottom of an ashtray (a smell that is apparently more common to old typewriters than has been my luck to find) and it didn’t work.
In a fit of impatience while waiting on the SG-1, I had bought an SM-3. This is the 1950s version of the Olympia portable. They are the best-looking Olympia machines of the bunch. The one I found on eBay was a sort of creamish-tan with an odd italic typeface. It also suffered from subpar packing–there was a slight scuff on the top where it had come loose in transit. And there was a problem with the spacebar not fully engaging on occasion. With a little ingenuity, I was able to fix that problem.
The SM-3s are solid little typers. Their action is as smooth as any I’d tried up till that point (spoiler: the Hermes eventually win out) and they are really comfortable to type on. The only thing that I don’t like about them is the carriage shift–having to lift the carriage with my weak pinkies is not fun. Perhaps my fingers would strengthen up over time, but I prefer the basket shift of the SG-1 and later SM-9. (Where the typebars themselves raise and lower instead of the whole carriage.)
With my newfound confidence after repairing the minor issue with the SM-3, I turned more seriously to the SG-1. I don’t recall exactly what was wrong with it… I believe one bar had simply become disconnected during transit–apparently a common problem. I almost felt bad for demanding a partial refund from the eBay sellers, but remembering the sorry packing job they’d done, I got over it. After all of the frustration and anticipation of being able to type on the Cadillac, what was my impression?
If any SG-1 lovers are reading this, I’m sorry. The downside of old typewriters is you can never really know if how they type now reflects how they performed new. Someone else may have one that’s in better condition than mine that I would love. Maybe if I knew better how to perform maintenance on mine, it would work better. But after all of the blood, sweat, and tears, the SG-1 simply didn’t do it for me, even with all of the cool buttons and features.
My last Olympia was another SM-3. This one I found on Craigslist, but in Michigan. While we were on a family trip up there, I’d checked to see if there were any interesting typewriters in the vicinity. I did mention that I’d been obsessed for a while, right? This one is a little maroon number than is in just about mint condition. It looks great and types well.[Top]
The Royals: In Which I Begin to Type a Book
Many years after I picked up the Royal #10 at an antique store, I found another Royal Standard (code-named KMM, though I would not know that for some time) at a neighborhood garage sale. It has a metal tag on the back labeled “METHODIST PUB. HOUSE 2242”, so it apparently came from the offices of the official publisher of the Methodist church. The Royal KMM is not as sexy as the #10, but after trying my hand at several other typewriters, it remains my second favorite one to actually type on.
(A brief aside: there are two kinds of manual typewriters, Standards and Portables. Standards are much like our desktop computers, not meant to be moved from one spot because they are heavy as a mofo and cumbersome. Portables were the laptops of their day. Even the portables seem pretty heavy by our modern sensibilities, but maybe they had bigger muscles in the past.)
Which brings me to the Royal Arrow portable that my brother-in-law Tyler got me for Christmas about 5 or 6 years ago. It was supposedly the same model that Hemingway used in Key West.
I had run up against the 20,000 word wall in the novel I was working on, and in an attempt to shake up my routine and free my brain from its block, I decided to tap out a few words on the old manual. It was a learning experience. For one thing, I soon discovered that portables do not sit still very well while you type. They need a typewriter pad of some sort because they do not weigh enough. Tacky kitchen drawer liners were the cheap and easy solution that I eventually came across. Still, a portable will simply not remain solidly in place if you type with any speed, which eventually led me to the full size standards. But this little gem was the one that got it all started.
I don’t have the Royal Arrow anymore. For about a year, I haunted Craigslist regularly, looking for any cheap and interesting typewriters for sale. Mostly, I discovered that people assume old crap is worth more than it actually is, simply because it’s old. But one day I noticed a listing from someone seeking a typewriter for their little girl for Christmas.
Apparently, she was making up stories, a budding writer, and had gotten it in her head that she needed a typewriter to put them down on paper. How could I resist? I wanted her to have a good, working typewriter rather than the piece of crap that her parents were most likely to find on Craigslist, so the Royal Arrow became a Christmas gift for a second time. I hope she enjoyed it even half as much as I did.[Top]
The First Typewriter
The first typewriter I owned was electronic, back in high school, with a primitive word processor that had about 2K of storage. When touch-typing on it, you would type in a word or two, then the daisy wheel would spin into action to attempt to catch up with you. It had a bizarre rhythm that I never really liked, but I didn’t know much different in those days. Sort of: click click click click click hmmmm CLACK CLACK CLACK CLACK CLACK. Which almost made me want to type a word and wait for it to catch up because otherwise its hammering daisy wheel was out of sync with my thoughts.
The first typewriter I ever used was my mother’s Selectric II when she worked as a secretary for Commerce Union Bank. Now that had a wonderful sound. The constant electric hum harmonizing with the sharp percussive notes of the golfball typehead striking the paper in perfect responsiveness to one’s tapping of the keys.
But other than these two experiences, I didn’t grow up using typewriters. I learned to type on a computer. My first IBM clone (as they were known in those days) did have a tacky keyboard, so I can see how I might have been longing for something more responsive than the bland, quiet keyboards of today. But after my brief encounter with the electronic typewriter and my very error-prone method of typing and correcting, I was sold on the easy, instant editing powers of word processing.
So I didn’t buy my first old typewriter with any intention of using it. The thing just looked cool. Glass panels, exposed chrome, glass-top keys. Design and function meshed in a beautiful way that hasn’t been common in industrial design until perhaps Steve Jobs came back to Apple and started his decade-long stint of making computers pretty.
It was in an antique shop that we just happened to stop in while visiting some friends in Oak Ridge. I think I paid $25 for it. My friend Michelle almost laughed her head off at me the next day when I tripped and fell, scrapping up my elbow but saving the typewriter from damage. The typewriter and I made it home intact and it became a display piece. The ribbon was dried up, so I couldn’t have typed with it if I’d wanted to.
I had a brief glimmer that I might have stumbled on something rare and valuable, but I soon discovered that typewriters are not worth much. Not in money. If you pay hundreds of dollars for any typewriter made in the twentieth century, you’re probably paying for the effort that someone has put into restoring it, perhaps with a hefty ignorance tax. Considering that they were the ubiquitous office machine for eighty or ninety years, it’s almost a wonder that there aren’t more around. When future archeologists dig up our landfills, they may be half dirty diapers and a quarter old typewriters.[Top]
Too Many Typewriters
For Christmas, my mother-in-law gave me a typewriter. Not just any typewriter, but an old one. I’ve been collecting these obsolescent hunks of metal for several years now, though my mania has tapered off quite a bit in the last year.
I love the look of classic typewriters, and the functionality. Most of them have been sitting ignored in attics for at least a couple of decades, and all they need is a new ribbon to start transferring words from my brain to a blank piece of paper. At least that’s true of the manuals–electrics are more temperamental, much like their computerized descendants. But if the power went out forever, those old manuals would keep spitting out the words with only a minimum of TLC.
My Christmas gift from my wife was a desk with a hidden compartment for the typewriter. While digging through the closet to find a machine to test out the hideaway desk, I discovered a typewriter that I’d forgotten about buying. Clearly, I needed to do something with all of these things packed away in the closet. The downside of collecting typewriters is that they are too big to all stay on display. So I decided to take pictures of them, and write up a short description of how they came into my possession and why I give a damn.
During the point of my greatest interest, I joined two Yahoo groups: the portable typewriter forum and Typewriters, both of which are great resources for amateur typewriter repairers and aficionados. Based on the messages on those groups, I realize that I do not have that many typewriters for a collector. Relatively. My thirteen machines are a modest collection. But they are still about twelve too many for a sane person.[Top]