Sadly it seems that writing about my slight typewriter obsession in these pages didn’t entirely cure me of the habit. I’ve tried to be good and passed on any number that I’ve spotted at the Malvern Flea, including one very much like that which appeared in the Ladybird books exhibition (although I couldn’t resist pointing the connection out to the seller in the hope that she’d be able to make something of it). However, the two additions I’ve made to the collection (what is the collective noun? A carriage of typewriters, perhaps?), have both been a bit special in their own way and both have taught me something new.
Both appeared in the window of a local charity shop – the first towards the end of one of the long periods of lockdown when the shop itself was on the verge of evolving from a dedicated vintage charity shop to a more general outlet. It sat proudly on a table in the window behind the locked doors and attracted the eye for its sheer size. Usually, the typewriters you see on the vintage market are the portable variety – more likely to have been in private ownership and so to have been part of the contents of a household ; they’re also more likely to have had relatively little use and to have been something that people would have bought one and not subsequently replaced (how unlike the modern PC/laptop with its inbuilt obsolescence, no matter how little it’s used and how well looked after). By contrast, bigger professional machines would have been bought by companies with little room for storing unwanted equipment, and are very likely to have been replaced regularly, especially when more sophisticated electric versions became available, let alone word processors. This one caught the eye more as it had an extra-wide carriage, capable of taking A3 landscape sheets of paper. Don’t get me wrong, I have no need to type up A3 landscape papers, but it’s the sort of thing that gets a typewriter nerd all excited.
Rather than try to guess when the shop might re-open, we dropped a note through the door and were rewarded with a call inviting us down to pick up not only the typewriter, but also to rummage through the residual vintage stock in their upstairs storeroom. Cue a pleasant Friday morning, scaling boxes and bags of random vintage ‘stuff’ and coming home laden with all kinds of bits, from display cabinets to cigarette cards – and, of course, a typewriter.
It needed no work beyond a bit of a clean, including taking a toothbrush and a pin to the striking faces of the keys to winkle out decades of caked ink, and a good hoover underneath to remove some vintage office fluff. It’s rather too big to find a home in the house, and too heavy to stash in the already crowded attic – not at least if I ever wanted to get it down again – so it now sits in pride of place in my office, reminding all of us of a certain age what our workplaces looked and, if you get close enough to catch a waft of oil and ink ribbon, smelled like a generation ago. It’s lovely to use, with nicely balanced keys and engineering designed for hard wear. To add icing (or should that be ribbon?) to the cake, having looked it up in the typewriter blogosphere, I discover it’s a much-prized Olivetti Lexikon 80, designed by Marcello Nizzoli, with mine apparently a 1955 model; there are even examples in the V&A and Science Museum collections. Now I just need to persuade my organisation that reverse digitisation (analogy – the art of making everything analogue) should be part of our green agenda!
New acquisition number two appeared in the same window a few weeks ago. Nicely rounded body in a striking maroon finish – more like a 1950s saloon car than a piece of office equipment. The case was lovely, too – heavyweight leather in good condition – and the price had been knocked down from reasonable to irresistible. I quickly found out why when the assistant pointed out that the carriage wouldn’t travel the full width, sticking half way across. Peering into the back, I could see what looked like a piece of waxed string looping up where I’d not seen one before and, as the machine as a whole seemed to be in very good condition, I decided to take on the challenge on the basis that, at the very least, I’d be able to learn something.
A few weeks on, and a bout of self-isolation gave me the Sunday morning I need to tinker. Flipping the machine over on its back on a protective old bathtowel, and ignoring the curious stares of a supervisory cat, I started by removing the baseplate covering the works – itself a bit of a rarity as most machines I’ve played with are open underneath. That promptly revealed the source of the problem: the waxed string I’d spotted was the cable that pulls the carriage along each time a key is struck, winding itself around a sprung wheel. Somehow it had jumped the wheel and got itself jammed behind it, so the string was hanging loose when the carriage was at one end of its travel, and stopped it halfway along its track in the other direction. I’d watched video on YouTube of a repair on a similar model, so I had some idea what was supposed to be going on, but taking it all apart promised to be a daunting task (to be more accurate, taking it apart is easy – putting it back together is the hard bit).
Fortunately, the sprung wheel itself seemed to be working, though it made freeing the string that much more difficult by pulling it tight at every opportunity; the slight coating of oil on it also made holding it still a challenge. After much fiddling, I found that jamming a screwdriver against it would just hold it still, which allowed me to unwind the string and create some slack to play with. Luckily, the string wasn’t wound around the mechanism behind the wheel, just pulled tight against it, so a small screwdriver and needle-nosed pliers were enough to work it free, but it took several attempts before I could persuade it to wrap around the edge of the wheel as it should. Suddenly, it obliged and, feeding it carefully into place, I eased out the improvised screwdriver ‘brake’ so the wheel could take up the slack.
Moment of truth time – with the typewriter back on its feet and the carriage unlocked, I gently pushed it across the length of its track with the string unspooling smoothly – and it went all the way. Even better, tapping the spacebar brought it back with the string steadily wrapping itself neatly around the wheel as designed. I’m not sure how the problem happened – my guess is that at some point in its travels from home to charity shop, the carriage had been allowed to slide across uncontrolled with the machine itself hanging at an angle, beating the wheel’s ability to wind in the string and allowing it to loop untidily around the nearest bit of machinery.
A quick clean all round, baseplate back on, and time for a test – working perfectly (apart from my typing mistakes, but you can’t blame the tools for that!). It’s an Imperial Good Companion Mk 5 which a bit of internet research tells me is a well-regarded model in both engineering and design terms, and the maroon colour makes it something of a rarity. With its original case, instruction book and even a learners’ fingering chart, this is definitely one to keep. The problem, of course, is – which one isn’t?