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Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Stiff Bikkies with the Brother M-1500 Portable Typewriter


The words Ettore Sottsass used to describe the original idea for the Olivetti Valentine came to mind last week while I was servicing a bunch of el cheapo portable typewriters, in particular two Dutch-made Adler Tippas and a Brother M-1500. It was the difficulty I had getting the top plate off the Brother, in order to change the ribbon spools, that evoked Ettore. In an interview with Diego Grandi in mid-1999, Sottsass said the plan for the Valentine was “to design a machine as if it were a biro, a tool for everyday life, not a symbol of elegance and power.” When I first read these words all those years ago, my first thought was of a disposable Bic pen, and I tried to image a typewriter that, like a biro, might be chucked away when the ink ran dry. It struck me the idea behind the design of the Brother M-1500 might have been somewhat similar, in that the typewriter's owner wasn’t supposed to replace the ribbon, just throw out the typewriter and get another one.


I could tell that the top plate was slotted in place and was supposed to come off, to enable access to the spools, but how? The marks along the rim of the top plate, where people had previously tried to prise the cover off using the flat end of a screwdriver, were clearly visible. The plastic had been dug into in no uncertain terms. I eventually succeeded in getting the cover off, and could tell that the grips which slotted into the main part of the frame were far too rigid. Badly designed, or a cunning ploy by Brother to achieve what Sottsass wasn’t allowed to do, produce the Bic Biro equivalent of a typewriter?


I have seen similar designs before, notably on a Chevron, as I recall. And there have been many comments on this blog from people asking, “How do I get the top off my typewriter to replace the ribbons?” I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a top plate that was so hard to shift, however.

Sottsass at the time of his 1999 interview.

Sottsass, by the way, told Grandi that “the original idea was to make [the Valentine] from Moplen plastic, the kind they used for buckets [but] we made it from ABS, which cost five times more. Moplen was fine, because it was already a ‘coarse’ material. It was also slightly elastic so it could get knocked about without breaking … The result [of using ABS] was a machine whose design was silly in way because it had been conceived with a certain purpose in mind, to be popular and affordable by everyone, but it ended up being dear.” And, sadly, there’s nothing even “slightly elastic” in the Brother M-1500 top plate.


The portables I’ve been servicing belong to a Canberra woman who plans to sell them at markets. I don’t know what price she intends to put on them, but after the cost of servicing and replacing ribbons, I’m guessing it will be high. In the case of the two Tippas, they’re such poorly assembled machines I wouldn’t be prepared to waste a dollar on them.

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Looking Back, Through iPad Glass Darkly


I got a really good look at the future of print newspapers nine years ago, when The Canberra Times editor Rod Quinn and I were chatting in his office about me fixing his father’s old Corona portable typewriter. Quinn had just returned from a meeting in Sydney with Fairfax’s overpaid “visionaries”, and they had converted him to their idea of where newspapers were headed. They were at least a decade too late, of course, because The Canberra Times, like so many newspapers, had already elected to go down a path that would lead to its demise as a creditable newspaper. That it has now well and truly reached that destination is being made evident, more than ever, with its 36-hour-old coverage of the Tokyo Olympic Games. I’m not sure why it still bothers.

Long before Quinn’s time in charge, the Times had taken the economy passage toward online news, one that ensured it was ultimately destined to crash and burn. Instead of hiring people who had some knowledge of digital content, and any sort of zeal for it, the Times decided print journalists would be used to do a job for which they were both utterly untrained and in which they had absolutely no interest. The Fairfax seers had tipped into their lolly jar and sent Quinn back to Canberra with a basket full of their latest iToys – an iPhone, an iPad and the latest Yoga laptop. “These platforms are the future for newspapers,” said Quinn, as he fiddled with buttons while his rag began its steady descent into the fiery flames that now engulf it. I wanted point out that whatever it was capable of, an iPad to a typewriter is a hazy lazy doodle to a Monet. It just doesn’t inspire effort or class.

But Quinn was admiringly playing with the tools of the Times’ coming destruction, oblivious to how odious they were to someone who had started in print newspapers 47 years earlier, using a typewriter and having his words turned into hot type, laid into formes, placed in presses and printed with ink on paper. Each of those actions had a feel to it, a sight and sense of creativity, a smell and a noise that made the process real and tangible. Print newspapers, through their ink, got into your blood, they lived and breathed with you. As I got up to walk away from the ugly, soulless pieces of plastic and glass on Quinn’s desk, I turned and said, “Oh, and by the way, I’m applying for a redundancy.” “But you’re too young to retire,” he said. “And I’m too old for that rubbish,” I replied.

So I went home to my typewriters and never looked back. It was 2012 and I was blogging like crazy, even typecasting. I had the time to drive to Melbourne (when it was safe to do so) to pick up a Salem Hall from ScienceWorks, I had the money to buy beautiful machines, like an Adler 32 portable, a green Invicta and a Printype Oliver, I had the time to mess around with FuNkOMaTiCs and to restore a Remington 16 to give to a young former colleague, Christopher Knaus. I like to think this  beast inspired Chris, then one of those gifted young reporters capable of writing word pictures which put television and radio news to shame. Chris has since gone on to become recognised as one of Australia’s finest journalists, working for The Guardian, and I’m hardly surprised. I hope in these salad says for him that he still looks at that big old Rem and remembers the exasperated night sub-editor, trying to squeeze fat round click bait into tiny square template holes.

Things got tough after that and there were times when I really feared I’d be joining the local branch of the homeless, those people that Boston Globe columnist Jack Thomas wrote about with some empathy in 1992. I had to sell off almost all of my wonderful typewriter collection. There were bloodsuckers happy to take them off my hands for a small fraction of the price they were worth, but what choice did I have? It was that or starve. Someone in America called me a philistine for offloading my machines. I wanted to reach in through the iPhone screen and strangle the insensitive bastard. But I struggled on and eventually the typewriter gods took pity, and my life began to turn around. The one lesson I learned from it all was to identify the things that caused me stress and to eliminate them. As I think back on it now, that evening, looking at Rod Quinn’s iToys, probably caused me as much angst as anything else I was to encounter. It may not have sunk in fully at the time, but he was showing me the tools that would cause an industry’s death. The sight of them was what certainly drove me our the door.

These are the things that came to mind after reading Jack Thomas’s last column. When I saw his Mencken quote, I realised I had spent 47 years living the life of a king. Like Thomas, to me print newspapers were a daily wonder, a miracle. I had loved brushing past at least within a million miles of the shadows of Hemingway and Gallico, of Runyon and Rice and Red Smith. After all, they too had used these same machines, the same techniques, had strained to beat deadlines and in their haste took care to avoid errors. They had experienced the same extreme exhilaration at seeing their words so quickly and clearly in print on paper. I had talked their talk, walked their walk.

I’ve seldom felt even the slightest bit of pity for those I left behind, those poor souls still trying to squeeze click bait into tiny holes. I had once prided myself on an ability to write great headlines, headlines which captured the guts of a story in four decks of 42-point Bodoni bold over two columns. There’s no skill in click bait, it’s mostly just misleading, regurgitated vomit. What I do feel sorry about, though, is that we are now approaching a third generation of young people, attracted to journalism by visions of things long gone, people who have never used a typewriter to write a news story. They’ve never felt the thrill of winding a fresh sheet of newsprint on to a platen, knowing they were about to write 600 fine words in less than half an hour. They’ve never experienced the tension of hesitating for that split second before committing themselves to their opening paragraph, knowing they had but one shot at getting it right, of writing the one that would grab their readers. Of handing the typed sheets to a copy editor. Of waiting to see an almost imperceptible nod of approval as the story is read by someone else for the very first time.

It’s not like that anymore. It’ll never be that way again. The typewriters have all gone, replaced by bits of plastic and glass that have no style, no character, no soul. They are a nothingness that spawn a nothingness. It's all that's left.

Sunday, 25 July 2021

It Was What Jack Thomas Had to Say

 Jack Thomas, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a Royal typewriter in the Boston Globe city room in 1979. The photo was taken by his colleague, Stan Grossfeld.

It was rather eerie reading Jack Thomas’s farewell column in the Boston Globe magazine last week. Jack has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and has only months to live. He is nine years older than I am, yet as he outlined his 64-year career in newspapers in his last column, so many of his journalism experiences and thoughts about the profession seemed to coincide with my own. For some strange reason, I appear to be enjoying rude good health right now, but of course, through my wife's illness, I am living the best way I can with the scourge of cancer, on a daily basis. Like me, Jack’s greatest wish, if there is an afterlife, is “to shake hands with my best friend, my father, who died in 1972 and whom I’ve missed every day since.” My father died in 1981, aged 73, the age I am now.

Among many cherished memories of a life well lived, Jack recalled playing pool “against two of the greatest, Willie Mosconi in Denver, and in Boston, Minnesota Fats, who was the inspiration for the Jackie Gleason role in The Hustler.” The closest I’ve come to greatness among cueists is Alex “Hurricane” Higgins”, not forgetting my house cleaner who won a world team’s title in Malta. Still, one of my favourite recollections is of playing pool, not with anyone with the skill of Mosconi or Minnesota Fats, but in a pub with my soon-to-be London-based son-in-law, the night before my wedding, and finding all the tricks of the trade, hard learned in a misspent youth, could still be eked free, sufficiently at least to win. (Mind you, I suspect John might have let me win, and his look of astonishment at the outcome was mere play acting. But as a young man who once had the intestinal fortitude to step into a British boxing ring, he retains my highest respect.)

John Charles “Jack” Thomas was born in Boston on February 16, 1939, and grew up in Doncaster. At age 14, while delivering the weekly Dorchester Argus, he made up his mind to be a journalist. After graduating from Doncaster High School in 1957, Jack attended Northeastern University for two years, taking part in a work-study program while a copy-boy for the Globe’s sports department. He joined the Haverhill Journal’s Ipswich bureau in 1959, transferring to the head office in 1960. By 1962 Jack was assistant city editor. He returned to the Globe as a police roundsman in 1963, and from 1964-66 covered the Massachusetts State House. Jack became the Globe’s youngest ever city editor and in 1971 was assigned to the Washington DC bureau. While there he took up a journalism fellowship at Stanford University in California, and returned to Boston to become the Globe’s national correspondent in 1974. Between 1978-81 Jack wrote a twice-weekly column for the Globe. He became the paper’s ombudsman in 1997, returned to writing in 2001 and retired in 2006, aged 67. In 2012, Jack graduated from Harvard with a bachelor degree in humanities and then pursued his Masters degree in English literature at Harvard.

Jack’s farewell column come about soon after he learned he was dying. So he sat down “to do what came naturally, if painfully: Write this story.” He went on: “I was blessed to write for a newspaper, a career H.L. Mencken described as the life of kings … To me, every daily newspaper was a wonder - all those stories, local, national, global, all written on deadline, with photographs, analysis, columns, editorials, comics and crossword, not to mention all that [sports] news - if that isn’t a miracle, what is?”

One fear I have about being told I’m dying is deciding what to do about the boxes upon boxes of letters, clippings and notes that I have accumulated over more than 60 years, and which are stored in my typewriter workshop. Jack Thomas now he finds he has to dispose of the same stuff. “Filling wastebasket after wastebasket is a regrettable reminder that I have squandered much of my life on trivia.” I wonder if, when it comes to my time, I will feel the same way. I would like to think not. But, then, when that task does need to be faced, maybe I too will believe I’ve squandered much of my life on trivia.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

The Tokyo Olympics and Typewriters Galore: Things That Won’t Be Seen at the 2021 Games

A scene from Kon Ichikawa’s movie Tokyo Olympiad.
On the eve of the Tokyo Olympic Games opening, I'm feeling nostalgic for a time when the Olympics were true sporting events, and not just cash cows for TV networks. I doubt these particular Games would be going ahead if a majority of Japanese people had any say in the matter, but they don't. TV makes the call, through its International Olympic Committee puppets. The IOC has Japan over a barrel, and money, unknown at Olympia, is its god.

Kon Ichikawa’s brilliant film of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics begins with the line, “The Olympics are a symbol of human aspiration”, and for me one early scene from the movie sums up the situation. A dreamy-eyed young Japanese girl is engrossed watching the Opening Ceremony, her eyes full of wonderment and fascination. That's how the Olympics were for me 57 years ago. To be inspired by the Olympics back then was not to be motivated to win bucket loads of money, but to aspire to be involved in the very highest and purest pursuit of sporting achievement. All long gone, I'm afraid.

Also long gone are many of things that were a common sight at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, including typewriters. Ichikawa’s movie includes delightful scenes from the Olivetti Press Centre (note, Press, not media). Delightful for me at least, as the footage is not just a reminder of my past life covering such international sporting events as the Olympics, but of seeing so many typewriters being put to good use by journalists. It’s the way it used to be done, and done so much more efficiently and effectively than today. It’s worth watching Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad just for the typewriters alone. Quite apart from that, the film is considered a cinematographic milestone in documentary filmmaking and is one of the few sports documentaries included in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

As the journalists pound away at their typewriters in Tokyo Olympiad, I noticed that one man had a cigar clamped in his mouth and seemed to be typing one-handed. I immediately wondered whether it was the late Jack Knarr, a friend of Mike Brown of Typex fame and a man who once went up against Richard Polt in a speed typing contest (it was a close call, I believe). Jack, as I recall, typed one-handed, and also. I think, covered sports. Whether he chomped on cigars I do not know, as sadly I never got to meet him.

From the official Games report.
Press boxes of the Komazawa Stadium.
IBM also had a major input to Press facilities in 1964, providing an elaborate integrated system that sent results and other information to various venue press centres.
Olivetti got the naming rights to the Press Centre in Tokyo in 1964 because the Japanese typewriter industry was still in its infancy back then, and also because Olivetti had been associated with the Olympic movement since the Games in Melbourne in 1956, and had supplied typewriters at its home country Olympics in Rome in 1960. By 1964 Olivetti had established its own Japanese offshoot. The Tokyo Organising Committee’s official report notes that Olivetti Japan Ltd supplied more than 800 typewriters to various Games venues and facilities, with 24 different language keyboards. The Games were covered by 1153 accredited journalists, including 79 from the United States alone. Agence France-Presse, whose office can be seen below here, had 20 journalists, the same as UPI and Reuters; AP had 25.

THINGS THAT WON’T BE SEEN AT THESE TOKYO OLYMPICS

Packed stadiums

Athletes posting real mail in real postboxes.

With stamps.

Athletes taking street scene photos with real cameras.

A real newsagency in the Olympic Village, with real newspapers and magazines. The Kinokuniya Bookstore.

Athletes, like Mamo Sebsibe of Ethiopia, voluntarily offering blood samples. 

Athletes, like American high jumper Eleanor Montgomery, wearing hair rollers in the high jump pit (or a high jump pit like this one!).

Athletes wearing bathrobes outside in the rain (or using lovely umbrellas like these).

Bobby Hayes, about to win the Blue Riband 100 metres and to make millions playing football, riding an ordinary pushbike around the village and stopping to chat to locals.

Wives, like Sheila Matthews, being able to get on to the Main Stadium track to hug their gold medal-winning husbands, such as British 20km walker Ken.

A bunch of Kiwis being able to get trackside to perform a celebratory haka after countrymen Peter Snell and John Davies (below) finished first and third respectively in the 1500m.

Two New Zealanders winning medals in the one race, and stopping to smile and shake hands with the silver medallist.

A Native American (Billy Mills, or Tamakoce Te'Hila) winning a track gold medal. 

A gymnast from Mongolia, like Yadamsurengiin Tuyaa, being able to represent her own country.

The winner of the marathon, having run 26 miles and 385 yards in a tad over 2 hours 12 minutes, doing calisthenics after crossing the finish line, as Ethiopia's Abebe Bilika did.

Face masks yes, but nose clamps? Unlikely. US breaststroker 
Chet Jastremski.

A crowded yacht tender after New Zealanders Helmer Pedersen and Earle Wells won gold.

An Olympic Village wedding: Bulgarian athletes Nikolai Prodanov and Diana Yorgova tie the knot in the first wedding inside an Athletes' Village, conducted in front of the Olympic flag in the traditional Japanese style by a Shinto priest.

Kissing teammates: Above 
Soviet kayakers Andriy Khimich and Stepan Oshchepov get into a passionate hug and kiss, and below Italian cyclists celebrate.

And, afterwards, you definitely won't see an Olympic movie poster which makes this sexist claim!:

Monday, 19 July 2021

Typewriter Champion, Keen Cameraman, Ace Radio Operator: The Bill MacLane of an Earlier Era?


A comment on this blog today came from a reader in Nashville, Tennessee, and alerted me to a member of the 1920s Underwood speed typewriting team who I had previously neglected. I was doubly delighted to look into this typist’s life story, because it ticks many of the boxes of interest for my friend Bill MacLane in Michigan, whose pursuits include not just typewriters but cameras and radios. Arthur Francis Neuenhaus (1906-1987) was  a world champion speed typist and a keen photographer (using this hobby to promote typewriter sales) and a civil defence radio director from 1953-60, at the height of the Cold War.


The Nashville reader said that “while going through a box of old family photos and such, I ran across a card identical to Barney Stapert's card [right]*, only this one is Arthur F. Neuenhaus and his record was 131 net words per minute for one-half hour. I have no idea what year this is from; however, I would be happy to donate it to you to add to your very interesting hobby!” (*The comment was directed at my November 2014 post “Last Days of Speed Typing Glory”, which included an Underwood promotional card featuring Stapert, the 1924 world amateur champion who became the “third musketeer” behind George Hossfeld and Albert Tangora in the Underwood speed team.) 

Anyway, YES, PLEASE to the Nashville reader who offered the card. And thanks for putting me on to Arthur Neuenhaus, the 1920 world novice typing champion (at age 14).


Neuenhaus was born in Paterson, New Jersey, on February 24, 1906, and died at North Palm Beach, Florida, on April 8, 1987, aged 81. After joining the Underwood team, he was second in the world amateur championship in 1921, fifth in 1922 and fourth in 1923, when he achieved his high mark of 131 words per minute. By 1933 he had followed Tangora to Royal and remained with that company for the rest of his working life. By 1950 he was selling and demonstrating Royal typewriters to high schools in New York City. He used his interest in colour photography to put together presentations.



Neuenhaus had settled in Glen Rock, New Jersey, and from 1953 became very active in the local civil defence council, established as part of the “Alert America” program for fear of a Soviet pre-emptive nuclear strike. With civil defence, his area of expertise (beyond typewriters) was radio, and from 1930, when he lived in Clifton, New Jersey, he had had the call signal W2CXJ. In Glen Rock he was chairman of the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service. He moved to North Palm Beach in 1960 and became involved with the American Association of Retired Persons.