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Thursday, 2 December 2021

Typewriter Toy Story: ozTypewriter and the Temple of Doom

A bevy of Berwins

I’ve been going through boxes and chests of toy typewriters in the typewriter workshop and trying to work out the easiest way to offload them all. I photographed 37 in the driveway on Tuesday and yesterday peeked inside a large old chest high up on a shelf. Inside were another 20 Simplex and Dial typewriters. I posted images of these hordes on Instagram and almost immediately someone in Singapore (where else? Does anything change?) thought he or she had spotted a Monpti at the back of the pack on the driveway. It was no such thing, of course, but a Sears Adventure, an Olivetti Valentine lookalike. I had another potential buyer making an offer for the same toy today, but I suspect it will soon be on its way to Singapore.

After I posted an image of the non-boxed Simplexes in the chest, a chap I follow on Instagram, Sean of Calgary, Alberta, commented “I always imagined you had a treasure collection reminiscent of the warehouse at the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and this sorta confirms it!” I was tickled pink by that - it brought a smile to my face. Cheers, Sean! Oddly enough I was holding open the heavy lid of the chest with one hand and trying to photograph the contents with the other when the lid slipped and fell on my head, with such a bang it knocked my glasses off. So I guess it was a kind of ‘temple of doom’ situation for me. Well, at least my collection of toy typewriters is doomed, though I'd hardly call my typewriter workshop a temple!

After a visit yesterday from a seller of antique and vintage items, I’m considering offering her everything for one overall price and letting her worry about such things as shipping and dealing with customers, or vice versa. I’ve had quite enough of that sort of stuff for one lifetime, thank you. A man who lacks the patience of Job and cannot lie straight-faced will never have a career in typewriter sales.

There are a few that will be staying in my collection, such as the Bambino, made by Optima and based on the Frolio 5, and the little Kamkap, otherwise known as a Revere and a Byron Junior.

They may sit alongside this chromed Bennett, seen here among the lilies:

And these lovely lady typists:

Saturday, 27 November 2021

RIP Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021)

There are many versions of Stephen Sondheim's Opening Doors from his 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along. Although the vision in this clip is not as clear as in some others, I chose it because it has the most authentic typing I could find - and none of the simulated sound of a typewriter (how cheap and nasty!). It features Tara Filowitz, Zack Handlen and Max Ferguson of Brandeis University in a performance at the Laurie Theatre in 2000. Sondheim was using an electric typewriter in 1957, when he wrote the lyrics for West Side Story, and this particular scene is set in 1959. Sondheim said Opening Doors was "only autobiographical song I've ever written". 

Music, Music, Music (and Kids With Typewriters too)

Zoë Barry and friends typewriting the script for “The Boy Who Loved Tiny Things”, a show Zoë partly created.This snippet was filmed while Zoë was driving into Melbourne in 2018.

Putting typewriters aside for a day, the undoubted high point of the past week was my stepdaughter, Zoë Barry, winning the Australian Recording Industry Association’s award for Australian Music Teacher of the Year. The ARIA Awards are this country’s equivalent of the Grammys. Zoë, a renowned cellist, teaches children – many the offspring of immigrants from South Sudan and Ethiopia – at the Sacred Heart School in Fitzroy, an inner suburb of Melbourne. Zoë is the first Australian Music Teacher of the Year Award winner from a city school. Sacred Heart has about 150 students - 95 per cent of them having English as an additional language and nearly all living in a nearby public housing estate. Some speak Vietnamese at home, others Arabic, others Mandarin, Dinka and Nuer. There are even a few students from Chile who speak Spanish.

Zoë’s win came on the third anniversary of the performance of Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter” by the National Capital Orchestra during a concert at the John Lingard Hall, Canberra Grammar School. Percussionist Veronica Bailey, herself a music teacher, "played" my poppy red 1971 Adler Gabriele 25 portable typewriter. Veronica has been the classical percussion teacher for the Australian National University’s Open School of Music since 2010. Like Richard Polt, I’m a little bit “over” hearing “The Typewriter”, but I'm especially piqued when people send me video links to overseas performances. I keep telling them that I’ve seen “The Typewriter” performed much better, and live here in Canberra, when one of my own typewriter was used.

At the end of the 2018 Canberra concert, children interested in music were encouraged to meet orchestra members and take a close look at their instruments - in some cases even to play them. However, by far and away the greatest drawcard for the youngsters was the typewriter, and even long after the musical instruments had been packed away, children were still milling around Veronica as she explained the workings of the Adler to them. The typewriter literally "stole the show"!

It was 65 years ago this month that the Parkview High School in Springfield, Missouri, performed “The Typewriter”.  Nathalie Smith was on typewriter and she was accompanied, from the left in the photo above, by Stephen James, Dorsey Dysart, Don Templeton and David Kollmeyer, members of the school’s first graduate class.

Meanwhile, children at my granddaughter's school here in Canberra have been on the TV news showing their typewriting skills:

Friday, 26 November 2021

Life of a Typewriter Technician (Installment 7 - Training on the Facit 1850)

                                            By Guest Poster Michael Klein

Continuing my story (last installment July 28, 2020) of a young wet-behind-the-ears school leaver, navigating a career with a Melbourne office equipment supplier, servicing all brands of typewriters, but specialising in the Swedish brand Facit.

One morning, on arriving at work, my boss, the shop owner and salesman, was in a somewhat furtive conversation with my supervisor Norm (the senior typewriter technician and my mentor). I had been at the organisation long enough to know not to eavesdrop on such conversations, as these were a regular occurrence and were often dodgy deals being hatched, so I took the hint and disappeared to buy a cake and drink from the milkbar next door.

On my return, the boss somewhat sheepishly approached me and asked if I wished to partake in a week-long technical training course on the new Facit golfball typewriter about to hit the market. I couldn’t understand what all the cloak and dagger was about, but with hindsight, I suspect my boss was sounding out with my supervisor whether I would be technically capable and if it would be worth the investment in me being off the tools for a week’s training.

Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather – this training offer was beyond anything I had been expecting. Not only had my supervisor given me the tick of approval, which in itself was a huge ego boost, but my boss was giving me the opportunity to become the “golfball specialist” within the company. My supervisor was a very old school typewriter mechanic, having come up through the ranks of what was then almost a full-blown apprenticeship, albeit not a recognised trade. He nevertheless had spend many years with a company called Sydney Pincombe, then later with Philips when they bought out Facit. What he didn’t know about manual and electric Facit typewriters wasn’t worth [type]writing about! However, golfballs always seemed to be a bit beyond him, or maybe he wasn’t inclined to want to learn of their intricacies late in his career. I, on the other hand, was a very enthusiastic young lad at the time, always willing and eager to learn about new mechanical devices and concepts.

Norm took me into the training facility, so that he could introduce me to some of the fellow technicians, who, while they were with opposition companies, he obviously knew by first name. I also arrived late in the morning, when the class had already started, further adding to the mystique around the last-minute decision to send me on the course rather than Norm, who was obviously enrolled in the course originally.

I couldn’t contain my excitement of being there. I may as well have been starting on a rocket maintenance course, such was the regard I held for these complex machines that I was to spend the next week playing with. I was also the youngest chap in the course, which further boosted the sense of self-importance I felt within myself by being there amongst a group of very experienced technicians. Many of the course participants went on to become long-term associates, with one in particular displaying dodgy business practices just like my current employer (more of this in later installments, no doubt).

June 1978 Australian newspaper ad

The IBM golfball was regarded in the industry as something quite untouchable, as IBM had a very tight control of the market for its machine. It was only sold through their own sales channels, and the spare parts and service literature was very tightly controlled, making it extremely difficult for small dealerships such as ourselves to be able to service or repair the complex machines. In fact IBM behaved in many ways similar to, say, a Mercedes dealership does today by restricting availability to service manuals, mechanic specialist training and software diagnostics, so the local mechanic has no hope in being able to service these cars. It was at this time (around the mid-1970s) that the worldwide patent on the IBM golfball ran out, allowing all the other manufacturers to step in and take a slice of a lucrative market. They also had an advantage in looking back on some 20 years of stifled progress and to be able to come out with some very innovative approaches to golfball typewriter designs, by not being shackled to having to keep a flawed design in production to get return on sunk investment costs. Ford suffered the same fate with the Model-T car in that they would not, or could not, change the basic design for decades while new innovations came to market from nimble competitors.

March 1977 United States newspaper ad

Facit was one of those manufacturers who turned the golfball design on its head, coming up with a machine that addressed all that was wrong with IBM’s somewhat tired and dated offering. Many of the parts in the IBM that either broke or needed constant adjustment, due to inherent poor design, were simply engineered out of existence due to the new crisp and stylish Swedish design.

During training, we each had a brand-new machine to play with for a week, under the guidance of an engineer from the factory in Sweden. Facit had just been bought out by the multinational Electrolux group, of vacuum cleaner and whitegoods fame. I spent a week pulling my machine apart and putting it back together and adjusting it to make it all work again. We had the opportunity during that week to take apart components that ordinarily wouldn’t have to be disassembled during the life of the machine. We really got to know the inner workings of those typewriters!

The instructor’s first language wasn’t English, and the class got accustomed to this and managed to adapt so that he could understand us and we could understand him. However, there was a somewhat amusing yet delicate episode when one day the instructor wore his stylish (in Europe, no doubt) suit to the class. It was a VERY lairish shade of green (almost like Kermit the frog), and it was somewhat difficult for the class to contain themselves and to stop sniggering and breaking out into uproarious laughter throughout the day. Towards the end of the day, one of our fellow students made a side joke in what we thought would be a disguised manner, by weaving some Australian slang into the statement to try and hide the fact we were poking fun at the instructor’s dress sense. Well,  the instructor obviously had a better command of English than we’d bargained for and he turned somewhat red with rage. Having put up with us  whispering about him all day, this last joke was the final straw. Needless to say we toned it down after that episode and didn’t pick on the instructor anymore.

After the course finished, we all said our goodbyes and went out into the world equipped with the knowledge to become Facit golfball typewriter experts. To this young lad, it was a pinnacle of my career path. I was about to embark on what were, to me, very exciting times.

June 1977 US newspaper ad

The golfball typewriter was a very expensive item, retailing at around $1800; considering that an average family-sized car cost around $4000 at the time, this will place the cost of the typewriter at probably $22,500 in today’s money – a huge investment for a company, and one usually only made for executive secretaries. There were very few of these machines sold to home users - they were almost purely a corporate business tool. There was good markup to be had on them as well, which led to some very competitive sales tactics amongst the small fraternity that was the office equipment supply market in those days.

We had the advantage of having a large number of Facit service contracts, which also gave us a shoe-in for sales. I suspect that the bulk of the customers we had on the books came as a result of Philips relinquishing the Facit franchise, as staff at our shop were ex-Philips employees. Also, a gift to us was that not many of the other smaller typewriter shops seemed to have anywhere near the range of Facits under contract as we did, nor did they seem to have a desire to step into that space, as it was somewhat a niche market compared to IBM and Remington, who had a huge portion of the market.

Over time, we very successfully migrated many of our customers from the Facit 1820 (a very robust workhorse of an electric typewriter) to the Facit golfball - the model 1850. But with success comes some angst as well, as we soon discovered that there was a design flaw in one of the components that controlled the shift function (in a golfball, this is achieved by rotating the ball through 180 degrees, compared to lifting the conventional typebar basket up and down, or in the case of many portables, shifting the platen up and down to make the upper or lower case letters strike the paper). Because of the speed that the golfball operates at, this part was under a lot of stress and would break after about a year in service, and due to the design of the Facit 1850, a complete module had to be replaced. Eventually a better designed mechanism came out in the next model release, but this would have cost our Australian wholesaler a fortune, as it was its responsibility to make good on all of this disaster. We would have replaced dozens (hundreds perhaps) of these modules; it’s not just the cost of the effort in physically replacing the part, the pick up and dropping back of the typewriter to the customer (it wasn’t practical to do this job onsite), but there was probably untold loss of goodwill and the customers’ faith in Facit as a product, after having invested much of their hard-earned capital in a fleet of typewriters.

I don’t know if it was all of this, plus the logistics of the wholesaler having the unexpected impost of having to import all those replacement parts, that contributed to their ultimate demise a few years later, but there were other factors at play with this particular wholesaler. It simply wasn’t a big enough set up to be able to service their network of resellers Australia-wide in the way that Philips used to be.

 I thoroughly enjoyed the years in which I had the good fortune to work on Facit typewriters, and in particular my privileged opportunity to specialise in the Facit golfball. They stood me in good stead when I was to later apply for a job at Remington, which turned out to be another major turning point in the career of this naive young lad.

Bees Invade Typewriter Domain

It has taken the best part of five weeks for us to get an expert to come and take our bee swarm away. There has been, apparently, a massive demand in Canberra this strange spring from people trying to get help in dealing with established colonies of bees. The Canberra Region Beekeepers Association lists 24 contacts on an online Swarm Collector List, but our best efforts in reaching out to them were fruitless until this week, when one man finally agreed to come to our aid. The swarm was on a beam outside the Japanese Studio, where usually the only humming can be heard from a collection of ancient typewriters. For a while, dead bees, trapped inside the studio, outnumbered typewriters. Normal service has now resumed. We gather someone close by is a beekeeper, as queens don't travel too far. Anyway, our majesty is now on her way elsewhere, along with her thousands of loyal subjects.

Earlier this month, a swarm of bees was found attached to a car in the city centre:

Optima M14 Standard Typewriter

This beefy East German monster almost drew me out of my typewriter-collecting hiatus last evening. My "bidding buddy" alerted me to an auction here in Canberra, and at first glance I wasn't tempted. But then curiosity got the better of me and I agreed to put in a bid of $35 on it. For one thing, I wanted to know what lay beyond that huge "Berlin Wall" at the front of the machine. We were beaten by a buck, however, so I guess I'll never know what it's like to type with an Optima M14. This model was produced from 1962 until 1970, and the slightly more colourful M16 from 1965 to 1977, until they were succeeded by the Daro 18 and 20 from 1977-85 and finally the Robotron 24 from 1985-1991.

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

1975 Adler Tippa Portable Typewriter

1896 Remington No 6 Typewriter

A Canberra antiques dealer dropped off this Remington last week, asking me to have a look at it and advise him on any work that needs to be done on it. I don't think I'll be doing anything other than clean it up a bit. After all, it's 125 years old and not just in remarkably good condition for that age, but typing very nicely. Mind you, while typing with it I was reminded of just how slow and difficult it is to use these very early "blind" Remingtons. This one has the serial number 22,903 and, judging by Ted Munk's Database, it was made in 1896. 

At first I thought, because of the serial number, it might have been a Model 2. But after placing my Remington No 2 (right) beside the visiting one, I started to have doubts. In a comment to the original version of this post, Richard Polt pointed out it was a Model 6, and reminded me of Alan Seaver's Remington rundown on the Machines of Loving Grace site. Alan had written, "The Standard No 6 marked the first major improvements in the Remington design since the No 2. Significant changes were made to the carriage design, escapement and ribbon advance." 

Above, a sample of my typing "blind" on the visiting machine. It is actually typing a lot better than my Model 2, which I've neglected for many years now. But the decals and pinstripes, as well as the bodywork in general, are in much better shape on my Model 2 than on the visitor.

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

1952 Halda Portable Typewriter

The story of how I acquired this (now gorgeous and working) Halda, and a few other non-working portables. will be told in a day or so. In the meantime, I'll sing the praises of a cleaning method I use, which is especially good for getting any grime out of "crinkle" paint work.