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Sunday 7 July 2013

Flight of Wedges (Electronic Typewriters)

Richard Polt's post (Shakespeare's typewriter) on his visit to Stratford-upon-Avon and his reference to an electronic wedge typewriter being immortalised in an oil painting (perhaps for the "first and last time"?) reminded me that I have had for some time a stack of these things sitting under cover in a corner of my lounge (wedges, that is, not oil paintings).
This 1995 portrait of Jacquetta Hawkes of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, by Hazel Martindale, was photographed by Richard in Nash's House on Chapel Street in Stratford-upon-Avon (below).
 The inclusion of it on Richard's post drew many comments, most seeking to identify the electronic wedge typewriter on Hawkes' desk in the oil painting. The consensus seemed to be that it is an Olympia Compact (see below).
The closet thing I think I have to it is this Olympia Reporter semi-portable electric typewriter:
In this late 1970s image from the National Portrait Gallery in London, however, Hawkes can be seen with another kind of Olympic typewriter altogether, an eggshell blue SF portable:
I usually make a point, when asked to "give a good home" to such machines, that I do not collect electronic typewriters - and I have been quite surprised by just how many times I have been asked to do that in the past few years. (Interestingly, most often would-be donors tell me the machines have hardly ever, if ever, been used.) I keep thinking that the time when these "crossover typewriters" become collectibles has not yet been reached - but maybe I'm wrong on that. I've notice that in recycling centres, op shops and second-hand stores, once a rich source for me of manual portable typewriters, electronic typewriters are appearing more frequently. But I also note they seem to stay on the shelves a lot longer. 
The majority of the electronic typewriters that have been "forced" upon me have subsequently been chucked out. I can't find anyone interested in taking them off my hands. Nonetheless I have kept a few, about a dozen in all. I admit to being curious about them as writing implements. During my career in journalism I never used one of these things - I went straight from a manual typewriter to an early NEC "laptop" in the mid-to-late 1980s. I simply skipped the electronic wedges era. So now I am mildly keen to try some out.
This is the type of machine I used when I first moved from typewriters into the "electronic age". This one is a 5lb NEC UltraLite from 1989, considered the first "notebook style computer". The earlier model NECs I used did not have floppy disk or CD-Rom drives, from memory, but did have a 14-line lid-screen and a similiar keyboard.
These are some electronic wedges, electric and/or platen typewriters that for the time being I have kept. But I won't be holding on to them for much longer. For obvious reasons, however, I will retain the Mario Bellini-designed Olivetti ET Personal 55:

Nakajima AX-90
 Triumph-Adler Gabriele 100
 Sharp PA-3030 II
 Panasonic T370
 Panasonic Thermawriter 12
 Sharp PA-1000
 Casio Casiowriter CW-16
 Brother EP-22
Canon Typemate 10
Richard was kind enough in his Stratford post to link to a post of mine about the typewriters Hawkes' second husband, writer J.B.Priestley, used (anything, it would seem, than an Imperial Good Companion; it was a book by Priestley that gave the Good Companion its name):
 1932 (Royal)
 1933 (Royal)
 1940 (Royal)
 1958 (Royal)
1977 (Hermes 3000, 2nd design)
Priestley and Hawkes on their wedding day in 1953
In 1977
Jacquetta Hawkes was born in Cambridge on August 5, 1910. She was an archaeologist and writer. Born Jessie Jacquetta Hopkins, the daughter of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, she married first Christopher Hawkes, then an assistant keeper at the British Museum, in 1933. She is perhaps best known generally for her book A Land (1951). She died on March 18, 1996, aged 85.
Below, some snaps from my own visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, about three years ago:


Ray said...

I don't see the appeal of electric typewriters (do they have any?). I bought a selectric II out of curiosity -$1 in an eBay auction. I was surprised to find how heavy the thing was. Quite how such a heavier machine could be considered an improvement is beyond me. Not only did I have the grief of moving such a weighty object, but the seller was awful to deal with - I suspect he thought his ugly electric typewriter was worth bundles and felt I was stealing from him.

Bill M said...

Although the ones shown are neat looking I have never had interest in any of the wedges. I doubt they will ever be real collectors items as they were being sold about the same time small personal computers were being sold and the computers have become the collector items.

There is something about a typewriter that requires electricity (even my favorite IBM Selectrics) that makes it seem just not a typewriter.

TonysVision said...

Thrift shop shelves look the same in the US, typewriterwise. In my short (but frenetic) collecting career manuals appear rarely, and are priced high when they do. It is not uncommon, though, to come across an electronic. My battery-powered Canon Typestar purchased in the 80's went to Goodwill just a few years ago, and I can't imagine ever having regrets.

My mornings are always enriched by your posts. This morning, as the patch of sunlight has crept across the floor to warm my bare feet, I've enjoyed skipping around the iNet learning a bit more about JB Preistly and Jacquetta Hawks, and am looking forward to reading "The Land", found for $0.01 plus media mail.

Miguel Chávez said...

I must be one of the very few who actually has a few wedges in his collection, but they come with several inherent flaws.

First and foremost, most of these machines use proprietary design cartridge ribbons, and once you use up the one that came with your machine, chances are you won't be able to locate new replacement cartridges, unless you scour the Internet looking for them, and then you'll have to pay dearly for "posting and handling".

Second, being in reality electronic-electromechanical devices, they need to be turned on and used periodically, or else they tend to develop more problems than a mechanic typewriter: the keyboard stucks, the carriage stucks, the daisywheel stucks... see a pattern?

Third, some of them, like the fantastic IBM Wheelwriters (big enough to fall out of the "wedge" category, but electronic-electromechanical nonetheless) use standard alkaline batteries to keep the internal memory running. Things like the tabular settings, margins, line spacing configuration etc., they used to store them in erasable-programable read only memory chips (E-PROM), which require a constant power supply in order to retain the information stored in them. Problem is, when you leave an alkaline battery inside an electronic device for long enough, they tend to spill and damage the battery holder tabs, and even the circuit boards.

And don't get me started on those thermal printing machines. They used a special kind of paper, like the one used on very early fax machines, that produced text by means of hot dots in a dot matrix head being pressed against the printing surface. Those printouts tended to fade out with time and exposure to light. Not exactly the kind of everlasting impressions we associate with our typewritten texts.

Add to that the fact that most electronic typewriters are sorrow shadows of what a good office typewriter used to be, and we have some very good reasons why they will hardly become collectibles. They are in fact disposable, monoprocess gadgets built in an era where electronic computers were getting more specialized. Even the newer machines, like my Brother GX, built in 2011, even though it shares many of the features found in the office IBM Wheelwriters, is a very slow, very clumsy, and very in-practical plastic wedge. It's clear that these machines are no longer intended to write long documents in them, but the ocassional one or two page letter or the even more ocassional pre-printed form.

In my case, I only keep two wedges in my collection... but have three Wheelwriters. Very nice machines to work with.

Joe V said...

My first adult purchased typewriter was one of those Smith Corona dark gray wedges from the early '80s, a model 100 or something, with cartridges for ribbon and correction tape, and a one-line correction memory. Very functional machine, with an assortment of various daisy wheel fonts to choose from, and very precise imprint, but alas, little "soul."

The closest I use today is an Alphasmart Neo, which isn't a typewriter but a word processor built into a very nice keyboard with a simple LCD display. They can be purchased new online from Renaissance Learning for around $US120, and batteries last for two years on several AA cells.

Richard P said...

Very nice to see my little post from Stratford inspiring a great entry in Australia.

As I've mentioned before, I see these electronic typewriters as inanimate objects (whereas we all know that manual typewriters have a soul). The electromechanical ones are on life support.

Ted said...

I keep a few wedges about. I tend to feel sorry for them when they sit on the thrift shelf in practically brand-new condition (I've even still found them with packing inserts still attached) for some absurdly low price. I keep thinking that "someone" must want one for just typing, and will appreciate one of the 3 or 4 I have sitting about.

Sometimes I buy them just because they are the only representation I've seen of a certain manufacturer. My latest wedge was simply bought because I wanted to see how a Swintec compared to a Wheelwriter (turns out, it fares pretty well).

Anonymous said...

I just picked up an Olympia Electronic Compact 2 for $1.50. It had a service sticker from my home state Missouri, well worth the price, and it still works! I kinda like these electrics, if for no other reason than they are the last vestiges of typewriters still being used by various offices and governments clerks.

Ted said...

If you still have that Brother EP-22 baby wedge and haven't given it a try, maybe you could at some point do a review. I have an EP-20, and am curious about the differences (other than the different shell color and supposedly a serial port for hooking up a computer). Mostly I'm curious if the font improved from the very basic dot-matrix font of the EP-20, and if it can do auto-return or has a multi line memory (The EP-20 doesn't do either). Thanks! (:

Robert Messenger said...

OK, will do Ted, just let me find it first. Maybe today?

Ted said...

Sweet! be sure to include the serial number. I dug up a NY Times article that suggested the EP-22 was "coming soon" in late 1983. There's so few of these in collections that every example helps to build a timeline. I continue to praise Brother for their sensible serial numbering system :D

Walter said...

I'm late to the party here, but I'll come to the defense of E-wedges. The correction features are very handy. I have two Smith Corona wedges that I use quite often, I have no problem finding ink and correction carts for them. The printwheels are also easily found. They imprint beautifully, and the carbon copies come out very clean as well (yes, I still use carbon paper). Another advantage- no carriage clearance needed on either side of the machine, I can keep my bloody mary right next to me!

And, as Richard says, they are soulless machines; hence, I do not feel guilty recycling the scrap once it dies- as opposed to a manual machine, which I will always feel compelled to repair.

To my mind, they definitely have a place in my collection. There, I said it. Thanks for the cool post!

ojibway said...

I am very pleased that "...I will retain the Mario Bellini-designed Olivetti ET Personal 55:", Robert.

They are gorgeous and worthy of a place in any typewriter collection.

But I was upset to find out recently that collectors show little or no interest in electronic typewriters.
I suppose I can understand why - most are not that attractive, but then, neither are a lot of manual typewriter (I'm now hiding under my desk to avoid missiles!).
However the Olivetti Personal ET55 is the exception. A marvel of industrial design and fitting in nicely between Memphis and Post Modern design.

Scott said...

Hi Robert

I'm interested in purchasing a Brother AX-10 from you if you have one floating around as I'm very sick of computer screens and using manual typewriters sadly hurt my hands. Please email me if you have an AX-10 or know of someone who has one in good condition. Thank you.


P.S. I'm happy for you not to publish this request - I couldn't find a way to email you directly.