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Tuesday 29 October 2013

Clip Art: How Olivetti Changed Track with its Last Ivrea-Designed Portable Typewriter

Having seen the maestro, Will Davis, dissect the mechanics of the Visigraphs in West Virginia, I realised that, try as I may, I was never going to be in that same league. Better for me, I reasoned, to stick to what I can do: that is, to take note of the more outwardly obvious changes in typewriters, study the connections, and follow the patents and the inventors and designers.
Feeling a bit blue about all this, and being so abruptly parted from Will, Richard Polt, Martin Howard and the other experts in North America, back home with no one to talk typewriters to in Dullsville Canberra, I decided the best therapy for me would be to take out a typewriter and type.
And I figured it would be appropriate to pick out a blue typewriter. The nearest at hand was an Olivetti Lettera 41*.
(* I will continue to refer to this model as the Lettera 41, but it is a design which also embraces the Letteras 40 and 42 as well as the Letteras 50, 51 and 52; the last three use cartridge ribbons.)
The Lettera 52
Trouble was, this portable had been sitting doing nothing for too long. I spied a very slight case of rubber flaking on the platen, rubbing off on to the paper bail, and the ribbon vibrator was being quite stubborn. Nothing for it but to take it apart, clean it up, lube it and run the air compressor through it.
And that’s when the fun started …
No sooner had I located the front screws holding the mask in place than I realised … THIS IS LIKE NO OTHER OLIVETTI PORTABLE I HAVE EVER WORKED ON!!!
The first thing that struck me was what I have come to call “Clip Art”. The boots aside, there were only two tiny screws holding the mask, both at the front – the rest of it simply clips into place, including the back plate.
My mind immediately went back to the time when I acquired this machine, at a recycling centre in Mitchell, outside Canberra, about seven years ago. It was still in the box in which it had been shipped to Australia. On the box, in large type, was “Made in Spain”. And yet, on the side, was also prominently displayed the name: “JAPAN”.
I wondered about that then, and I’m still wondering. Could it be that this Olivetti is like an “Australian-Built” Remington portable? Was it actually made in Spain, or Japan? Or was it merely assembled in Spain – or Japan? My guess is that it was shipped to Australia from Japan, and so may well have been assembled there.
Next thought – if this was the case, did it reflect a changed attitude by Olivetti, a “if we can’t beat 'em, we’ll join 'em” approach to producing portables?
Bear in mind Japan was churning out portable typewriters like nobody’s business in 1980, when this Lettera 41 was produced. Smith-Corona-Marchant had virtually given up on its fight to have Brother charged under 1920s Anti-Dumping Laws in the US – claiming Brother was selling portables in American at a price cheaper than they could be made. By the early 80s Brother had sold 10 million portables! Nakajima, meanwhile, was spewing out Royals and Imperials and all sorts of other branded machines at around 100,000 a month – all fast-tracked assembly line stuff.
Would it not be reasonable to assume that Olivetti looked at this and decided that, in order to continue to compete, it had to go the same way? Well, my investigations into this model have clearly established that was indeed the case – that the Lettera 41 was specifically designed for cheap production and assembly. But more on that later.
The Lettera 42 has an automatic spacer. Image below from the vicent zp collection. 
A bit of research on Olivetti’s official history website produced yet another surprise: Olivetti describes the Bellini (mask) designs from the Lettera 40 through to the Lettera 52 as the “MOST SOPHISTICATED” of all the Letteras. You may well wonder why. I shall explain …
The Valentine. On other models, these "innards" are covered by a thin metal plate.
Having “unslotted” the Lettera 41 mask, I was in for a third surprise: Unlike earlier Olivetti portables, which have a thin metal base plate protecting the mechanism, and the Valentine, which of course has an encasing mask reaching under the typewriter, the Lettera 41 has a plastic base plate and above it a large slab of rock hard plastic slotted in under typebasket and carriage. It is not simply held in place by the three screws on either side, but is very firmly gripped to the bottom of the machine by large plastic rivets.
Now, I was most impressed by this. My argument about the Valentine, which is little more than a flimsier version of the Dora, it that it suffers very badly from a weight imbalance. The Depression Era Remie Scout proved that even with nothing but keys extending from the front of the typebasket, the machine can still sit very solidly on the writing surface because of the concentration of weight in the back section. It seems Olivetti eventually cottoned on to this – perhaps stung by the poor typeability of the Valentine.  The slab of plastic under the Lettera 41 not alone provides excellent stability through its joining arms and crossbars for the typebasket and spacebar mechanism, but it also adds a great deal of weight to the back section and makes for an excellent typing machine.
Why hadn’t Olivetti thought of this before? I wondered. More to the point – who thought of it, and why this late in the piece for manual portable typewriters? Why did Olivetti go with this major change in design in 1980, when surely the writing was already on the wall?
Lettera 41, left, and Lettera 25
Lettera 41, left, and Lettera 25
Lettera 32, left, and Lettera 22

Dora, left, and Valentine
First, I started to compare the Lettera 41 with all that went before it – from the Lettera 22 (1949) to the 32 (1963) to the Dora (1965), Valentine (1969) and the Lettera 25-35 series of the early 1970s. (The Lettera 25 I am showing here was made in Mexico, where it was a popular model).
I stripped them all of their masks and looked hard. Essentially, as we all knew, the mechanics changed very little. Olivetti’s official history declares the 32would seem a simple restyling of the Lettera 22, but in reality introduced various mechanical modifications that improve performance”.  This is highly debatable – like me, many prefer the 22 for its much crisper typing action. Nonetheless, the 32 mechanical design was carried on through the DL, Dora, Valentine and on into the Lettera 25-35 series. The masks, of course, changed dramatically, but not so much the innards.
Lettera 22
Lettera 32
Lettera 25
Lettera 41
But then, as I looked more closely at the carriages, I was to discover the REALLY BIG SURPRISE.
Lettera 41
Lettera 25
Above and below: Lettera 41. Note how far toward the centre the mainspring is positioned.
Carriage supports for earlier models can be seen below.
Now this had me completely mystified. For such a relatively obscure model, the Lettera 41 represents a hugely radical change in Olivetti portables, a MASSIVE shift in design.
Realising that Mario Bellini had merely designed the masks (as on the Lettera 25-35 series) and, as with those earlier models, was being given the whole credit for the Lettera 41 et al, I went looking for a new mechanical design.
And I soon found it. The mechanics of the Lettera 41 were designed by Walter Albrile, a prolific Olivetti mechanical designer, in 1979.
This design, in other words, was the first really significant change in the mechanics of Olivetti portables since Giuseppe Beccio designed the Lettera 22 mechanics in 1949 – as with Bellini (Letteras 25 through 52) and Sottsass (Valentine), Marcello Nizzoli got all the credit for the 22, but he only designed the mask, not the mechanics*.
(* I have not taken into account here the Lettera 82, which is an awful Brazilian-made plastic Hermes Baby, and which therefore has at its origins Prezioso, not one of the Olivetti designers. The Lettera 41 was the last Olivetti portable typewriter design to come out of Ivrea. The later, unspeakably bad Olivetti MS 25 Premier Plus, which is Chinese-made, has to be the worst portable typewriter ever made and is hardly worth a mention here.)
What jumps out loud and clear from Albrile’s patent is that the Lettera 41 was specifically designed for cheap production and assembly. The “inexpensive type” is a term repeatedly used in his specifications. The plastic slab underneath is, as can be seen from the patent, part of the plan. So, obviously, is the “Clip Art” – the ability to “slot” the machine together and use only two small screws (apart from the boots).
For all that, the Lettera 41 is NOT like the Valentine, it is not like the Lettera 82 and it is certainly not like the MS 25. In fact, it is a bloody good typewriter – at least up there with the slightly heavier Lettera 25-35 series, if not indeed superior.

One of the features of the Lettera 41 I really liked are the clip-on rubber ends on the ribbon vibrator, at the printing point, which enabled me to wind the ribbon on far, far easier than with all-metal ends:
Why did the Lettera 41 not succeed, then? Why such a "modern" rarity? Well clearly the battle against the Japanese manufacturers was always going to be a losing one. SCM found that, and Olivetti did too. On top of that, the days of manual portable typewriters were almost over. The Lettera 41 was a last throw of the dice by Olivetti – at least as far as Ivrea was concerned. It didn’t bring Olivetti the desired result. Which is a pity, because it was an admirable attempt. But in terms of its long, proud history of producing great manual portable typewriters, Olivetti certainly deserves to be remembered for the Lettera 41, and not the grossly over-rated 82 or the lamentable Ms 25. 
Lettera 22
Lettera 32
Lettera 25
Lettera 41
Lettera 22
Lettera 32
Lettera 25


Rob Bowker said...

Thanks for a really in-depth dissection of the series.

Miguel Chávez said...

Now this was indeed a surprise. I always assumed the newer Olivettis sold in Mexico to be Lettera 32s with a new dress, but never thought of looking for differences in the carriage, and certainly not in their feel and typing action.

Towards the end of the line (in the early 2000s) Olivetti was still selling some Lettera-based manual typewriters in Mexico, notably a couple of models, like the Lettera 25 (indeed, very common, even today; available in red and tan) but also variations of the same model, like the Lettera Premier (apparently a 25 with two-color mask in ivory white and baby-blue typebar cover), the New Age (dark green mask with red typebar cover), another New Age (purple mask with PINK typebar cover!) as well as some Chinese-made, Nakajima-based models like the MS25 Premier Plus.

Do you have any of them?

Scott K said...

I'm quite surprised by the level of variation in this machine, and the progressive nature of it's development.

Also Rob, if you want to talk typewriters... I'm here anytime!

And I might just have to rope you into a little project that I have in mind. When I say little, I actually mean - probably over ambitious. I'll talk to you soon about it.

Anonymous said...

Robert, your Lettera 41 was made for the Japanese market. Yen, pound and dollar symbols were the standard for English-language machines in Japan.

Did any typewriter ever offer the Euro?

Unknown said...

Miguel, I would love to see some of those Mexican Olivetti's. I love the 25 and 35. They are charming, even if they aren't half the typers that the Olivetti's of the 50's and 60's are.

(To be fair, I do not understand why anyone liked the 22. I have one and I find the keyboard frustratingly stiff, the carriage too heavy, and the shift keys too light. But that's me.)

I have heard a lot about the MS25. The world seems to hate it, along with the Royal Scrittore. I think they may be the same machine. At least, they are the same poor quality.

But these Mexican Olivetti's sound like they have a lot more in common with the Ivrea models than the Chinese and Japanese models. That intrigues me.