Only one of the portable typewriters embraced by the title of my 2011 book The Magnificent Five emerged in the last half of the 20th Century: the Olivetti Lettera 22. A revised version of the book might go further West, to a Magnificent Seven, with an early Royal and perhaps a later Olympia, or the Facit TP1. But did the glorious history of the development of the portable end at 1950? And is the Lettera 22, as Will Self claims, “widely regarded as the greatest typewriter of all-time”? Or the best designed of any product, 1900-59? A typewriter fit to be “standard equipment” on an airliner? It certainly might be considered that, of all the post-war portables most readily available today (which in this country, at least, must exclude the like of Torpedo 18s and Alpinas, Erikas and Gromas, or a Voss), the Lettera 22 is the very best. If so, the 65th anniversary of its launch in the United States and Britain passed in 2018 with surprisingly little fanfare – indeed, with none at all.
One might gain the impression from four successive blog posts about the Olivetti Lettera 22 portable typewriter that this model has been very much on my mind of late. And one would be dead right. The latest chain of thought was set in motion a few weeks ago when Richard Polt sent me a link to an e-book called Just Our Type: Newsmaking Typewriters From the Newseum Collection. This included a Lettera 32 with the caption, “United Press International White House reporter Merriman Smith used this portable typewriter, shown with its carrying case, to cover President John F. Kennedy’s fateful trip to Dallas, Texas, in 1963. On November 22, 1963, Smith’s 12-word news bulletin was the first to report to the nation that the president had been shot …”Now I have very little doubt – and haven’t had for many years - that the Lettera 32 wasn’t available in the US in 1963, and that it didn’t reach the American market until April 1964. But the Lettera 22 was still readily available and sold there new right up until the end of 1963. Those familiar with my book The Magnificent Five will know my feelings on the subject of the so-called provenance of Cormac McCarthy’s famous quarter-million-dollar Lettera 32, which McCarthy originally alleged he’d bought in a pawnshop in 1958, five years before the 32 even existed. Another Olivetti which appears in Just Our Type is a Lettera 22 described as a “Civil Rights Era ‘Laptop’: New York Times reporter Claude Sitton carried this portable Underwood Olivetti typewriter while covering the civil rights movement throughout the South in the 1960s. He covered the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi that became known as the Mississippi Burning case."
First ad in Britain, The Manchester Guardian, June 17, 1953. Below left, early US ad.
A salmon 22 is tested outside the Chicago store.
While Olivetti itself says the Lettera 22 came out in 1950, the later date of 1953 should explain a few things, not the least of which is the massive amount of expensive worldwide advertising for the “new” portable, started that year. The Compasso d’Oro wasn’t awarded until 1954, the same year Olivetti opened its New York showroom and, more significantly, the eye-popping poster artwork of Sardinian-born graphic designer Giovanni Pintori began to appear around the world.
Pintori, left, started working for Olivetti in 1936 and became art director in 1950. His use of colourful geometric shapes and minimalist style very much contributed to the concept of an “Olivetti style”.
Thanks in part to Pintori’s work, in 1955 Olivetti opened a new factory at Agliè Canavese to take up some of the Lettera 22 production and the model was selected as the subject for an international typography and advertising competition. Photos of the famous Fifth Avenue, New York, "peep show", snaps of passers-by using a salmon 22, appeared in LIFE magazine on April 11, 1955. Olivetti broke new ground with a partnership with the organisers of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, where the Lettera 22 became the weapon of choice for many hundreds of journalists.
Pistachio, blue and salmon 22s being tested in the Agliè Canavese plant.
There’s nothing new in me thinking about the Lettera 22; Richard’s email just kickstarted a regular process. I think about the Lettera 22 a lot, most particularly in regard to the fairly constant mental comparisons I make between it and the Lettera 32. I have to concede to myself that these thoughts are naturally somewhat coloured by the fact that I used a Lettera 32 from 1965 until the late 80s. And by used, I mean really used, as in typing close to 92 million words on a 32.
I still use a 32 from time to time, but in the past 10 years or so I’ve probably used a 22 far more often, and unquestionably enjoyed typing on one far more. Still, can my comparisons be fair? I’m a two-fingered typist and my needs from a typewriter are very basic; fancy add-ons, such as sophisticated tabulation and the like, have no appeal for me whatsoever. So when someone like Will Self, who uses a 22 regularly, says the 22 is “widely regarded as the greatest typewriter of all time”, I’m in no frame of mind to argue. What sound reasoning, however, can I use to validate my preference for one model, the 22, over the other, the 32?
Well, for one thing, I think the 22 is actually, technically, the superior machine. Since the time I researched Olivetti’s 1959 takeover of Underwood for the joint Fall-Winter 2014-15 edition ETCetera magazine, I have become increasingly convinced the Lettera 32 was produced in – at least in terms of Olivetti processes of the time – a rather unseemly haste. It’s my contention that after the sudden death of Adriano Olivetti in February 1960 – followed by that of his successor Giuseppe Pero just three years later – the Olivetti company was in increasingly serious financial trouble, resulting directly from Adriano’s impetuous Underwood takeover.
With the Italian Government desperately keen to keep one of the country’s major manufacturers and exporters afloat, a rescue syndicate of Fiat, Pirelli, La Centrale and two state-owned banks, Mediobanca and IMI, was put together, bailing out Olivetti to the tune of $US50 million. One of the casualties of the new management structure was Giovanni Pintori himself. In the meantime the Olivetti board, such as it was without Adriano and Pero, was demanding that a new portable model be put on the market as quickly as possible. After all, the 22 had been around, at least on the Italian market, since 1950, and by any calculation, 13 years is a very long time between fresh machines. (After all, Underwood threw a desperate dice with five different portables between 1956-58 alone! An almost entirely different Olivetti portable didn't come along until the DL and Dora in 1965.) In the interim, calculating, accounting and textile printing machines, as well as the Graphika standard typewriter, had become Olivetti’s priorities.
Giuseppe Beccio, Olivetti’s general technical director and the mechanical designer of the 22, had died in September 1957. Marcello Nizzoli, left, who designed the mask for the 22, marginally adapted his original 1949 mask for the 32 – even now the differences aren’t always immediately obvious to me. Adriano Menicanti, who patented a new typing action for Olivetti in 1963 (later picked up by Brother), was in charge of the mechanics for the 32, under the watchful eye of the experienced engineer Natale Capellaro, who had worked on the company’s original standard, the M1, as a 14-year-old in 1916, and who had succeeded Beccio as general technical director. (Beccio, Capellaro and Nizzoli designed the Lexikon 80 in 1949). Olivetti claimed “the Lettera 32 renewed the success of the Lettera 22 … thanks to some technical devices, [it] further improved the performance of the previous model, albeit at the price of a slight increase in size and weight.”
The truth? The naked truth is out there, at the end of my fingers. The 32 looks newer, it just doesn’t feel better. And with that I rest my case.
The Rome store.