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Sunday 29 November 2020

Typewriter Talk at Virtual Herman's, Organised Brilliantly by David Brechbiel

On Sunday, November 15, I got up at 1am, donned my typewriter PJ top (for the first time) and gave one of the first breakout sessions during the Virtual Herman's typewriter collectors-historians Zoom gathering organised by the unflappable David Brechbiel. These Zoom presentations were a major achievement by David in the absence of a flesh-and-blood gathering at Herman Price's Chestnut Ridge Typewriter Museum in West Virginia. A special thanks to Dan Johnson's amazing grace for recording this (it was lost but is now found), Greg Lyons for being such a fantastic host for my breakout session, and Nick McIntyre, the technician who worked wonders. And to all those who suffered through my ramble. So good to see Richard Polt, Paul Robert, Mark Petersen and J.P. Huard and so many other friendly faces.

All the presentations can be found at They include Richard talking about some of his more unusual typewriters, Ted Munk, Tom Furrier, Jonathan Posey and many others.

The 'Flying Kangaroo' and Typewriters: 100 Years of Qantas

Did you know you can earn 77 Qantas points if you buy Richard Polt’s The Typewriter Revolution at Booktopia? I don’t know much about Qantas points but I know The Typewriter Revlution is an absolutely ripper book, so I guess it’s a good deal. And the offer is the first thing that pops up when you key Qantas+typewriter into a Google search. Next up is a suggestion to use Qantas frequent flyer points to stay at Garni Schönaussicht in Parcines in northern Italy, where you'll be within a five-minute walk of the Peter Mitterhofer Typewriter Museum.

In 1943, Cornelius the cockatoo kept cigar-chomping Qantas air traffic controller Geoffrey Allen company at his Imperial Good Companion portable typewriter in the isolated outpost of Batchelor in the North Territory, Australia’s “Top End”.

I mention all this because Qantas, the third-oldest surviving airline in the world and the oldest in the English-speaking world, has just celebrated its centenary. Admittedly, there wasn’t a lot of celebrating, since, like 96 per cent of the rest of the world’s airlines, Qantas has been pretty much grounded during the pandemic. Qantas is possibly best known to Americans of a certain age because of the massive free plug Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond Babbitt gave it in the 1988 movie Rain Man. The Hoffman-Babbitt pronunciation as "Qant-ass" was rather weird, but we still got his point.

The early days.

Babbitt’s claim that “Qantas never crashes” was, however, wrong. It had eight fatal accidents and an aircraft shot down between 1927 and 1945, with the loss of 63 people. Post-war, it lost another four aircraft with a total of 21 people killed. The last fatal accident suffered by Qantas was on December 13, 1951, when a de Havilland DH84 Dragon crashed in mountainous country near Mount Hagen, in the central highlands of New Guinea. The pilot and the two passengers were killed. Qantas’ more recent safety record allowed the airline to be officially known as the world's safest airline for seven years in a row from 2012 until 2019.

Miss Cullen of the Qantas publicity manager's office at her typewriter
at Qantas headquarters, Mascot, New South Wales.

“The Flying Kangaroo”, Australia’s flag carrier, was founded in Winton, Queensland, as Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services on November 16, 1920, and began international passenger flights in May 1935.

Saturday 28 November 2020

Help Needed With Typewriter Repairs

Adler Gabriele 25 with broken carriage lever mechanism.
Regular readers will be aware I supplied 10 portable typewriters to the Museum of Australian Democracy’s “Yours Faithfully” exhibition at Old Parliament House in Canberra earlier this year. Knowing they’d be used by the general public, and in particular by very young people, I was expecting to be called in on a regular basis for damage control purposes. That proved to be the case, but for most part the servicing and repairwork I did was of a fairly minor nature. Still, I had to keep reminding myself that these were no longer my typewriters, they belonged to MoAD, so supervising their correct use was out of my  hands. I regretted selling the Olivetti Lettera 32, the Hermes Baby and the Facit TP1, but, then, such is life, as Ned Kelly once said on the gallows.

Lately, abuse of the typewriters has considerably worsened, and I’m wondering if our famous Bushranger hasn’t sprung from his grave with the aim of using typewriter parts for his protective armour this time around (last time it was plough mouldboards). My concern now is that with the attrition rate the way it is, MoAD will soon have no typewriters at all to provide the public to use.

The most worrying part of all this is that the last three typewriters I had to bring back to my workshop for repairs all had the same problem – someone has smashed the carriage lever mechanism. The Hermes Baby is possibly beyond repair, as it seems to me that part of the mechanism is missing. I don’t have a Baby here to compare it with, so I’ve included two photos in case any readers can tell me exactly what is missing.

The bottom end of the screw still attached (circled), lever in the foreground, top right. 
A note on the Facit said "Broken", with an emoji. "Broken" is an extreme euphemism for what has happened to it. Like the other two, it has been very forcefully disabled. A short, stubby screw holding the lever to the Facit has been snapped in half, which would have taken some doing - an absolutely enormous amount of force, almost superhuman. When I got the head of the screw out of the lever, it fell in two pieces, which will give you some idea of how much force was used. This is, after all, solid metal. If I can get the bottom half of the screw out of the machine itself, I might be able to reattach the lever with a new screw. If …

I might also be able to jury rig something to get the Adler working again, but, as in the case of the Hermes Baby, it appears some parts have gone missing. I have unscrewed the lever and tried to get the mechanism working again, but so far without luck.

I raised these points with one of the curators and I must confess her thoughtful reply made me pause for thought about all this. She wrote, “I can say with confidence that this space is one of our most popular exhibitions and that is due to the typewriters. The typewriters help facilitate engagement between visitors in a way that objects behind a glass case cannot. This space is special because visitors are given permission to sit and spend time with one another, or with their thoughts that come flowing from the keys as they type. The anonymity that the typewriters allow is important for some visitors. For example, in the exhibition’s letterbox, we receive unaddressed messages from visitors that are deeply, deeply personal. Some have brought tears to my eyes. People just needed to share their thoughts or story with a stranger. The typewriters make this possible. The typewriters help give visitors a voice that they may not have realised they possessed … For every visitor behaving badly there are multiple others who do value the typewriters and use them to connect with themselves and others.”

Fair points, I think …

10,000 Thanks to Bill MacLane and Richard Polt

Friday 27 November 2020

Typewritten Letters to Democracy

This is just a small selection of the hundreds of letters written on manual portable typewriters at the "Yours Faithfully" Exhibition at the Museum of Australian Democracy (Old Parliament House) in Canberra:

Wednesday 25 November 2020

Hunger Games: Have Typewriter, Will Fast (For a Very Long Time)

Karl Homan with his typewriter and the Daily Mail reporter Shillaker, nicknamed “Mr Answers”.
Between 1886 and 1932, ultra-marathon competitive fasting was a “thing”. There were a great many spectator events, usually single-person fasting challenges lasting from five to nine weeks and held before large curious crowds in prominent city venues in Europe, the United States and Australia. In exchange for some monetary gain, fasting competitors lost a lot weight, dignity and in some cases their health. Viennese police banned fasting in 1925 after Wilhelm Fuhrmann went mad on the 16th day of a fast. Following a 65-day fast in Blackpool in 1929, a Dutch world record holder, Richard Hans Jone - known as “Ricardo Sacco” - died. A post-mortem found he had suffered from cardiac failure, ascites (abnormal buildup of fluid in the abdomen), dropsy (swelling of soft tissues through the accumulation of excess water) and an enlarged liver. Fasters drank gallons of mineral water during each event, and smoked as many as 40 cigarettes a day.

They all used different methods to beat the hunger pains and boredom. At least one never went into a fasting event without his typewriter. This was “Sacco”, at one time Jone’s great rival. “Sacco” was really Karl Homan, the first of the two to adopt the stage name. Homan was born in 1866, supposedly in what, the following year, became the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was, however, almost certainly German. His earliest fasting efforts were in eastern Germany and he claimed to have a young family living in Cologne, though his wife Josephine later joined him in London. Both were German speakers, Josephine often requiring an interpreter. Homan was mostly referred to as Hungarian, but also as Austrian, and only once, after a long fast, as “a piece of hunger”. His stage name was Giuseppe (sometimes Guiseppe) Sacco (occasionally Zakko) Homan (also Homann).

Homan’s true history is densely clouded by the many contradictory stories he told about his early life. In Australia he claimed to have served four years as a sergeant in the Austro-Hungarian army, and later to have worked in a cigarette factory in the US. He started his fasting career in 1891 in Plauen near the Czech border in Saxony and further north in Gera in Thuringia.

“Sacco” adapted his performance name from the first famous faster, Italian Giovanni Succi, 13 years Homan’s senior, who in 1890 fasted for 39 days at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster, London. Succi lost 34lb, or 26.5 per cent of his starting body weight, but won a substantial prize of £3000. In December 1896 Succi went stark raving mad during a fast in Paris. His stage career didn’t end there, but he never fully recovered. He went into fancy chicken farming and died in Rome aged 68 in 1918.

“Sacco” said he was Succi’s secretary and business manager when, in early 1906, he gained enormous worldwide publicity for his record 45-day fast in the promenade buffet in Hengler’s annexe of the Royal Italian Circus, in what is now The Palladium in London. Before whiling away his time in a small, 7ft x 12ft x 7ft clay brick fireproof cell with “vitiated air”, drinking 50 quart and 25 pint bottles of Perrier mineral water, smoking 1125 Mal-Kah Egyptian cigarettes, playing chess and typing his memoirs, the 6ft tall, 198lb Sacco had fortified himself with a “liberal consumption” of Dr Adolf Hommel’s Haematogen, a “foul potion” alleged to be a blood-forming tonic, costing two shillings and ninepence a bottle. A Daily Mail reporter called Shillaker, nicknamed “Mr Answers” for the occasion, started out with “Sacco”, but lasted only a few days. The chamber had windows on each wall, and eight 18in-square wire gratings for ventilation, but there was no mention of such delicate subjects as the disposal of excreta. Still, “Sacco” managed to “hold on” from January 18 to March 3, yet emerged looking remarkably fit, though 55lb lighter, his dress suit hanging from him like a bag, his arms described as being “like the drumsticks of an Italian turkey”. Admirers didn’t do much for that look by giving him such weighty objects as a gold snuffbox and watch, a diamond monkey pendant and £25 cash. His total winnings were £1500. The entry fee to watch his last day had gone up from fivepence to five shillings a head.

On February 9, 1907, Homan completed a fast at Olympia in London of 46 days and four hours to extend his world record, but there were later allegations that two days had been fraudulently added. At the Operetta House in Edinburgh on July 28, 1908, Homan reached 50 days, after 2785 cigarettes, 450 bottles of mineral water and a 53½lb weight loss. And on December 2, 1908, at the King’s Hall in Birmingham, he set another world record, of 52 days, at a loss of 55lb. Advertising agent Charles Bernard took him to court over a £49 debt, but told the judge he couldn’t serve papers on Homan because “Sacco” was “always in a glass case”.

Homan’s earnings had became increasing meagre, from £187 for an appearance to £104 and £83. Newspapers in various countries joked that without a greater return for his efforts, “he’ll starve to death”. One good reason for the decline in his revenue was that British newspapers began to tire of the fasting events and had curtailed the publicity surrounding them – meaning Homan had to pay for advertising, and to employ young women to collect gate takings. In both Britain and Australia, Homan’s performances often came to be at best ridiculed and at worst held up as extremely bad examples to the general public. Medical experts tried to ban the fasting mania.

In 1909-10 Homan travelled around Australia, taking his typewriter with him. He arrived in Melbourne on the Persic on October 8, 1909, and exactly a week later started his major fast here, of 53 days until December 7 at the Waxworks between the Melbourne Coffee Palace and Parer’s Crystal CafĂ© on Bourke Street. (The mineral water was now Koomah Spa. But the preferred cigarettes remained Mal-Kah. His weight loss was from 214lb to 157lb.)

A little more than three weeks later Homan started another fast, at the Coliseum on Pitt Street, Sydney, and continued on fasting across the country, from Brisbane to Hindley Street, Adelaide, where his act was succeeded by Casey, the African chimpanzee. Back in Melbourne in August, Homan was challenged by an English-born prestidigitateur called “Rexo” (1874-1918, real name Charles Griffin). In New Zealand, where he started his career, “Rexo” was called the “American  Cinqueralli”, after the great German music hall. “Rexo”, at 134lb, had a lot less to lose (in weight at least). He lasted almost five weeks in the “great hungry championship”, then gave in. Homan returned to London on the Medic in October 1910.

(New Zealand did eventually produce a world fasting record holder, of sorts. William Edmund Ormerod, above, was actually born in London, in 1891, but did spend many years in New Zealand, where he was, as they say, “known to police”. This rather shady character fasted under the stage name of “Raymond Tac” – he was the one rival to attend Ricardo Sacco’s funeral in 1929, and in 1931 set a world fasting record of 68 days at Clacton Pier in Essex, England. He died in Manchester in 1969.)

Karl “Sacco” Homan continued to compete in Britain until the early months of 1915. He had set a new world record of 60 days at Crystal Palace in London in 1913 and shortly after set out to extend that to 62 days at the Tournament Hall in Liverpool. But on January 1, 1914, he quit after 39 days, his first incomplete fast in 23 years. The end was nigh for Homan. On April 9, 1914, another attempt at the Giant Wright’s Novelty Place in Sunderland ended one hour short of 40 days. Homan went into a frenzy, smashed the glass windows of his cage and severely cut his right hand in the process. As attendants struggled to calm the delirious Homan, “Sacco” received an added blow. George Toner, a local locked in an adjoining cage, popped out of his cell to claim a bet, since he’d lasted longer than “Sacco”.

On August 14, 1914, two days after Britain and France had declared war on Austria-Hungary, Homan registered as an Austrian citizen with police in Huddersfield, Now confined under the Aliens Restriction Order in Council, his movements were curtailed and his performance days were almost over. When Homan finally disappeared from the limelight he’d enjoyed for nine years, he was perhaps a slimmer and wiser man.

Death of a Fearless Journalist

I've just heard the sad news that Alan Ramsey, my former (acting) editor on the national daily The Australian, in Sydney, has died at the age of 82. Alan stood in as acting editor after Murdoch sacked Adrian Deamer, in large part over my coverage of the anti-apartheid demonstrations during the 1971 South African rugby tour – a series of widely-read columns which Alan’s own infectious fortitude had inspired. Alan had thrived in partnership with Deamer. “Adrian was never a Murdoch person, he was too independent,” Alan said. Deamer was eventually succeeded by the woeful Bruce Rothwell, and The Australian went rapidly downhill until Owen Thomson took over.

Alan has been called "Journalism’s grumpiest old  bugger", but the Alan I recall has more accurately been described as "Irascible, fearless, implacable". Alan was certainly a rarity in being a very supportive editor, as I found after a rival Sydney columnist made a racist attack on an article I'd written in The Australian about Roy Francis, the then North Sydney Bears rugby league coach who came from Brynmawr in Wales. Roy was the first black British professional coach in any sport, and the Daily Telegraph’s columnist was irked by the colour of his skin when Roy took over the Bears.

Alan Ramsey was born at Hornsby, Sydney, on January 3, 1938, and lived with his family at Bronte and Newtown, then near Tuggerah Lakes before settling at Gosford on the central coast. At the end of primary school, aged 12, he persuaded his mother to take him to the Daily Telegraph on Castlereagh Street. “I wanted to know what I had to do to become a journalist,” Alan said. “The message was: come back when you’re 15 years old, after you’ve done your intermediate certificate.” Three years later, he began his career at the Telegraph as a copy boy.

Alan served a cadetship on the Mount Isa Mail, where he was virtually the only reporter covering courts, local events and the miners. After a stint on the Northern Territory News in Darwin he broke into metropolitan newspapers in 1956 with a job on the Sydney Sun as a D-grade journalist. This included the midnight to 8am round.

Alan joined Australian Associated Press and was posted to Port Moresby for 18 months before getting the prized London appointment from 1960-64. After London, he was one of five reporters and photographers who travelled aboard HMAS Sydney to South Vietnam with 1RAR on the initial deployment of Australian troops. The unit was located at Bien Hoa air base.

After a search-and-destroy mission in which a female Viet Cong “suspect” had been shot, Ramsey interviewed two soldiers and quoted one describing the action. Army Minister Jim Forbes said he had “committed a breach of security.” Alan’s accreditation was later reinstated, but subsequently he was recalled to Australia. In 1965 Alan joined The Australian, still then based in Canberra.

After Murdoch took over the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs in 1972, late the following year he tried to forced Alan to transfer to the Sunday Telegraph. Alan was sacked for refusing. He later joined The Sydney Morning Herald as its Saturday political columnist, a position Ramsey held for 21 years. The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly said, “His weekly judgments were harsh and acerbic, critical of Bob Hawke, supportive of Paul Keating, hostile to John Howard. Yet Ramsey’s anger was punctuated by tragic comedy. He saw the funny side of human nature and his deep laugh would ring down the corridors as he told yet another anecdote of human folly. Alan was unique, often too honest and fierce for his own good. His insights were sharp and his columns became a long study in the interaction of politics and human nature. He generated fear and respect among politicians and was recognised for his unrivalled possession of that indispensable journalistic virtue – courage.”

Tuesday 24 November 2020

'Quick Brown Revived Fox': Uplift in Sales of Manual Portable Typewriters in Britain in 1989

On this day in 1989, the London broadsheet The Daily Telegraph ran an eight-page insert on "Office Automation". The spread included this Anthony Marshall photo of a then 71-year-old British typewriter collector and historian Wilfred Albert Beeching, author of Century of the Typewriter (first hardcover edition published by William Heinemann, London, 1974; second softcover edition published by British Typewriter Museum Publishing, Bournemouth, 1990). Beeching was born Sidney Frank Appleton in Smallburgh, Norfolk, on September 9, 1918. He changed his name by deed poll in Bournemouth in October 1941. Five years later, after serving in World War II, Wilf Beeching entered the typewriter trade as a manufacturers' agent with an office machine shop in Bournemouth. The business must have been good, for in less than 30 years Beeching had accumulated a collection of some 350 rare early typewriters. In late September 1974 he opened his version of the British Typewriter Museum at 137 Stewart Road, Bournemouth. Unfortunately, in 1978, the site was closed by the land owner in order to build a car park and Beeching presented his collection to the Bournemouth Borough Council. The collection was insured by the borough through the Bournemouth Museums Service and the borough bought the museum's souvenir shop stock and all rights to the museum brand name for £1500. The museum was moved within the Rothesay Museum at 8 Bath Road and reopened as "a museum within a museum" on October 23, 1978. Beeching became an "honorary keeper" as part of the arrangements. The museum remained in operation until the demolition of the Rothesay Museum in 1985. Beeching was outraged and asked to take the collection back. It included a Blick Electric and the extremely rare Conqueror. The collection was later split up, with some of it going to the Science Museum in London and other typewriters being sold to private collectors, including Uwe Breker. Beeching died in Bournemouth in July 2000, aged 81.

The Telegraph's supplement also included articles on the state of the typewriter industry in Britain at that time, and an article about QWERTY which, unfortunately, was one of those items which promoted the old furphy about QWERTY being devised to "slow down typists" when quite the opposite was in fact the case. It's amazing how many people still believe the "slow down" nonsense.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Never (Again Shall I) Scorn the Humble Silver-Seiko Portable Typewriter

I mentioned earlier in the week that it was beginning to feel like old times here, with an influx of “new” typewriters for me to play with. That refreshing pattern has been maintained (not sure what I’ve done to appease the typewriter gods, but I hope these arrivals continue unabated). Today I was given a 1974 Silver-Seiko Imperial Tab-O-Matic (serial number 3150606) in immaculate condition. It belonged to a gentleman who 7½ years ago also gave me a Nippo Atlas, which he’d picked up in the duty-free port of Aden when coming out to Australia in 1962, as well as a cream Atlas (below) bought in Hawaii while on an overseas trip. This family really looked after their typewriters!

The Imperial Tab-O-Matic was introduced to the British typewriter market in June 1974 and continued to be sold there as a “new model” for the next two years. The identical machine had been introduced to the United States market as a Royal Tab-O-Matic in May 1972 and continued to be sold until 1978. “Tab-O-Matic” was a model name first used by Royal on a version of the Futura, from June 1960 (see Springfield News Leader articles below).

British advert, 1974
British advert, 1975
British advert, 1976
Below: Opening of Royal's Springfield, Missouri, plant on June 7, 1960,
with the announcement of the Royal Tab-O-Matic.