1945 Imperial 50 War Finish
Regular readers on my Typewriter of the Month series will know that I have something of a soft spot for Imperial office typewriters. In fact both as an apprentice typewriter mechanic and at school before that, where I learned to type – an Imperial was the first typewriter that I encountered. I therefore make no apology for featuring yet another Imperial – this time a special variant. Introduced in 1927, this model was manufactured right through until 1955 with only minor tweaks and improvements along the way. The best looking machines were made prior to 1940. These has a deep black gloss enamelled finish – almost like a grand piano. Because the Imperial 50 was the typewriter of choice for the British government, armed forces, police and major industry – thanks to its clever interchangeable carriage and type unit – the makers were allowed to continue to produce these machines throughout the war. Every other typewriter manufacturer had to suspend production and make items for the war effort, like bomb fuses, but Imperial production was considered too essential to halt. From 1940, as factory personnel were called up to serve in the war, ways of making the machines involving less labour had to be found. The first thing to change was the finish. The previously glossy-black enamel gave way to crackle-finish black paint. This was because the cast-iron frame had to be polished to an almost mirror-like appearance before the enamel was baked on. For crackle paint, the castings only had to be smoothed out – the paint disguised any minor imperfections. The glass side-panel ‘windows’ were boarded up for the duration – replaced with steel closing panels of the same shape. As the war continued, further economies had to be made. Pre-war stocks of chromium-plated parts became exhausted and so the factory went back to bright nickel plating, as on the original models of the 1920’s. Alas, the nickel was needed for the war effort too, so many parts were finished in dull black as the batches of nickelled parts ran out. Worse still, all the UK’s rubber was shipped from abroad, and our waters were being blockaded by German submarines, so there was a shortage of rubber for all but the most essential war supplies. Imperial turned to using cork for the platens, feed and bail rolls instead. Right at the end of the war, there wasn’t even any rubber left for the typewriter’s feet, so these were replaced with cork too – double the surface area of the rubber ones because they would not be as durable. Around 1943-44, Imperial had to apply a ‘War Finish’ transfer to the front of the machine by way of an explanation for the thoroughly miserable appearance of their ‘ersatz’ typewriters. The machine in the photo was made in 1945 and shows the ‘War Finish’ in its final form – except that all the key rings are chromed, almost certainly a post-war addition to liven the machine’s appearance up for resale ! Yes, even the key rings were matt black by the end of the war and this machine would have been originally equipped with those.
This particular machine was delivered to me by the owner’s grandson, who wanted it brought back to life. It was pretty dusty and dirty inside, but fortunately it hadn’t been stored somewhere damp, as many old typewriters are. Fully cleaned and serviced, it came up rather well – and we sold him a brand-new custom-made dust cover to go with it, which should keep it looking a lot better in the future !
1939 Continental Standard with Forms-Writer Carriage
One of the best office typewriters ever made was the pre-war German Continental Standard. Continental’s parent company, Wanderer-Werke, also made cars, bicycles, motorcycles and machine tools. Typewriter production commenced in 1904. The quality of Continental’s products was second to none. The Standard was clearly influenced by the American Underwood Five, the best selling office typewriter of the day. However, Continental’s version solved engineering problems that Underwood hadn’t even considered ! Carriage removal on the Underwood consisted of parking the drawband, then removing four screws, one bracket and the front scale before the carriage could be lifted clear of the machine. On the Continental, you simply operated a hidden lever and the carriage would slide off to the left – drawband automatically parked ! There were many, many other quality features. On some models, the rear feed rolls underneath the platen ran on miniature roller bearings. Other makes made do with metal-to-metal contact and a drop of oil !
The machine in the picture is ‘one that got away’. Eagle-eyed observers will see that it has a Scandinavian keyboard. It was bought in a flea market and brought to England by my customer. Unfortunately it got damaged on the plan journey home, which is why it was offered to me for repair. Unfortunately, not only had the tabulator rack been broken, the whole carriage had been shunted forwards and the carriage frame twisted. Being cast iron, any attempt to straighten the frame would have resulted in complete breakage, so sadly I had to hand the machine back unrepaired.
The forms-writer carriage must make this example practically unique. The Continental isn’t a particularly common machine in the UK, and I have certainly never seen one with a carriage like this. The forms-writer can be unclipped from the carriage for servicing, but is certainly intended to be a part of the whole rather than a bolt-on accessory. There is a special paper pan specifically for forms, and the dial on the right is to pre-programme particular line positions on the form before the typewriter’s line-space mechanism triggers the automatic feed as the carriage is returned. In conjunction with the tabulator, any part of the page (or form) can be reached in an instant. It was an absolute triumph of pre-war mechanical engineering by the typewriter firm best placed to produce such a wonder. Continental continued to produce typewriters throughout the Second World War, but when Germany fell, the factory was raided by the Russians, who took all the tooling as wartime reparations. What they failed to realise is that Continental were dependent on dozens of small sub-contractors in the locality and they were unable to reproduce the machines in Russia without those skilled suppliers. Some say that was the end of the Continental factory, but it seems that it soldiered on into the early 1950’s when the make finally passed into obscurity.
Almost as soon as the first commercially-successful typewriter was launched in the 1870’s, someone spotted a gap in the market and decided to fill it with an accessory not thought of by the manufacturers. The first ‘third-party’ add-on was born ! Over the next 120 years, many ‘non-manufacturer’ improvements made it to the market, some more successful than others. A lot of these are pretty rare now, most having long-ago been consigned to the back of a desk drawer and then discarded.
The picture above shows a rubber ‘over shoe’ that fits over the platen knob. This arrived attached to the right hand knob of a 1936 Royal KHM office typewriter. Clearly there must have once been a similar shoe over the left knob, but that one had dissolved into a mass of sticky rubber. I must admit to being intrigued. You never stop learning in this trade, and I have never seen another. The raised wording on the rubber says, ‘ COLLIN AND HALLAM. LEICESTER. TEL. 21014.’ Whether this is the maker, or more likely, an enterprising typewriter dealer who had their name moulded onto the ‘shoe’, I really couldn’t say. I wonder if anyone would answer if you tried to ring that number now ? The purpose of the ‘shoe’ was probably three-fold. If it was a typewriter dealer’s name, then it would be an excellent form of advertising. If you were typing large quantities of, say, record cards – the increased diameter of the platen knob would ‘gear up’ the turning of the knob. This would allow the card or paper to be fed into the machine quickly. And of course, a nice soft rubber grip would be easier on the hand than a hard Bakelite knob when used repeatedly in the course of a working day.
Going back to what was probably the very first accessory in the 1870’s, it must be remembered that on the first Remingtons the operator was unable to see what they were typing as they were typing it. The sentence only appeared about four lines later as the paper gradually rolled up around the platen. You could stop and check your work by hinging the carriage upwards to look at what you had just typed, but this was obviously time-consuming so you wouldn’t want to be constantly doing this. Someone soon invented a little glass prism which clipped onto the front of the machine, enabling you to peer up inside and see the last three characters that you had just typed. Not exactly ‘visible writing’ then, but certainly better than nothing ! All sorts of other improvements were tried over the following decades. Something which is not appreciated by the present generation is that the circular metal and glass keytops of pre-war typewriters, so beloved by the ‘vintage and retro’ brigade, are actually quite hard on the fingertips. This is why typewriter manufacturers changed to moulded plastic keytops post-war. When using an older machine five days a week in an office, the typist soon developed hard skin on her fingertips after an initial period of soreness and discomfort. Once again, a solution was offered. One could buy a set of spring-loaded rubber keytops that clipped over the metal ones ! Each one consisted of a thin metal shell which went over the ‘key ring’ and contained a short, fat spring which provided some cushioning. The top surface was a rubber button marked with the letter of the alphabet. The German manufacturer Olympia obviously thought it was a good idea and revisited the idea in the 1950’s with a built-in cushioning spring and plastic keytop on both their large portables and office manuals. Versions of the accessory keytop covers without any markings were often also used by typing schools to obscure the characters on the keyboard as a means of training their students to ‘touch type’ without glancing downwards.
In the 1960’s the American maker Smith-Corona brought out an interchangeable type feature on some of their larger portables. One or two of the minor characters (positions generally occupied by fractions on most keyboards) were set up so that different removable spring-loaded typeface with alternative characters could be clipped to the end of the specially-modified typebar. A matching keytop could be clipped into place on the keyboard. As far as I know, no other manufacturer offered this feature – possibly because Smith-Corona held the patent. However, there was an alternative system which could be fitted to a variety of makes of office typewriters – the ‘Typit’. A modified type guide was fitted to the typewriter, which allowed a special attachment to be slid into place containing the desired alternative character. This was struck from behind by any random typebar, and like one billiard ball transferring motion to another, the impact would push the ‘Typit’ onto the ribbon and the paper. A system like this would be useful for inserting, for instance, a scientific or electrical symbol into normal correspondence.
Going forward into the 1970’s, when the IBM Selectric golfball typewriter was becoming common, and three other manufacturers had licenced the IBM golfball head design for their own machines, a third-party company started manufacturing golfball heads with alternative typefaces to the ones that IBM were offering. They even made a special ‘test head’ for typewriter engineers, to assist with setting up the ‘tilt and rotate’ functions of whichever machine was being worked on !
Olivetti L20 circa late 1980's
This is one of the last manual typewriters to remain in production. Like all other models of Olivetti portable typewriter, the ‘works’ were based on the Olivetti Lettera 32, which was introduced in 1964 to replace the previous-model Lettera 22. It is said that the only reason that the previous model was dropped is that it was too expensive to manufacture. Olivetti had a good run for their money when the new model came on stream, because it went on to spawn many, many new varieties during the following twenty-five years. Although the appearance of these models varied widely, and even included the famous Olivetti Valentine, widely regarded as a design icon, mechanically they were all similar.
Olivetti made the various portables in different factories throughout the world. As well as the main factory in Ivrea, Italy, Olivetti had plants in Barcelona, Spain and Glasgow, Scotland to name just a few. To remain competitive, Olivetti spread their wings further afield, and made portable typewriters in the former Yugoslavia and finally Mexico – where the last Olivetti manual office typewriters were also manufactured. After the late 1970’s, Olivetti’s serial numbering system became chaotic to the point where it is no longer possible to identify the year of manufacture of any of their typewriters. Therefore, we can only guess that this Olivetti L20 was probably made in the late 1980’s or very early 1990’s. It is certainly the last of the line. To keep costs down as far as possible, these last machines do not have a carry case, but instead come in a vinyl bag emblazoned with the word ‘Olivetti’ repeated over and over again in the pattern of the fabric.
This particular machine was brought to me for a service, and turned out to be a pleasant little machine once adjusted correctly. The ‘Olivetti L20’ logo was missing from the front of the case, so I made up a black plastic blanking plate to take its’ place. The angular 1980’s styling still looks good today. It is a shame that they don’t still make them.
Factory Ribbon Winder - Age Unknown
From time to time, the Typewriter of the Month isn’t a typewriter at all ! This month is no exception. What you see in the picture is a special home-brewed factory jig for winding small batches of typewriter or adding machine ribbons. There have often been instances in my career when I have needed to wind the fabric from a ‘donor’ ribbon spool in order to re-ribbon an obsolete or out of stock spool. Until very recently, I did this by hand. I can transfer a ribbon between spools remarkably quickly; I guess that four decades of practice counts for something. However, this little machine can wind a ribbon faster than me, and has become something of a favourite just lately.
Like many of my ‘cobblers shoes’ projects, I had sat on this device for a long time awaiting some spare time when I wasn’t working on a customer’s machine. It was given to me when I bought a job lot of obsolete ribbon spools from the family of a former ribbon manufacturer. The winder had been used in the ‘works’ for winding small batches by hand, and had certainly seen better days. It had then spent some years rusting away in a shed, and one of the knobs had gone missing. It was dirty, dusty and rusty when I got it. Furthermore, the winding part was semi-seized and someone had bent the handle trying to force it round. My wife is a vintage tool collector, and when I told her about the winder she was intrigued. She started cleaning it up, and then I finally took over to strip and re-paint it. I was able to find a Bakelite knob which was the same thread as the missing one, so that was fitted. On examination, I could see that the gearing-up mechanism to which the winding handle was attached was actually adapted from a hand-turned grinding stone. This is the sort of thing that would be screwed to a workbench in years gone by, to enable you to sharpen knives, screwdrivers and chisels. I would have thought it a difficult operation to crank with one hand and sharpen the tool with another – perhaps you got someone else to turn the handle ?
A good soaking in penetrating oil got things moving a little better, but the mechanism was still jamming. These little bench grinders are riveted together and are not intended to be dismantled. I am always up for a challenge, so filed the end of the spindle rivet off and took the whole unit apart. It was jamming because it was literally worn out and the resultant play was allowing the gear teeth to partly jump out of mesh. Everything was cleaned until spotless, and quantities of a special high-tech gun lubricant applied - which seemed to ease matters. Then I managed to find ‘just’ enough metal in the spindle end to rivet the whole thing back together. Once reassembled, I tried it with a ribbon. Success ! The gearing-up effect of the grindstone mechanism makes the spools fairly sail round at high speed, whilst the steel flywheel smoothes out the variations and keeps everything turning evenly. My guess is that the winder was originally made by the factory maintenance engineer in the toolroom, since there are certainly many custom-turned and welded components there. The idea of using a grindwheel mechanism is a masterstroke and probably makes it unique.
Back in the day, some typewriter workshops were equipped with a ribbon winder for winding ribbon fabric from a ‘factory roll’ containing several hundred yards of fabric onto a customer’s spools when a typewriter came in for service. However, these were an American pattern and were quite different to this one. The ‘factory roll’ went onto a much larger carrier and the whole thing was used vertically – often screwed to a bench-end or even a wall. I remember using one at a firm that I worked for in the late 1970’s. Like some of the service tools that I finally acquired a couple of months ago, I have waited a lifetime to have a ribbon winder of my own. Perhaps good things come to those who wait !
1935 Ideal DZ33 Standard
Siedel and Naumann of Dresden, Germany started in the 1870s as makers of sewing machines, but by the early 1900’s had diversified into many other lines including bicycles and typewriters. Later on, typewriter manufacture became the largest part of the business and the sewing machines were quietly dropped. S and N sold their typewriters under a number of names. The portable typewriters were called ‘Bijou’ or ‘Erika’ (named after Herr Naumann’s grand-daughter). ‘Ideal’ was the name chosen for the office-size typewriters. Like some other German manufacturers before the war, they tended to copy and improve upon the best selling products of other factories. Certainly, S and N followed this route with blatant copies of Singer sewing machines and they also did this with typewriters. The Bijou folding portable typewriter was such a close copy of the American Corona 3, that the Corona factory was able to threaten legal action and make S and N discontinue production. Less successful was Underwood who it seems were unable to stop the Ideal ‘Underwood Five copy’ from being manufactured. Clearly the Ideal DZ33 was derived from the Underwood, although in many respects it was an improvement. To remove the carriage on an Underwood Five involves taking out four screws and a bracket. On the Ideal (and the Continental for that matter – another German ‘improved’ Underwood) it is only necessary to operate a concealed lever and pull the carriage to the left. The drawband is neatly and automatically parked and with the carriage off, the machine can be cleaned or repaired very easily. When the war ended, S and N found themselves on the wrong side of the East/West divide, and eventually became subsumed into the East German state industries. Still using the ‘Erika’ trade name for their portable typewriters, manufacture continued until as late as 1989. Utilitarian but well-made, the Erika portable typewriter was one of East Germany’s most successful exports.
When this particular typewriter was made, Germany was fully under Nazi control. In fact I have read that Hitler’s personal typewriter was a Siedel and Naumann. Certainly the German military were using them, and I was told that this typewriter was ‘liberated’ from a high ranking German official’s office during the latter stages of the war. The owner’s father had done the liberating and had then carried the machine all over Germany in his kit bag before finally coming home and being de-mobbed. Since this is a heavy office typewriter, he must have been tough ! The chap went on to be a policeman in civilian life, using the machine to type all his police reports until he retired. Originally with a German keyboard (of course), he had had the machine converted to a standard English ‘QWERTY’ keyboard for his personal use. The right hand side of the machine had been engraved with a German word which means ‘Property of the Reich’. I wonder if he took the machine into work with him, and if so, what his colleagues must have thought of it. An excellent quality machine, no wonder it survived its original use and then a second life typing police paperwork.
Sadly, by the time the machine was brought to me it was in a rather rusty condition. Its original owner had passed away, and his daughter had carefully wrapped it in polythene before placing it in a damp shed. Instead of protecting the machine from the damp, the plastic had actually trapped the moisture like a wet poultice – attacking the plating. Only the original high quality of the enamel finish had saved things from being far worse on the framework. Large parts of the mechanism had seized, but I was able to free it all off in the end and partially re-paint the machine. It could never look as it did when new, but it now works and is once again capable of typing a letter – or even a police report !