Vintage Typewriter Tools
A few weeks ago, I received a surprise telephone call from a pleasant lady in Kent. Her late father had been a typewriter engineer working for a large company (some really large firms employed their own typewriter engineers in the same way that modern firms employ their own IT people). Would I like all his old typewriter tools and spare parts rather than send them to landfill ? Yes I would ! There are certain special tools that were only ever manufactured for use in the typewriter trade, and other than secondhand, they are just plain unobtainable now.
It took a couple of weeks before I was able to get away from work for the day to make the journey, but when I finally found the address and was taken to the garage, I was rewarded with an 'Aladdin's Cave' of typewriter-related stuff. Clearly, it had been stored in his damp outside garage for over twenty years - and some of the tools had begun to rust - but there were lots of interesting items to take home and sort through. Apart from specially-manufactured general tools, there were many 'special' service tools specifically for certain makes and models. Many of these were for 1930's office typewriters, which would of course still have been in everyday use well into the 1950's.
The gentleman concerned had clearly re-trained as a typewriter mechanic after the war through the UK Govermnent Training Centre scheme. This was a residential accelerated training course designed to get injured ex-servicemen back into the civilian workplace. The training was very thorough and included learning to make certain special spanners by hand - presumably to give the trainee something useful to use in his future career, and also to hone his hand-skills. Several of the tools had obviously been made this way, and in fact were stamped with the chap's surname.
The spare parts made a time-line from 1950's office manual typewriters through 1970's electric typewriters with some IBM golfball spares - showing the gentleman's career in office equipment repair and how it must have changed as new models were introduced. There were no electronic typewriter parts, so I imagine that he must have retired just as these began to be introduced in the 1980's. It was like a forensic examination, and I felt like an archaeologist slowly uncovering the past. My wife is a vintage tool collector in her own right, and actually an authority on Marples woodworking tools so cleaning and de-rusting my 'haul' was second nature to her. Just some of her work can be seen in the photo !
1905 Remington No. 7
The first commercially successful typewriter in quantity production, in America, was a Remington - first marketed in 1874. As the first into the field, Remington had an unassailable position and became a large concern. That first machine was a 'blind writer', which means that the type bars strike from underneath the carriage. Of course, this also means that the typist cannot see what has been typed until another three lines have been written and the sentence rolls into view. Today, no-one would want to use a machine like that. However, since this design of typewriter was all that was available at the beginning, the buying public seemed to accept it. It was also the first machine to have a QWERTY keyboard - later copied by other typewriter manufacturers and still in use on computers today. Remington continued to revise and update their typewriter from the 1870's onwards but basically continued to follow the original 'blind' format. Starting with the Remington No.1, the Remington No. 7 that you see in the photo above was the final version.
As a large company, Remington also sold 'own brand' typewriter supplies - things like typewriter ribbons and carbon paper. They were having these made by a factory owned by a Mr. John Underwood. The Remington Company decided to manufacture their own supplies and cut the middle-man out of the loop, and therefore gave Mr. Underwood his marching orders. Not to be outdone, he decided that if Remington was going into the ribbon manufacturing business, he would go into the typewriter manufacturing business! He found the right man to design his typewriter, a Franz Xavier Wagner - a German-American engineer who had had a hand in designing typewriters for other makers. Mr. Wagner pulled a master-stroke. He designed a typewriter with 'visible writing'. In other words, you could see what you were typing, as you were typing it! Introduced around 1899, so successful was the design that in 1967 Underwood were still making typewriters that were a recognisable development of the original! Remington chose to sit on their laurels and ignore the new upstart until it was nearly too late. By 1908, they had lost so much market share to Underwood and their imitators that they had to go 'visible' too! The Remington 10 was the result. The No. 7 'blind' model continued to be manufactured in ever-decreasing quantities until it was finally discontinued around 1914 - thus finally breaking the link with the original 1874 model.
This machine was bought in a 1970's flea market in London for a nominal sum. People weren't interested in old typewriters then, so sometimes bargains were to be had. My customer told me that as a young man he had had quite a game carrying it home through the London Underground. That cast-iron frame isn't light and it must have felt as if it weighed a ton ! For the next forty years, it was simply a decorative object but finally curiosity got the better of him and he contacted me to see if I could get it working. I could ! The only thing I was unable to do much about was the missing linespace lever (which incidentally is on the right hand side of the carriage on these models) and the missing linespace mechanism. Obviously it had got broken and someone had removed the whole thing to 'tidy it up' ! These machines take a special 1 3/8" wide ribbon which is unobtainable now - but I was able to fit a 1" ribbon from my stock which worked perfectly well. The original wooden spools were still in place, so I was able to attach the ribbon to them, reproducing something like the factory-correct fabric straps that the ribbon is pinned to. I made up a new set of rubber feet so that it wouldn't scratch the desk - and the job was done ! My customer won't be writing any novels on this machine, but it does now work well enough to write the odd letter or demonstrate it to his friends. Not bad for something that is over 110 years old!
1938 Imperial 55 Quiet Model
The Imperial 55 was developed from the Imperial 50 in 1937 and is essentially an Imperial 50 with a ‘proper’ tabulator rather than having to ‘plug in’ the tab. stops manually. The original Imperial 50 - the quintessentially classic English typewriter - had an incredibly long production run, stretching from 1927 through to 1955. Made in Leicester, this machine was a revelation when first introduced. It is completely modular, in that the carriage can be unclipped and replaced with one of a different length, and the 'main unit' can be slid out of the front of the machine and replaced with one containing (for instance) a foreign keyboard. Even the platen can be unclipped from the carriage and replaced with another with a different grade of rubber for specialised work! It was no wonder that this machine was soon adopted by government departments, police forces, local councils and major firms. Within a few years, the manufacturers had gained the Royal Warrant - which was proudly displayed on all Imperial typewriters until the Leicester factory finally closed its' doors in 1975. Part of the reason for the long production run was the machine's popularity with the government. When new models were introduced, the original model continued in production - allowing large organisations to have a fleet of matching typewriters. Only in the mid-1950's did Imperial finally have a rationalisation policy to drop many of the older models - the Imperial 50 included. Post 1940 Imperials have black crackle-finish paintwork. Before then, they were manufactured in a glossy black enamel. Most had the Royal Warrant crest on the right hand side of the paper table.
This particular machine is a rare survivor. There was a bit of an obsession amongst typewriter manufacturers to produce quieter typewriters in the 1930’s and 1940’s - no doubt inspired by Remington’s ‘Noiseless’ which, although not truly silent, was quieter than most. Remington achieved this with a specially-designed typewriter; other makers made do with modifying standard models from their ranges. Imperial had a short-lived attempt at this and the ‘Quiet’ version of the Imperial 55 is the result. All sorts of incremental changes have been made, from noise-reducing feet to a special space bar stop arrangement not seen on other Imperial models. All to little avail - there is hardly any difference between the ‘Quiet’ and the normal 55 as far as sound is concerned! One thing that they might have done, but didn’t, was to put a closing plate on the underside of the machine to cut down the noise.
This Imperial 55 was brought to me because it was used by the owner's grandfather whilst working at the Prudential Insurance office in Reading. A real war-horse, it had clearly led a hard life. The ribbon spools should be under little ‘lids’ and not exposed like those on the Imperial 50, but the lids had long ago disappeared. It looked as if someone had attempted some ‘home repairs’, since the carriage rails had been disturbed. The drawband had rotted and was hanging by a final thread. After a lot of work, I got the machine working as it should, and with the front repainted, at last it looked respectable! The gentleman was very pleased with it and sent me a photo of it on display in his home. I did remind him to use it occasionally - after all that is what it was made for!
Early 1980’s Optima Office Model
The Optima Factory was located in Erfurt, East Germany, whilst the Olympia factory was located in Wilhelmshaven, West Germany. But both these German manufacturers share a common ancestry. The Olympia factory was originally in Erfurt and continued to produce typewriters throughout World War Two. When the war ended, Olympia found itself in the Russian sector - soon to become East Germany. Within a couple of years, the management and technical staff had fled to West Germany, and set up another Olympia factory there. This left the strange situation of two factories, both called Olympia, in adjacent countries producing the same range of typewriters under the same model names! Something had to give, and by 1951 a decision by an international court vested the rights to the ‘Olympia’ trademark in the West German factory. This meant that the original factory in what was now East Germany had to adopt the name ‘Optima’ instead.
After 1951, both factories began to develop their own separate models of both office manual and portable typewriters although there was still a common heritage. In fact so much so that I have been able to fit parts from an early Olympia SM portable to an Optima Elite portable of a similar age - although that is another story entirely! Olympia went on to produce one of the finest office manual typewriters ever produced and Optima, well they tried to keep up! The late Optima office model in the photo is a very under-rated typewriter. When sold new, it was looked upon as cheap Communist rubbish, but it fact it was a very capable typewriter and something of a bargain only because the East German currency exchange rate was so low. They were certainly imported to England in the 1980’s by a firm based in Harlow, Essex. I remember them advertising to the typewriter trade that even the spare parts were cheap - I think a complete drawband was something like 24 pence!
Some of these machines even made their way to America, and in fact that is where this particular typewriter came from. It had been bought by a film company for a forthcoming production and of course hadn’t travelled too well in its journey back across the Atlantic. The carriage had been knocked forward on its mountings and the platen knobs had shattered. Thanks to the machine’s robust construction and a bit of ingenuity on my part in re-building the platen knobs, I got it looking and working as good as new - all ready for its new life as a film star!
1960 Brother JP-1 Portable
The original Brother portable, called the JP-1 by the manufacturers, was made by the million between 1960 and the late 1980's. Of all the Japanese-made flat portable typewriters, Brother was always a cut above the others and strove to make a quality product. Brother's roots were in sewing machine manufacture, and the company cautiously dipped a toe into the typewriter market in 1960. It is generally thought that Brother first made portable typewriters from 1964 onwards, since Brother serial numbers contain a year and month code which start from 1964. Obviously production was ramped up in that year, but for the three years before that, I suspect that batches of portable typewriters were made to test the market. The JP-1 was only slightly updated throughout its thirty-plus years of production and was sold under a variety of names - for instance as Lemair in Australia, and many 'stores own' brands in America. This humble machine was the beginning of a whole range of portable typewriters, and later on, office electronic typewriters. Brother never made an office manual typewriter.
As one of the very first Brother portables off the production line, this particular typewriter has a number of subtle differences compared to the post-1964 models. The green crackle-finish paintwork is clearly an attempt to make the machine blend in with contemporary typewriters such as the Hermes Baby, and its British licence-built clone the Empire Aristocrat. The wire bail paper rest (replaced in later models with a hinging 'blade' rest) was possibly inspired by the Olympia SF. A unique feature is a little rubber plug on the underside of the typewriter's case which gives access to the typebar trip adjustment. Perhaps it was deleted when the makers realised that this gave curious owners an opportunity to 'fiddle' with their machines !
A customer brought me this machine for a full service and repair. It had belonged to his father, who had owned it since it was new. In fact it was a graduation present. Sadly, it had deteriorated a lot in the intervening years. The feet and all the internal rubber stops has crumbled away, and needed to be re-made. Somebody had attempted to dismantle the linespace mechanism, and had lost a vital part. Fortunately, I had a slightly later machine that I was able to rob for spares. Finally, it all came together - as good as new. And the reason that my customer wanted his dad's typewriter restored? It was to be 'guestbook of honour' at his son's wedding!
1950 Everest Model ST
The Italian Everest firm is best remembered for their range of medium sized portable typewriters - and the fact that it was one of only a handful of typewriter manufacturers in Europe who were able to continue production throughout World War Two. Depending on who you believe, the company was founded in the late 1920's or early 1930's. Certainly by 1960, it had been taken over by Olivetti who promptly wound Everest production down and finished it completely in 1962. It wasn't the end for the workforce however, for they were all re-employed in a new Olivetti factory that was built nearby.
The Model ST office manual typewriter had a relatively short production run, from 1948 through to 1954. In some ways, I suspect that the styling was already out of date when the machine was introduced. If you look at the shape of the casings and minor controls, they shout 1930's Bauhaus to anyone in the know. In fact, in typically Italian fashion, the styling is just as important as the function. All in all, this must be a pretty rare machine in the UK, if not elsewhere. I have seen a handful of Everest portable typewriters during my 43-year career, but must admit that I had never seen an Everest office standard typewriter until this one came along recently. I know that some people dislike the typing 'feel' of the portables, but personally I think that the typing experience of the standard model is just fine. It is a well-engineered machine with thoughtful features such as an anti-clash button which returns jammed typebars without the need to put your fingers into the type-basket and get them inky. Something nearly unique on a full-size office machine is the Everest's carriage lock - enabling you to safely carry the machine around the office without the carriage swinging from side to side.
This Everest was brought to me by a London-based artist who keeps a variety of typewriters to use in his work. He told me that he found this one in a junk shop some years ago. Clearly it hadn't been serviced for a very long time, and it had several chipped typeface as a result of sticking typebars being struck from behind by others. He felt that this lent some 'character' to the finished work, so the machine was brought back to life, chipped typeface and all. The wide 18" carriage would be particularly useful for artwork. Amazingly, the platen was still serviceable - perhaps it had been replaced at some stage in the machine's life? The rear of the machine is quite beautiful in a bulbous sort of way, so this time I thought I would include a picture of the back as well as the front!
1929 Smith-Premier 30
The history of the American Smith-Premier brand is an interesting one. Begun in 1889 by the four Smith Brothers, and like Remington, the product of spare capacity in an arms factory, Smith-Premier then joined with Remington, Monarch, Densmore, Caligraph and Yost to form the Union Typewriter Trust. Essentially this started as a trade cartel amongst the major American manufacturers to control prices and prevent anyone 'breaking ranks' to produce a typewriter with 'visible writing' - essentially being able to see what you were typing as you typed it. With the introduction of the 'visible' Underwood, it was obvious that this was the way to go, and eventually the Smith Brothers did break ranks. By then the Trust had become a company and the only way that the Smith Brothers could go their own way was to sell the firm and start up all over again as 'L.C. Smith'. They did this, produced a 'visible' typewriter - and the L.C. Smith company eventually went on to become Smith-Corona. The companies within the Union Typewriter Co. soon came to be controlled by Remington who eventually had to give in and make visible typewriters like everyone else. One by one, the other makes in the original typewriter trust simply became sub-brands of Remington. Remington kept the Monarch factory open until the 1930's, but soon closed Smith-Premier down, simply keeping the brand name for their own purposes. From then on, all Smith-Premiers were either re-branded Monarchs or - in the case of the portable typewriters - rebranded Remingtons. The 1929 machine in the picture is really a Monarch with a Smith-Premier name attached.
This particular machine is a relatively rare survivor. The customer who brought it to me had had it sitting unused for a number of years being a decorative object. As sometimes happens, curiousity to see it working and actually use it finally took over! Clearly, the machine had endured a long and hard life. The original glossy black enamel finish had been over-painted with a black crackle finish to 'modernise' it a little. This was a very common practice in the late 1940's and early 1950's when there was a shortage of new typewriters following the war, and any old nail would command a good price when refurbished. I would guess that the ribbon spools had become unobtainable even then, because they had been painted crackle finish to match the remainder of the machine and perhaps remind the user in a subtle way that they were a permanent fixture. Once thoroughly serviced and adjusted, the SP-30 was working and once more capable of typing a letter! My customer took the machine away looking very pleased. My parting shot was to remind her to use her Smith-Premier now and again. After all, most mechanical objects fare better if they are still being used occasionally!
Circa 1903 Oliver No. 3
You could say that the original Oliver typewriter was the 'Apple Mac' of its day. It performed all the functions that you would expect a typewriter to perform, but did so in an entirely different way to any other typewriter. The inventor of this machine was the Reverend Thomas Oliver. It is said that he lived in a remote part of America, and therefore did not see any other typewriters whilst he was designing his. Once he had interested some investors, he was able to start the fledgling Oliver Typewriter Co. in 1895. The machine was an almost immediate success because it was possible to see what you were typing, as you were typing. With most other machines on the market at that time, you couldn't. It was only when the first Underwoods were introduced a few years later, that the 'shape' of the modern typewriter started to emerge. The Underwood was an improvement in that you could see the whole line of typing, not just the phrase that you were working on (the remainder was obscured by the typebars on the Oliver). Nevertheless, having gained a strong foothold in the typewriter market early on, the Oliver company continued to prosper until the early 1920's.
By 1928, the by now hopelessly old-fashioned Oliver was finished in America. However, a new company was set up in England to continue manufacture - which they did until 1933. After that, they concentrated on making licence-built copies of the Swedish Halda standard. Fortunately, they mothballed all the tooling and equipment because in 1939 the British government placed a large order for the original model! An old-time typewriter engineer once told me that it was because they wanted a typewriter that could be used in the desert. Think about it. A 'normal' typewriter of any other make has segment slots through which the typebars hinge. Very easily clogged with fine desert sand. The Oliver has no such slots !
This particular Oliver belongs to a customer from North London who had kept the machine as a decorative object for a number of years before deciding to have it put back into full working order. Like many really old typewriters, it was in a really pitiful state when I first saw it. As with many old things, that period of obsolescence when it is valueless is the most dangerous. This is the time in their lives when old typewriters are consigned to damp sheds and cellars, and when serious rust sets in. This Oliver had certainly been through that phase, since many of the mechanisms were seized solid. With a lot of persistence and coaxing, I finally got the machine cleaned up and working. I was even able to locate some of the special 7/16" ribbon fabric unique to this model. At some time in the past, it had been skilfully converted to take a modern 1/2" width ribbon, but in order to preserve the originality it went back to the original specification. The rubber feet had all but worn away. Amazingly, reproduction feet are still available, so a set of these was ordered and fitted.
My customer was delighted with the results, and went away very pleased! She has a rare machine. Post World War One Olivers still surface from time to time, but earlier ones are pretty hard to find.
1947 Sterling Continental Portable
Continental was a well-established German make before World War II. With a production history stretching back to 1904, the firm made the most superbly-engineered typewriters. They were well-known for producing a manual office typewriter that could truly be described as 'Rolls-Royce' quality. They also made portable typewriters that were almost as good. With the fall of Germany in 1945, the tooling for the Continental office machines was taken by the Russians as 'war reparations' with the intention to commence production back home. The story goes that the Russians didn't realise that Continental were in turn dependent on many small local sub-contractors who made various parts of the machine. Without this local expertise, production was doomed and so the Continental never reappeared.
Somehow, the tooling for the portable model was spirited away to Belgium, where a new factory was set up. Production started in 1947 but didn't last long. The same problem reared its ugly head. Without the specialist German sub-contactors, the revitalised 'Klein Continental' resembled the pre-war models but didn't work as well. Therefore this month's featured machine is something of a rarity. One of the differences between these and pre-war models is the addition of a die-cast aluminum rear frame member to replace a steel pressing. I would guess this happened because aluminium was plentiful after the war but steel was rationed. Unfortunately the casting isn't strong enough, and I have seen broken ones on these machines. This one was no exception and I had to put in a repair plate to keep everything together.
Once serviced and repaired, the machine worked perfectly well. Despite the poor reputation at the time, it is still better than many modern portable typewriters made in the 1970's and '80's. My customer was pleased with the results of my labours and so was her daughter, for whom it was a present. But if it had only been made a decade earlier, it would have been so much better!
1956 Olivetti Lettera 22 in Maroon
When the Italian firm Olivetti introduced the Lettera 22 in 1950, it was largely a case of 'right first time'. The initial batch of typewriters were marketed as the Olivetti 'Scribe', but the name was soon changed to 'Lettera 22'. The method of construction was largely that of a full-size office typewriter in miniature, and the majority of Lettera 22s were equipped with the same range of features that you would expect to find on an office machine. Beautifully engineered and reliable, the Lettera 22 soon became a popular typewriter, and to keep up with demand in the UK, Olivetti began making them in their Glasgow factory too. Production of the original model in beige continued until the early 1960's, when a facelifted model with square grey keytops and a light blue casing was brought out in preparation for the 1964 debut of the successor Lettera 32. I remain convinced that the only reason that the 22 was discontinued is that it was too expensive to manufacture. Although the vast majority of these machines were finished in beige, the Glasgow factory did make some in light blue and rarely, pink.
This particular typewriter was brought to me by a customer for a full service, but also to be refinished in a new colour. She chose a very pleasant and appropriate maroon - actually a Vauxhall car colour. Once serviced, I stripped and resprayed the machine, making it look as if it had left the factory in the alternative hue. I don't normally like destroying the original finish on a typewriter, but it this case I believe it to be an improvement. The maroon really does look 'period' and positively enhances the shape of the machine. My customer left highly delighted with her 'new' typewriter and I know that she will treasure it!
1960's Twilclene Typeface Brush
An often-forgotten aspect of the typewriter industry nowadays is the erstwhile voracious market for typewriter accessories. The usual items were things like felt typewriter mats (placed under a machine to protect the desk surface and deaden the sound - modern reproductions now available for sale on another part of this site) and various cleaning brushes. Aids to correction such as special typewriter erasers and means of covering over mistakes were also popular. It is important to clean the 'business end' of the machine - the typeface - regularly too. If ingrained ribbon ink isn't removed at regular intervals, the characters begin to fill in and give the work an untidy appearance. A special type cleaning putty used to be available. This plasticene-style material could be rolled out and then pressed out onto the typeface. When the putty was removed, the old ink would come away with it. If that didn't work, the next step was to use a stiff-bristled type cleaning brush with a drop of methylated spirits (de-natured alcohol) to loosen the ink. I imagine that it didn't take someone too long to come up with the idea of a brush with a ready-incorporated reservoir of cleaning fluid in the handle. Like many of these inventions, it is a wonderful idea, but was rather expensive compared to a normal brush and a bottle of meths! As a result, I cannot imagine too many of these were sold.
This particular example was given to me by a grateful customer who collects and appreciates typewriters, and who has had several of his machines repaired and serviced by me in the past. In wonderful original condition, I doubt that this Twilclene brush has had much use, if any. Even the original instruction leaflet is present! I thought that this was a lovely little addition to my private collection, so maybe I would share it with you.
Happy New Year !