Underwood Universals British and American
Here is a lovely example of the difference between typewriters for the British market and those sold in America. Side by side are two late-1930's Underwood Universals, both made in the USA. The slightly miserable-looking one is intended for British consumption, whilst the brightly-coloured Deep Red one is for sale in the States.
American makers were generally willing to offer coloured typewriters, particularly but not exclusively portables, to their public. But the British were considered to be far too conservative and simply got black, or sometimes grey ! The very few coloured typewriters that 'escaped' here are now highly-prized collectors' items. Even the German manufacturer Olympia got in on the act in the 1950's. I recently had an American-market Olympia SM3 (large portable) through my hands. Generally, these machines are a subdued Bottle Green, occasionally sold in a Deep Maroon. But for the USA - Red over Cream. And with a further modification - adapted to take an Underwood-style spool because they are easier to get in America. They think of everything, these Germans !
The American manufacturer Royal produced an office-size manual in the 1950's called the 'FP'. Not the most catchy of names it was available in several different pastel shades. But not in Britain. We got Light Grey instead ! Interestingly, it took IBM with their range of electric and golfball typewriters to break the mould in the UK. From the late 1950's, these were available in a range of pastel colours too - but they also offered beige for the real die-hards !
1920 Oliver No.9
You could say that the Oliver typewriter was the 'Apple Mac' of its' day. It performed all the functions that you 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 who lived in a remote part of Canada. He had heard of typewriters when they were newly invented, but had never seen one. Thus, when he designed his, he had no pre-conceived ideas and simply went his own way. It is even said that when constructing the prototype, he used strips cut from large tin cans to make the typebars ! The machine proved to be such a successful design that by 1895, he had left the church and with the help of American investors, started the Oliver Typewriter Company. One of the revolutionary things about this machine is that because the typebars swing in from each side you can actually see what you are typing, as you are typing it. Of course you can do this on any modern typewriter, but for the first thirty years that typewriters were being made, on the vast majority of makes this wasn't possible.
An essentially Victorian design, the Oliver typewriter continued to sell well until the early 1920's. But whilst other manufacturers progressed, the Oliver typewriter essentially stood still, with only minor detail improvements. By 1928, it was increasingly being seen as too old-fashioned and the American company ceased trading. Incredibly, the tooling was sold to the British importers who set up a factory to continue making the machine here. By 1933, they had to give in and take a licence to make the Swedish 'Halda' typewriter, which was a thoroughly modern machine in its day. However, they didn't throw the tooling in the skip as would be done nowadays. Instead, they carefully stored it away. Just as well, because in 1939, the British government asked them to begin production again, exclusively for them ! Old-style Olivers were produced throughout the war, production finishing for the second time in 1947. An old-time typewriter engineer told me that the reason the government wanted these machines was that they cannot be jammed by fine desert sand getting into the typebar slots - because there aren't any !
This particular machine belongs to a customer who inherited it from his grandfather. As a child, it was just another plaything, and then it was put away in the loft. Unfortunately damp lofts are fatal for old typewriters, and when it was unearthed again, it was found to be rather rusty. All the rubber parts had deteriorated and had to be replaced. Rusted mechanisms were gently un-seized. One of the spool caps was missing. Incredibly, I actually had a spare one ! Something that I did have to make was a pair of little reels (that pass for spools on these typewriters) to enable the special width 9/16" ribbon to be fitted. Gradually, the machine came back to life, and although still inevitably looking a little care-worn, it now works well enough to type a letter once more ! And perhaps Olivers are a bit like busses, because the day before my customer collected this one, another customer brought me an Oliver No. 5 - in even worse condition !
Circa 1920 Mercur AKA Urania
I last featured an 'Urania' typewriter back in 2016, so make no apologies for showing you another, some four years later ! Urania was a fairly obscure German maker of both standard office typewriters and portables, clearly with an eye on the export market since the machine from 2016 was made for the Arabic market, and this one - branded as a 'Mercur' - was destined for export to Romania. Like many other manufacturers in the early 1920's, Urania had clearly studied the then market-leading portable, (the American Corona 3) when coming up with a design of their own. Corona had a patented carriage which folded down and over the top of the keyboard for transit, and several makers tried to copy this and got sued for patent infringement. Obviously Urania didn't want this to happen so designed their 'Corona Copy' with a fixed carriage instead. Nevertheless, it is possible to see where they got their ideas from when this machine went into production ! Like the Corona 3, the Urania has only three rows of keys and a second shift to access numbers and symbols. This eventually proved to be the downfall of all 3-bank typewriters of whatever make. The public demanded a four-row keyboard like full-size typewriters, even though the three-row reduced the amount of working parts, thus making the typewriter cheaper to buy.
Just like the 'Arabic' Urania from 2016, this machine was in truly appalling condition, totally worn out, with parts missing and bodged beyond belief to keep it working for decade after decade in a poor and desperate country. Inside the front cover, there are several dates scratched into the enamel giving dates of repair. The first was from the late 1930's, the last from the mid-1990's. All sorts of terrible things had been done to it over 80 long years, the worst being the centre guide being filed out in an attempt to cure sticking typebars. I had to let new metal into the guide to restore at least some of the alignment. The Bakelite spools (a totally obsolete kind) were broken and I had to make up new ones in metal. The carriage was sticking because the central roller was missing. I had to make a new one ! There was rust everywhere. Screws replaced with whatever was to hand, or just plain missing. The list goes on........ Just like the 2016 machine, if it was an animal it might have been kinder to put it down ! Nevertheless, I persevered and even though it would never ever perform like it did when it was new - well at least it works now. Just as well that my customer will use it as more of an artefact in her writer’s practice !
1965 Imperial 70
I have made no secret of my fondness for the Imperial marque, made in Leicester and quaintly old-fashioned right up to the closure of the factory at the end on 1974. Although Imperial went back much further than that, the first 'modern' Imperial office typewriter (the model 50) was introduced in 1927 and was the basis of every office model that the factory produced until closure. The genius of the Imperial 50 was that large chunks of the mechanism could be removed and replaced by the user without the use of any tools. The whole carriage unclipped so that it could be either removed for cleaning or a carriage of a different length substituted. The platen could be removed and replaced with another of a different grade, more suited to the work in hand. The whole keyboard and typing unit came out, again either for cleaning or to be replaced with another containing - for example - scientific symbols or accents for a foreign language. This basic idea continued through a whole series of models both before and after the war, but by the early 1960's the final development, the Imperial 66, was beginning to look both dated and expensive to manufacture.
In 1962, with Imperial getting less and less profitable and a take-over by an American firm hovering in the wings, the factory launched the 'more modern' Imperial 70. Note the square-shaped ribbon cover at the front of the machine. The long-defunct British typewriter museum in Bournemouth used to have the Imperial 70 factory prototype and it seems that they changed the design at the last minute because the prototype had a rounded ribbon cover instead. In retrospect I think that this may have happened because it bore a strong resemblance to the Olivetti Lexicon 80, and of course you cannot be seen to be copying another maker's product if you are major manufacturer yourself! In many respects the 70 was a backward step. The carriage and platen were still user-removable, but the type unit most certainly wasn't. In fact, because the type unit was now so firmly bolted in, it would have been a typewriter engineer's nightmare to adjust the shift motion using the time-honoured central adjuster. So Imperial moved the adjustment to the left side and hid it under a little screw-down plate. So far so good, but now as the mechanism wore, it was no longer balanced evenly from side to side which brought problems of its own. Putting the tabulator set and clear controls in the keyboard area was a good idea, but perhaps not in the way that the factory went about it. Ditto the ribbon control. Furthermore, the machine took a totally different ribbon spool to previous models - one bizarrely shared with the American Underwood Touchmaster. Perhaps they were hoping to break into the US market with the new machine, but certainly chose to change to the wrong spool at the wrong time.
The result of all this is that the 70 is a comparatively rare typewriter these days. It was only in production from 1962 to 1968, whilst its predecessor, the 66 went from 1954 to 1967. Since both machines were still being made side-by-side, many customers wisely stuck with the proven Imperial 66 ! The 70 is not a terrible typewriter by any means, sharing much of its DNA with the 66 - it is just the the 66 was so much better !
This particular machine was brought me for a full service because it had a sentimental attachment for its owner. He had been using it for the last 25 years, and it had previously belonged to his late mother. Some small items were missing, including the special flat springs which hold the eraser table in place. Fortunately I had a pair, kept for a rainy day when I started in the typewriter trade when I was 17 ! It wouldn't be the first time that my younger self came to my rescue in recent times ! My customer was so happy with the results, that I received a thank you letter a few days after he collected his machine. Written on the Imperial 70 of course !
1932 Imperial Good Companion
The story of the original Imperial Good Companion is an interesting one. Until the early 1930's, the Imperial Typewriter Company of Leicester specialised in office typewriters. They had launched the very successful Imperial 50 in 1927, and were now hungry to get a slice of the portable typewriter market too. As a toe in the water, they approached Torpedowerke in Germany and bought a number of kits of parts to assemble one of their designs. Unsure if these would sell, and wanting to distance themselves if they didn't, they were sold as the 'Mead' portable. They needn't have worried. The prototype 'Mead' sold well and proved to be a good machine. So good, in fact that Imperial bought the rights to manufacture and all the tooling to make it themselves. All the threads were changed from German metric to British BA threads to make the fastenings uniform with the office typewriters, but it was otherwise much the same. At about the time that Imperial wanted to market their 'new' portable typewriter, the J B Priestley play, 'The Good Companions' was making headlines. Imperial wrote to Priestley asking permission to name their machine 'The Good Companion'. Permission was granted and it became what must have been one of the first examples of 'cross marketing., with the typewriter advertising the play and the play advertising the typewriter. I think Imperial got a good run for their money because not only was a version of this typewriter still being made well into the 1960's, they were still calling it the 'Good Companion' too - by the 1960's it was the 'Good Companion Six' !
Today, the original Good Companion - retrospectively called the Good Companion One to differentiate it from later models - is a sought-after and well-regarded vintage typewriter. The version that most people seem to want is the pre-war one, shown above. From 1940 onwards, the paint finish was crackle black, replacing the lovely glossy enamel of the 1930's models. No difference in performance but the more miserable 1940's crackle and less plated parts does not appeal so much.
This particular machine has belonged to my customer's father-in-law, who was a keen amateur cyclist. It had lived in the garden shed for donkey years as he would regularly escape there to type up a log book of his cycling adventures. He engaged actively with cycling up until 6 months before his death as his Chemo treatment sapped his energy. At the age of 66 he rode the 'Paris to Brest' cycling race finishing in the top 200 cyclists. He also would ride competitively from Windsor Castle to Northwich, Cheshire and back in the same day via A and B roads on his bicycle. It had a number of 'issues' when it was brought to me, but is now nearly as good as new. A fitting memorial to its owner I would venture to say !
1956 Imperial Good Companion 3
The story of the British-made Imperial Good Companion 3 is an interesting one. It was introduced in 1951, but its origins date back to the 1930's. The American Remington firm had a number of typewriter factories throughout the world, either wholly-owned or partly-owned and all producing clones of the American parent company's machines. There was one exception though - in the midst of the German recession in the late 1920's, Remington bought Torpedowerke. I think the idea was to convert the company to yet another factory producing Remington clones, but it didn't work out that way. They tried selling machines as 'Deutsche Remington', but public resistance to the name change was high and they soon had to revert to the more German-sounding name. They put an Englishman, Herbert Etheridge, in charge of design and then pretty well left the factory to do its own thing. After all, it was turning a profit, so why not ? In the early 1930's, the British Imperial firm was thinking about making portable typewriters to augment their very successful range of office manual machines. As a toe in the water, they approached Torpedowerke and bought several hundred kits of parts for a small portable, which they assembled and sold as the 'Mead' - just in case it wasn't a success. The 'Mead' sold well, so in 1932, the went back to Germany and bought the rights and tooling for the whole machine. They Anglicised it with Imperial (i.e. non-metric threads) and launched it as the Imperial Good Companion. As the 1930's were drawing to a close, things were obviously hotting up for an Englishman working in a German typewriter factory, and Mr. Etheridge jumped ship in 1938 to work for the Imperial Typewriter Company. No doubt the earlier contact with Imperial over the sale of the tooling meant that he was well known to them. He was obviously working on future designs for his old employer and it seems likely that he brought them to England with him. Sadly, Herbert Etheridge died in 1940, but when Imperial launched the Good Companion 3 in 1952, it was a totally different design to the previous model (which remained in production as an alternative). It might not therefore come as a surprise that when Torpedowerke brought out a new portable after the war, it was a close cousin of the Imperial Good Companion 3 !
This particular machine has led an interesting life. It had belonged to the owner's father who was a lifelong Communist, and had travelled the world with him. It is thought that it had even been to Cuba at one time. Obviously passionate about his beliefs, dad had adorned the machine with stickers. One refers to the 1980's coal miners strike, the other one on the ribbon cover is to do with the privatisation of Britain's government-owned telephone system into the firm now known as BT. He certainly liked his citrus fruit, since the machine's baseboard has many stickers taken from various fruits. And then there is where the machine began it's life. How many typewriters have you ever seen that were supplied in the Falkland Islands ? Have a look at the supplier's plate in the right hand picture ! A full service and some new baseboard feet (happily identical to those on the 1930's Imperial Good Companion so I had reproductions in stock) brought the machine back to life. What a wonderful heirloom !
1976 Smith Corona Super-G Ghia
When Olivetti produced the Valentine, the world's first 'designer typewriter' in 1969, it caused a sensation. Sold through outlets such as boutiques, rather than typewriter dealers, it became an instant 'collector's item'. Nowadays, it is still highly regarded and highly priced. There is even one on permanent display in London's Victoria and Albert museum.
The American firm, Smith-Corona, decided that they too wanted a slice of the action and produced a 'designer typewriter' of their own - in production from 1972 to 1977. The 'works' of the machine came from the mass-market Smith-Corona Corsair, made in the UK because labour was cheaper than in America. Sad to say, for a 'British' product, the quality wasn't anything to write home about. Olivetti did much the same thing incidentally, since the 'works' of the Valentine came from the Olivetti Dora - at least the Dora was a perfectly civilised machine ! The Olivetti Valentine came in a bold red (although there are other colours which are very rare and make typewriter collectors go weak at the knees), so Smith-Corona had to think of something else. They settled on a pleasant turquoise blue.
The outer casing was designed for them by Ghia in Italy. Yes, that's right, the same design house that did work for the Ford Motor Co. There is certainly a car influence there, because the snap-over carry case has two offset black 'racing stripes'. The front of the typewriter has a pull-out handle which allows it to be carried around once the carry case has been fitted over the top. It really is a beautiful piece of design - just a shame about the mechanism inside !
1967 Hermes Ambassador
Probably the largest, and almost certainly the best, office typewriter ever made - the amazing Swiss Hermes Ambassador certainly takes some beating. Sometimes known as the ‘Rolls Royce’ of office manual typewriters, the Ambassador was first introduced in 1948, with production only finally fizzling out in the mid-1970’s. The engineering and attention to detail of this machine are second to none. Its bluff front and tank-like appearance belies the precision engineering within, whilst the wonderfully light keyboard ‘touch’ and host of convenient features makes it a real winner. It solves problems that most other typewriter manufacturers hadn’t even considered. For instance, there is a tiny brush head – like the end of a toothbrush – beneath the carriage which sweeps any eraser dust away each time the carriage is returned. The sloping front is there for a reason. It is designed as a rest for a shorthand notebook to enable the typist to read as she (or he) is working. An adjustable ‘paper injector’ lever on the right of the carriage allows a letterhead to be rolled automatically into the carriage bringing up the first line of the page, ready to begin typing. Margins are set, not by the conventional sliders at the top of the carriage, but by a system not unlike the patented Royal Magic Margin. To set a margin, simply place the carriage in the desired position, and press a small button next to the platen knob. The spring-loaded margin will then set itself. Later models even had visible margin indicators built into a hollow bail bar so that you could see exactly where the margins were located on the page you were typing. There was even a version with an electrified carriage return, doing away with having to return the carriage by hand at the end of each line.
‘Hermes’ was the Greek god of speed, and the machine was well-named. Not only fast, but so well engineered that a service life of thirty-plus years was perfectly usual with this model. As a young typewriter engineer, I remember visiting a local firm in the late ‘seventies that were still using a fleet of Ambassadors that were new in the early ‘fifties ! The ‘Rolls-Royce’ reputation was further enhanced by the fact that these machines were relatively uncommon in an office world dominated by German makes. This was mainly because they were much dearer than rival manufacturers, thanks largely to the exchange rate between the Swiss Franc and other currencies.
The story behind this particular machine is that I sourced and refurbished a similar Hermes Ambassador for a customer about two years ago. When it was finished, my wife decided to give it a trial run and immediately fell in love with it. She made me promise to find one for her to keep and use for herself, but she wanted Pica typeface (the customer’s machine was Elite). I didn’t think that it would be easy to find a Pica-equipped Ambassador, but said I would try. Earlier this year, we were looking around a local ‘antiques centre’ – in reality more like interesting junk – when I spotted a Hermes Ambassador sitting on a shelf in one of the ‘stalls’. I took it down and had a better look at it on the floor. It was obviously unloved, because the price, already quite reasonable, had been halved. Naturally, there was a catch. It had been damp-stored and there was a fair bit of rust inside. However, it was a Pica machine and a promise is a promise ! Bought and brought home, I stripped the machine down and spent a very long time getting rid of the rust, unseizing the margins and cleaning everything thoroughly. A new platen was fitted to replace the rock-hard original. The damp had also attacked the aluminium casing, lifting the enamel in places. My wife spent quite some time experimenting with mixing various colours until she made a nearly exact match for the Seafoam Green enamel. This was applied to cover the blemishes. On further examination, it appeared that this machine had been supplied new to the National Westminster Bank in 1967. A supply/installation date had been Dymo-taped inside the inspection cover at the back, and this tallied exactly with the serial number. As a ‘fleet sale’ to a large organisation, it had come direct from the manufacturer’s sales department. A NatWest property sticker was still on one side. To preserve the history, the stickers were left intact. My wife was so pleased with her ‘new’ typewriter that she made a superb storage cover for it (shown above). Not simply a dust cover, this is a special typewriter-sized zip-up bag to contain the whole machine and protect it from dust for long periods between uses. Unlike the other typewriters which pass through, it looks like this one is here to stay !
Pre-War Typewriter Eraser Tidy
Just for a change to the normal 'Typewriter of the Month', I thought that I would feature an 'Accessory of the Month' instead ! I'm sure that a lot of readers will remember the old-fashioned typewriter eraser shown on the left. A precursor to modern correction fluid, it was used to 'rub out' mistakes (with the carriage drawn over to the side so that the rubber dust fell onto the desk, not into the machine!) rather than cover them up. Usually kept in a handy desk drawer, I can imagine that they were sometimes misplaced.
Wherever there is a problem, someone somewhere comes up with a solution. And here it is ! A handy spring-loaded cord with an attachment that goes through the rivet hole in the middle of the eraser ! With the device held to the side of the machine with a chromium-plated thumbscrew, you can pick the eraser out of its 'pocket', use it, and when released it will return to its rest position in the same way as a tape measure retracts into its case ! Rather ingenious, don't you think ?
A customer brought me a selection of typewriters for estimates just recently, and attached to the side of a Canadian-built Remington Five was this device ! One never stops learning in this trade, and I must admit that I had never seen one of these before. Out came the camera, and with my customer's permission, I thought that I would share this with a wider audience !
1927 Underwood Five - Post-War Rebuild
The Underwood Five – made from the turn of the last century until 1933, and then (in modified form) as the Underwood Six for several more years – is one of the most common ‘vintage finds’. Hardly surprising, because in its time it had nearly 50% of the total typewriter market. In fact, Underwood’s salesmen were told that if a potential customer wasn’t sure if they should buy one, they should ask them to ring any local firm and enquire which make of typewriter they used in their offices. Knowing that they had such a large market share already, they had a better than even chance of the reply being ‘Underwood’ !
After the Second World War there was a dire shortage of office typewriters. Large quantities were destroyed in bombing raids on factories since the office block usually went up at the same time. With only one factory in England being allowed to continue making typewriters throughout the hostilities, and those being strictly rationed to essential users, good typewriters were in very short supply. As a result, any old nail that could be refurbished commanded high prices and a whole new industry sprang up in the 1940’s to satisfy the demand. To ‘modernise’ pre-war machines to a 1940’s appearance, they were usually resprayed in a ‘crackle black’ finish, and the nickel-plated parts were given a quick ‘flash over’ of chromium plating. Depending on the size and honesty of the reconditioner, the machine was either completely re-built with new parts, or more likely simply cleaned and adjusted with secondhand parts being substituted for the most worn items.
This machine is a good example of a post-war rebuild. It was actually made in 1927, so was probably already twenty years old when it received ‘the treatment’. Originally it would have had a high-gloss black enamel finish with delicate gold pinstriping on the front and sides. The carriage end covers would have been brightly-polished nickel plate. As you can see, all these areas have been covered with crackle-finish black, which also conveniently hides any chips and scratches ! Unusually, the shift keycards have been replaced with custom-printed ones with the reconditioner’s name on. They have also gone to the trouble of applying a special transfer to the back, with their name and from this we know that they were based in Cambridge. So possibly one of the larger, more reputable firms.
The customer who brought me this machine, had been given it. The previous owner thought that they would strip it down and clean it and had taken off and/or disturbed many of the mechanisms. There were parts and screws in plastic bags and the carriage had been removed. It was quite a challenge, especially as some parts had been lost altogether and others damaged. It was rather like the old Morecambe and Wise sketch in which Eric says that he IS playing the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order ! In this case a lot of the screws were present, but not necessarily in the right holes ! Once properly reassembled and adjusted, together with new rubber parts, it turned out to be a nice typewriter. Even though she was a 1920’s girl in 1940’s clothes !
1925 Underwood 3-Bank Portable
Spurred on by the obvious success of the Corona Three folding portable, Underwood brought out a similar but non-folding compact portable typewriter in 1919. Like the Corona, it had three rows of keys and a double shift - one for capital letters and a second one for numbers and symbols. As one of the first rivals on the market, and backed by the resources of the mighty Underwood company, it proved to be a winner and continued in production until 1929 when it was finally superceded by a similar but slightly larger Underwood portable with a conventional four-bank keyboard.
This machine was sent to me by a customer who wanted me to get it working so that she could use it. It looked to have been used as a display piece only for some time, since it was full of dust and fluff from standing open and out of its carry case. Typical of typewriters of ninety-plus years old, all the rubber parts had deteriorated, including the special feet which had begun to crumble away. Close-up examination revealed that the drawband must have broken at some time in the past and been replaced with three strands of nylon bead string, painted black and held together with superglue ! It looked like something an antique dealer might do to be able to move the machine on ! At some time in the long-distant past - probably pre-war - the machine had been 'glossed up' for resale by someone in the typewriter trade. As was usual in those days, the black enamel had been given a coat of wood varnish to 'refresh' it. Unfortunately this goes yellow in time, and removal also results in the removal of the original decals underneath !
The rubber parts were replaced, and a new drawband made and fitted. I did the best I could with the varnished enamel. The plastic spools that came with the machine were replaced with the period-correct open metal kind - essential to keep an eye on the ribbon since these models do not have an automatic reverse mechanism. Once completed, the machine was packed up and sent back to my customer. Imagine my surprise when I received an e-mail from her a couple of days later with the photo above. What a lovely way of saying 'Thank You' and letting me know that the machine arrived safely at its' destination ! (Click on the picture to see a larger image of the typed message !)
1937 Everest Model 44
I last featured an Everest typewriter in 2018, when I showed you a rare full-size office model ‘ST’. As I explained at the time, the Italian firm ‘Everest’ is probably better remembered for the medium-sized portable typewriters that they made. A style-conscious firm in the same way as Olivetti, outside appearance was just as important to them as engineering excellence. Founded around 1930, they were taken over by Olivetti in 1960. Olivetti closed the factory and discontinued production after two years, but did re-employ the entire workforce in a new factory nearby, making Olivetti products. Some people wonder if Olivetti did this in order to eliminate some of the competition !
Serial number information is a little sketchy for this manufacturer, but as far as I can tell, this Everest Model 44 dates from 1937. In rather poor condition when it arrived, with parts missing, I managed to bring it up to full working order. It was intended as a Christmas present and I hope the recipient was happy with it on the day ! Sadly, one of the things that wasn’t present was the tiny blue enamelled trademark badge on the front of the machine. A typical ‘Art Deco’ touch along with the perforated individual ribbon spool covers, it makes these machines rather special.