Titans of the Typosphere

When I first got into typewriters, my initial reaction was how could anybody write on such a kooky machine? Though I must admit, my first experience was on a late 1960s Smith-Corona Galaxie 12, a modern yet somewhat under-achieving typewriter. Despite its shortcomings, there was still that special spark in the Galaxie I’m sure we’ve all felt in our own first encounters. It only spurred me to seek something better. Something smoother, more confident, better built and easier to type on. It’s a journey many of us still trod. It took a few errant side quests before discovering my 1947 Smith-Corona Sterling.

It’s not you who find the typewriter, but the typewriter who finds you. You’ll know it. Believe me. You might have a few in the constellation, but there’s the pole star that guides all your travels.

I suppose that’s what separates writers who use typewriters from those who use pencils, pens or other paraphernalia. Pencils wear down. Pens run out of ink. Computers lack soul. A typewriter is your constant companion. It has shape, form, function that never wears out. It’s a bit of you. You can call it up in your mind. It’s always there, waiting for you to write. After a while, it’s hard to imagine any journey without your typewriter. (Though I suppose, the pen and pencil crowd would say a typewriter is just more junk to get between you and your writing.)

And only a typewriter nut would swear there’s a creature who lives in their machine. It’s weird to think about it and kind of scary sometimes, but when I need that extra boost all I need do is write on my typewriter. The cosmic tinkling of my fingers brings her to life. Summons her. Powers her. Perhaps it’s just the levers of quantum mechanics activating electrons, protons, neutrons and photons that bridge the cosmic divide.

Oh golly, now I’ve really gone off the mark I’m afraid. After all, the photo in this post suggests a comparison of the Royal standard against the Hermes Rocket.

Lets flip back a few moments to that time where I made the decision to pursue the portable typewriter rather than the standard sized edition. While there were many fine blogs devoted to typewriters, none seemed to offer the pros and cons and other issues when deciding on a typewriter.

In my ignorance, I dismissed the larger machine as being slow and clumsy. After all, my fleet fingers were trained on computer keyboard, and what could be more fleet than the smaller typewriter? How wrong I was.

If anything, the portable is the poor cousin of the standard. Portables were designed when you needed something in a pinch or couldn’t afford the gold standard. Perhaps that’s why you see the famous writers poised over their portables, it was all they could afford! Plus, they were a vagary lot, shifty, always moving, one step ahead of creditors, if not the law. A portable was easily stashed and setup in new quarters without much fuss. And the most suspect of writers, sports journalists, used Rockets and Letteras due to the tight confines of the press box. There really wasn’t much choice. A writer using a standard machine was well-to-do in an established home who lived on a steady stream of praise and paychecks. While portables are fine typewriters for getting the job done, they just can’t compare to the stability and sure-footedness of the standard.

Despite its age and lack of upkeep, the 1930s Royal in the picture requires very little effort to strike a key. It almost feels self-powered. Plus, it’s super hard to get the keys to jam. Perhaps due to its quickness, you just can’t outpace this thing. It can take whatever you throw at it. Super nimble. It blew me away the first time I typed on it. And after using it for a while, portables felt flimsy. Even the bell on the standard Royal is large and makes a resounding ding. It’s an awesome sound. It’s the sound of real work getting down. The keys also make a reassuring thunk-thunk-thunk. And with a machine this size, it’s not slipping around on your desk. Put a pad under it to help dampen the sound.

This is probably reason numero uno for not having the standard in the home, they’re loud. A roomful of these must’ve been deafening. I can see why “quiet” was often part of the portable name, nipping any potential strife in the bud. Perhaps this explained why many writers preferred the portable. They weren’t making any money and that horrific racket they made only fortified those around that they should get a real job and stop bothering the world. Or perhaps, the only time to write was in the off-hours of the night or pre-dawn. The quieter the machine, the less flack taken. Computers have solved this problem. Nobody really knows what you’re doing. All evidence of your life’s work cleverly hidden in recursive folders with non-sensical names that you’ve even forgot what you’ve written.

If you’re still tinkering with typewriters and looking for the one, consider the standard. Find a nice solid desk with plenty of room. Make it your shrine. A good lamp. Two wire baskets. One for blanks. The other for done. Devote 2 hours a day and pretty soon it’ll add up. It’s a titan sized effort, but with a titan typewriter on your side, your muse will have the muscle to pull you through.

19 comments

  1. I completely agree. I started with a Lettera 22, which is a great machine, but at an estate auction i got a Royal KMM for $5. The space bar didn’t work, as the drawband was disconnect, but after fixing that i was amazed at how smooth it felt. It is a massive addition to my desk, and a noisy one if i get going with it, but it never fails to impress me whenever i return to it after using portable typewriters.

    Definitely the cheapest one in my collection, as no one else wanted to deal with a giant old typewriter that seemed to not work, but it is one of my favorites to use when i get the chance.

  2. A creature living in your machine? Fornit some fornus! (If that is lost on you, read King’s short story “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” which can be found in his collection Skeleton Crew, and I think you will recognize the make and model of the typewriter he mentions in it too!)

  3. Totally, thoroughly agree! ❤

    That's the why I love my Olympia SG 3, and the reason which I replaced my Olivetti Lettera 31 with an Olivetti Studio 46! 😀

    I prefer the 60's, 70's, 80's and early 90's machines. Their futuristic and square designs drive me nuts, in a good sense of course! xD

    • I had an Olympia SG1 from the 1950s. Felt like the SM3, but without the heavy carriage shift! Now why couldn’t they make the SM3 the same as the SG1? The only thing that made the SG1 feel heavy, was the larger carriage. Not as quick and silky as the portable.

      • That’s the why I have an Olivetti Studio 46: All the advantages of a portable, with the stability and snapiness of the standard office machine! 😀

  4. Thank You for this “review”. I’m very new to the typewriter ownership world (found my dream machine as far as looks go: 1930’s Remington Noiseless Portable). I have looked high & Low on the WWWeb for just this type of answer to my brain-full-O-questions. #1 – To go with a standard or a portable.

    Now to find that wonder machine which combines typing ease and looks in a full size. I like the look of the Royals… FP, KMM, etc. Especially in the post-war quirky colors.
    Any thoughts from you typing humans?

    I’ll need to get started cleaning my Remington until I get lucky enough to come across a desk-topper.
    Not an easy thing over here in Swedia.

    Thanks again, and have a great day!
    Chris

    • What the portable lacks in typing touch vs. the standard, it makes up for in design. The office standards are a pretty dull lot. Plus, they’re so huge! I suppose that’s why I’d never warm up to one. I’m not being paid for how fast I type or how many error free memos I can churn out. I’m willing to trade efficiency for aesthetic.

  5. Daniel,
    You make A good point… I’m not being paid for writing (I’m a hobbyist). Just wondered about ease of use on the old phalangi.
    Aesthetics Vs. Touch – I’ve seen that argued several times on various portable typewriter themed articles.
    All things being equal (space, time and the gravitational pull on earth) is the standard the better machine or the beautiful portable that inspires it’s use? Tough choice.
    I’ll keep looking… Maybe a larger portable?

  6. My friends 10 year old likes a typewriter because it is non judgmental about spelling.
    I thought that was a beautiful message, my Remington Quiet Riter is on its way to our home,
    I am a convert.
    Jim R.

  7. I took your advice yesterday and bought a standard 1957 Royal FP. It turned out to be my least expensive typewriter ($25) and suffice it to say I agree with everything you say in this article.

    The FP needed a lot of TLC (totally gummed up); but all the typewriter needed to get it working was a good cleaning (as in several hours of squirting naphtha and brushing with brass, steel and nylon brushes). Just as you say, this standard typewriter is in an entirely different league than my small collection of portables (’47 Smith-Corona Silent; ’48 Royal QDL, early ’60s Olivetti Lettera 22 & ’64 Olympia SM7). Interestingly, while the foam insulation of the FP is completely shot; to my ears the FP seems no louder than my Olympia SM7. In fact only the Royal QDL is appreciably quieter than the FP.

    I’m surprised the standard typewriters get so little attention, I wish there was a fraction of interest and information on the standards as there is regarding portables. I suspect the many of the qualities that make the standard so good, make it less interesting. It appears the last comment on this article was 2 years ago! I thank you very much for this information; I think my typewriter may just have found me; and it turned out to be the standard Royal FP. It would never have found me had you not written this article!

    • Many thanks for your comment! And so happy for you in finding your match. I might’ve said this in another post, but worth repeating here in case others want to follow in your footsteps. Look local for a standard typewriter. While portables might be flimsy in comparison, they hold up to the rigors of shipping much better. They were designed to be locked in case, stuffed in a trunk and transported in the coach carriage. Standards were delivered to the office in a wooden crate, unboxed and setup by the typewriter dealer. They didn’t move. They worked all day. When they needed a tune-up, the typewriter tech came to the office. When they were no longer serviceable, or the newer model came out, they were rounded up and dropped off at the second-hand office supply store. And perhaps that’s why they’re harder to find and are often in worse condition than the portable. Portables were often cherished members of the family. People kept their typewriter because of the fond memories of going through college with it. All those term papers! The long, solitary hours with a steady friend. The standards were used by paid typists. When the job was done, they went home and forgot about the typewriter. And this might make what I’m about to say troubling — or challenging, depending on your views.

      It’s hard to explain, and I’ve hinted at this topic in previous posts, despite fears of not being taken seriously. Since these long forlorn standards lacked the love they deserved, the creatures that channeled their energy into the much loved portables often passed the standards over. Who was more likely to hear their voice, the over-worked office typist or the struggling writer seeking inspiration? OK, perhaps you don’t subscribe to such nonsense. But, spend enough time over the typewriter, alone, undisturbed and connect with your inner voice, then you might begin to tap into an undiscovered vein of creative energy. That’s where the muses live. Activate one and you’ll hang onto that typewriter until your dying days. It’ll never leave you. So what does this mean if a standard typewriter has come into your possession? It might take a bit more effort to summon a muse. They’re not used to hearing the call from a standard. But, put in the time, believe this to be true and you’ll find that voice.

      William, you’ve prepped your standard typewriter for all the love it deserves. Cleaned her. Rescued her. Saw the potential. Enjoy the magical journey. And who knows, with such a mighty typewriter, you might find a mighty muse!

      • Daniel, very good advice. My luck with shipped portables has been worse than 50/50. So buying a shipped standard would have been out of the question for me!

        As for the “muse” or “energy” factor, you are clearly not alone in your belief and you can count me among your ranks.

        The Royal Standard I bought; doesn’t exactly come right out and speak to me (at least not yet); but if you’d seen it when I bought it compared to what is looks like now and how gummed up it was then (nothing, and I mean nothing worked on it) and how well it works now. It does have the appeal of a rescue. We’re “friends.” Or so I imagine. The typing experience is sublime and this is the greatest pleasure second to knowing I had a hand in making it so.

        Muse or no, this typewriter is staying out on my desk; if for no other reason, it is too big and too heavy to go anywhere else!

        Will there ever be a “Top Ten Standard Typewriter”? Might be interesting!

        Again thanks- your articles are interesting and inspirational.

  8. Last week I found myself looking for a project and found a true titan of a typewriter in a IBM Model B electric typewriter made in l954. After a thorough cleaning (I spent 6 hours on it) I had it up and running. I put it on a scale this morning and it weighed in at 42.5 pounds. It is a beast and a ton of fun to use; however, extremely loud, even after I glued in some foam in the voids between the shell and the mechanism. At this point it is too soon to tell if this monster of a typewriter will be something I use, or if it will gather dust. But I must say, it types remarkably well and is very easy to use. This typewriter sold new in l954 for $395 (which equates to $3,770 in today’s dollars), I paid $5 for it. I know standards and electric typewriters don’t get a lot of love; but I am glad I have added this one to my collection. If for no other reason it is historically significant. The Model B apparently was used as the keyboard for IBM’s earliest computers. Maybe not to everyone’s taste; but I have been enjoying it immensely!

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