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In Praise of the Mechanical Typewriter

By David Konow

All around the world, typewriter enthusiasts have been organizing events to celebrate the history, design, and operation of the machine.

When was the last time you used a mechanical typewriter? With the current state of computing, there's no need at all to use one--even the computer keyboard is losing ground to touch and voice interfaces. Yet if you grew up with a typewriter, and learned to spell your name on one, you’ll be happy to learn that like vinyl, typewriters are indeed making a comeback. Even if not to be used regularly, then at least to be appreciated.

All around the world, typewriter enthusiasts have been organizing events to celebrate the history and design of the machine. The American one has been dubbed the “Type-In,” and have been hosted in Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles. Louise Marler, an L.A. artist who organized the event, tells us, “It seems like the day the news was published that the last manufacturer of typewriters was closing it doors, it was a call to action among the niche typewriter community to come to the rescue."

Berkeley Type-In event in 2013. Photo credit: Flickr user mpclemens via Creative commons

Says Marler, “Typewriters have been out of the market and general use just long enough for the younger generation to be intrigued by the industrial age antiques. The kids took right to it. Once the younger ones were shown by their parent how it worked, it was natural for them. They could make sense of the action and reaction, press key and see it strike page and leave mark... They really liked it, stayed, played like with any other toy. And it was a blast to see the education and joy taking place.”

The Type-In even had famous typewriters on display that were owned by John Lennon, Orson Welles, and Ted Kaczynsky, aka The Unabomber. “The LA Times published an article about Steve Soboroff's famous authors typewriter collection,” Marler explains. “I found him on twitter and sent him a short note. He responded instantly after reading my history at TypewriterStories.com and LAMarler.com. He invited me to the Malibu Library Reopening where he was offering typing on them as fundraising for them. Mr. Soboroff is just as nice and approachable as he is rich and powerful.”

It’s also amusing to think that for some artists, hanging on to your typewriter is a luxury. Most screenwriters have to be part of the computer age to write and turn in a script, but Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen had a faithful typewriter repairman in New York, who only retired last year. Bino Gan, the owner and operator of Typewriters ‘N Things, repaired the typewriter Coppola wrote The Godfather on, an Olivetti, as well as Woody Allen’s faithful Olympia.

As for why typewriters have had a recent resurgence, many will tell you it’s much easier to focus on a typewriter than it is on a computer. Reuben Flores, owner of US Business Machines tells us, “The generation of the last seven years wants to slow down so they can go forward. A typewriter only allows one thing, to be creative. A typewriter can help them be more creative and be more focused. I’m seeing more college students using typewriters because computer monitors irritate them give them headaches.”

In hipster culture, what’s often old is new again, and Jack Zylkin loved typewriters so much, he came up with a conversion kit that can turn your typewriter into a USB computer, giving people the best of both worlds. As for why he loves typewriters, Zylkin tells us, “A typewriter is an incredible piece of machinery when you look inside it, A lot of people have them as decoration or antiques, but they don’t have a practical use for them. A typewriter is a single purpose machine. The only thing it’s good for is writing. Computers and smart phones are not single purpose machines. With a typewriter, your mental focus on that page. Computers can do a lot while you’re typing a letter. You can have a podcast on in the background while you’re writing. You print it out and it’s a faxcimile. You type on typewriter, your hand is in every letter.”

Like many, Zylkin grew up working exclusively on computers, “so when I discovered the whole world of typewriters, there was a forgotten tradition that was dying out. I felt it needed someone to keep that torch alive. They’re worth preserving, they’re amazing pieces of technology and design.

And even though technology has become far more advanced in modern times, a typewriter is still a remarkable piece of machinery, even by today’s standards. “Typewriters are worth preserving,” Jack Zylkin says. “They’re amazing pieces of technology and design., and you can find one to fit your personality.”

If you’d like to own a typewriter, and are afraid they could end up becoming valuable antiques that are out of your price range, don’t worry. They made millions of them back in the day, and there’s plenty of old ones out there you can buy out there for cheap. There are also a lot of companies like General Ribbon Corporation, Burroughs, and Quill that still make typewriter supplies. Yet nobody interviewed for this story recommended buying a brand new typewriter. Most new ones are being made in China, and by all accounts they’re pretty much junk being made with substandard parts. The best way to go is buying a cheap typewriter on Ebay for $100 or less, and getting it rebuilt by an expert.

When searching for good typewriter repair, US Office Machines in Los Angeles is a name that pops up frequently on the net. A family-run company, Reuben Flores and his brother Danny were trained by their father, taking apart machines and learning how they worked when they were ten years old. And ironically enough, with technology advancing as much as it has, repairing typewriters is what kept the company in business during hard times. In the last seven years, they’ve seen more typewriters coming in, where many would scoff at keeping a typewriter repair business alive.

“My dad held on to all of this stuff, and it paid off for him,” Reuben says. A lot of customers also inherit typewriters, and want to keep them going as family heirlooms. “One customer had inherited a typewriter, and she remembered when she was 2-3 years old, and looked forward to typing on it,” Fuentes says. “Another customer came in with a Smith Corona that had sentimental value because his mother gave it to him as a graduation gift. We love to see the people’s faces when we fix a machine that’s part of somebody’s history and it’s not just a machine.”

We all know there’s whole generations of people who’ve never used a typewriter, but it’s good to know that many younger people are going back to try out what they’ve missed. There’s also something romantic about typewriters. You often think of the classic pulp writers like Mickey Spillane, cranking out stories of detectives and dames. You also think of the old days of newspaper rooms with reporters sitting at a manual typewriter, frantically cranking out copy on a deadline.

The sound of a typewriter clacking and ringing is nice to listen to, and while I haven’t owned a typewriter in years myself, there’s always YouTube, where you can download the sound of one working away. While typewriters can often sound clunky, you’ll also notice they sound a lot more human than the quiet efficiency of a laptop. Maybe the search for the human touch in a fully electronic world is another reason for the typewriter’s comeback. Whatever reason people are going back to typewriters, we’re thankful they’re still around to be enjoyed.