It takes all types

Wednesday December 07, 2011 Written by smith

Typewriters were the cover stars of Smith volume one and nobody in Australia knows more about them than Robert Messenger, owner of the Australian Typewriter Museum in Canberra.

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Hi Robert! When did you become interested in typewriters?

I was a newspaper journalist for 46 years and I used typewriters as a tool of trade for the first 23 of those years. We all took them for granted back then; didn't take the time to appreciate the brilliant engineering and mechanical design, or what beautiful machines they are.

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When did you start collecting?

In 2001, when I saw an old Imperial portable in a bric-a-brac shop down in Moruya. It was pricey, at $165, but I just had to have it. Little did I realise then what I was getting myself into. A Canberra Times colleague, Andrew Fraser, had a house warming at Narrabundah one night around then, and I saw how he had displayed the Remington portable which his father (a Federal MP) had used. I thought, "That's what I have to do". Then, coming up to celebrating 40 years in journalism, I set out to find examples of the first two typewriters I ever used. One was a 1947 Underwood Universal (the Jack Kerouac typewriter). My father brought one of these home from his business and gave it to me to use when I was nine, in 1957. I started by copying text from books, and soon got the cadence of typing. The feel, the sound, the ribbon ink, they all got into my blood. I was hypnotised by typewriters, under their spell. I've been using typewriters on a daily basis ever since. When I started in newspapers, in 1965, my first typewriter was an Olivetti Lettera 32 (the Cormac McCarthy typewriter). Anyway, I found examples of both of these typewriters on eBay. Before I knew it, three typewriters have turned into 903!

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When did you open the Australian Typewriter Museum?

The museum was officially opened in Canberra in April 2006 by Richard Amery, the NSW Government Member for Mt Druitt. Richard is another avid typewriter collector, probably the longest-standing and one of the best known in Australia. Richard has a large collection of typewriters, but specialises in Imperial Good Companion portables, of which he has a full range dating from 1931. Richard also uses typewriters on a daily basis, most especially in his parliamentary work, such as questions on notice. He wrote all his re-election campaign material earlier this year on a typewriter. He writes regular letters to his grandchildren (among other people) on typewriters, and recently discovered his grandchildren have collected all their typewritten letters from him over the years and put them in folders as mementos.

Tell us about your collection...

The earliest typewriter I have is a 1878 Remington 2, which was the first typewriter to use a shift key, so it could type in both upper and lower case letters. Typewriters before this, from the first one, the 1874 Sholes and Glidden, typed in caps only. I also have a Yost and two Hammonds from the 1880s. These are "blind" typewriters – you cannot see what you are typing. "Visible" typing didn't properly emerge until 1896. One of the jewels of my collection is a full range of Blickensderfers, dating from 1893. These include the Blick 5, Blick 6, Blick 7, Blick 8, Blick 9, Blick Universal, Blick 90, Home Blick and Featherweight. I also have many other very rare turn-of-the-century and early 20th century typewriters, such as a Sun, a Diamant, a Stoewer Elite, a Noiseless, Perkeo, Portex, Bijou, Standard Folding and, of course, many Corona 3s. One of my Corona 3s was once owned by Miles Franklin. I "rescued" it from New York, where Franklin had sold it in the 1920s to pay from her onward journey to England. My typewriters range up to the present day, with an Olympia Traveller C made in China this year. A large sub-section of my collection is a full collection of toy typewriters, dating from 1893 to the present day: this is a much-neglected genre, and mine would be the biggest collection of toy typewriters in the world.

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How do you display such a large collection?

I find now that the best way of displaying my collection is to look at individual models or groups of typewriters on my blog. I started it in late February this year and nine months later I am delighted to say there have been 343 posts and 50,000 visits! I find blogging about typewriters incredibly satisfying. Earlier this year I also published my first typewriter book, The Magnificent 5: And 250 Other Great Things About Portable Typewriters.

How do you go about restoring and replacing the parts?

One of the things people don't realise about typewriters is that the ribbons never really "die". They dry out, but the ink in them never actually goes away, it just fades with age and drying. A squirt of WD40 will bring these old cotton, ink-impregnated ribbons back to life, so with the 1878 Remington 2 I can still type merrily away, 133 years after it was made. The typebar shafts are made of wood, as is the platen roller!

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Do you have a particular favourite?

My favouritism swings from time to time. At one time, when they were all on display, the full collection of Blickensderfers was my favourite. I once said that if my house ever caught on fire, the one machine I'd grab would be a Blick 5. Nobody can consider themselves a real typewriter collector without a Blick in their collection. I am particularly drawn to the beauty of typewriters: among all machines, they are the most beautiful. Perhaps the most beautiful in my collection is a 1932 Olivetti ICO MP1, which is fire engine red and came to me from Argentina. This spectacular design of the die-cast alloy outer casing came from Aldo Magnelli, from Florence, and seamlessly merges a tiered, high curved collar around the typebasket with straight lines down to the sides of the keyboard. It is a design born of the love Magnelli shared with his famous painter brother Alberto for the geometric abstraction style of art, which incorporated cubist and futurist elements. The designed emerged from Olivetti's development office, directed by Renato Zveteremich. The program recruited painters such as Magnelli, Alexander "Xanti" Schawinksy and Marcello Nizzoli, along with architects, graphic artists and printers. The Magnellis had close ties with South America, and Aldo was later sent to Brazil to represent Olivetti. In 1940 he opened a steel furniture company in Sao Paulo called Securit, now run by his daughter Christina Maria Magnelli. It manufactures office furniture systems, which combine steel, aluminium and wood. My special current favourite is the Underwood 3, a 1919 portable which is a piece of engineering design genius in miniature. Earlier this year, I uncovered the Underwood 3's original 1915 patent, and discovered that it was invented by Lee Spear Burridge.

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Are any typewriters made in Australia?

The only typewriters which claim to be "Australian built" were by Remington in the 1930s. The parts were actually made in the US and assembled in Sydney. This was an attempt to overcome import restrictions, import duties, sales taxes etc on fully assembled, imported machines. They weren't really Australian built, but assembled here. The importation of parts from the US ended with the outbreak of World War II, when only essentials could be shipped into Australia from overseas. Australians were told at the time that if they owned a typewriter, they should hold on to it and look after it, as they wouldn't be seeing "new" typewriters for a long time. In the 1960s, Japanese-made typewriters (notably from Brother) began to flood the Australian market and other brands found it hard to compete, price-wise. One attempt was made by a Melbourne company called Pacific, which shipped in very good portable typewriters from Czechoslovakia (Consul) and Bulgaria (Maritza) and relabelled them here as Pacific typewriters. Thus these were typewriters, under this label, only ever sold in Australia, but they were in fact Eastern European in origin.

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Is there a big community of typewriter fanatics out there?

Worldwide there are about 350 earnest typewriter collectors, mostly based in the US but also with a large number in Germany and in Italy. It is no coincidence that these are the three countries where most typewriters were made, and therefore where most typewriters are now available for sale (eBay etc). These people are members of the Early Typewriter Collectors Association (ETC). They have a quarterly magazine called ETCetera, which is edited by Richard Polt, a professor of philosophy in Cincinnati. Richard is passionate about typewriters and an ongoing inspiration to us all, with his website (The Classic Typewriter Page) and blog The Writing Ball. He has constantly helped and encouraged me over the years, including giving me such rare typewriters as a Winsor (a tiny portable from Spain), a Barr and a Rooy. Other typewriter historian-collectors who have welcomed me into the fold with open arms and have been extremely helpful and friendly include Will Davis and Alan Seaver (US), Richard Milton (England), Wim Van Rompuy (Belgium), Paul Robert (Holland), Georg Sommeregger (Switzerland) and Flavio Mantelli (Italy). I love this community!

In Australia, there is a very small group of us, led by Richard Amery in Sydney but also including Terry Cooksley (Sydney), Peter Brill (Perth), Tino (Melbourne), Paul Christie (Adelaide) and Dereck Brown (Brisbane), all of whom have been very helpful.  

'typewriters & the men who loved them' in Smith Journal issue one features images of Robert's typerwriters, including Jack Keroac's Underwood Universal and Cormac McCarthy's Olivetti Lettera 32.