How Much Is That Click, Clack Worth?

Richard Polt’s new “typist’s companion” illustrates how and why people are embracing typewriters—a symbol of resistance against the over-digitization of our lives.

Underwood  Retro  Lectric
1953 Underwood Retro-Lectric with Silver Surfer treatment. Photo courtesy of Richard Polt.

Social media. Data mining. Targeted advertising. All were—and are—supposed to make our lives more rewarding or our businesses more efficient. Maybe they do, but at the same time most of us are now drowning in digital media, spending an inordinate amount of time cultivating new “friends” and followers, trying to interpret mountains of data, and presenting ourselves (and our businesses) to the world based on what we think the search engines (and the Internet) want to see. Worse yet, the flood of information has robbed many people of the ability to focus and concentrate—or do much of anything, uninterrupted, for an extended period of time.

Perhaps this explains why a small but distinctive minority of people are now embracing decidedly old-fashioned technologies like the typewriter [see Soft Return: Keyed by Young Enthusiasts, the Typewriter Makes a Minor Comeback], rebelling against the personal computing establishment in favor of thoughtfulness, privacy, and the experience of writing to the distinctive beat of a typewriter. To be sure, the typewriter isn’t likely to make a large-scale comeback; much like the lost art of writing legible cursive script [see Disappearing Ink: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting], the typewriter’s best days are likely in the past.

But for those who recognize that the most rewarding experiences in life don’t come quickly or easily, using a typewriter is an act of defiance. It’s for those people that longtime typewriter enthusiast Richard Polt wrote “The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century” (The Countryman Press), an all-you-need-to-know guide to the world of typewriting circa 2016, and a book that “resists technological conformity, the totalitarian information-processing world view, and the destructive assumption that all human activity should be judged by the test of efficiency. Sometimes we don’t want life to be seamless—we want to feel resistance, we want to take our time, we want to savor the experience,” reminds the author.

In the following Failure Interview, Polt explains how and why enthusiasts are using typewriters; provides tips for buying and maintaining a typewriter; and highlights how people are bridging the gap between the typewritten and digital worlds.

Most people probably aren’t aware that the typewriter has made a comeback. Why is the typewriter “back”?
About five years ago—maybe a bit more—people started to adopt typewriters: kids, teens, and most notoriously, hipsters, but also makers, steampunks, and other people doing creative things. I thought it called for a book, so I asked myself: “What do these people have in common?” What I came up with is that they are deliberately choosing to do something that is normally done digitally these days—that is, writing—and doing it in a non-digital way. Why do people feel the need to do this? Based on what they say and what I felt I came up with The Typewriter Manifesto, which you can find at the beginning of “The Typewriter Revolution.” What’s going on is that there is a rebellion against the over-digitization of our lives. Typewriters, as well as some other things that are coming back, like vinyl records and even cassettes and Polaroids, represent a more hands-on way of creating and rendering text, images, and music, which appeals to people who aren’t completely happy with the digital world. I think that includes a lot of us.

Are there people who are successfully bridging the digital and typewritten worlds?
Yes, and there are a number of ways to do it. The revolution—or insurgency, as I see it—is not really against computers; that would be too simplistic. It’s against overuse of computers. That leaves you room for activity in the digital world and typewriter-digital interactions.

One thing that has been happening for several years is what people call typecasting, which is blogging by typewriter. You type your posts and then photograph or scan [the page] and upload it. Typecasting is probably most popular on Instagram right now. There are hundreds of people typing their poems and posting them there. The most popular of them have hundreds of thousands of followers or even over a million followers.

Why do people typecast? I think it’s because taking the trouble to do something like that sends a message. Even before people read your words, the fact that you bothered to handcraft the poem or blog post shows that you care. That gets people’s attention.

There are also various technical ways that typewriters and computers can interact, like the USB Typewriter, which has become very popular. It was invented by a maker, Jack Zylkin, and you can buy it in a kit and turn your typewriter into a keyboard without losing any functionality as a typewriter. And he has now improved it so you can write directly to an SD card and don’t have to be connected to a computer.

What about events that are organized by the typewriter community?
The only thing essential [to events] is typewriter lovers getting together in public. It was a revolutionary idea in December 2010 when the first type-in happened [at Bridgewater’s Pub] in Philadelphia, because before then we had maybe been a little embarrassed about our eccentricity, but we decided to be bold and use our typewriters in public. Bars are a good place for this, or a type-out can happen in a park or on a sidewalk. There are no rules but sometimes people have speed typing competitions or sell and trade machines or just tell stories and have conversations and get to know each other.

Another kind of social event with typewriters is the letter writing social. There is a subculture of letter writers—snail mail aficionados and postal art creators—and a lot of them enjoy using typewriters. This can become a social event if people get together in a place with stationery and pens and typewriters to write letters to friends and family. There are also digital detox events, which are parties or weekend camps where people set aside their digital devices—in fact you are not allowed to have one on your person—and have some old-fashioned fun: You play board games, you take a turn at the typewriter, you do summer camp-type things.

So there are many ways typewriters can bring people together, as well as getting them back in touch with themselves. I quote essayist Rebecca Solnit in the book. She says that these days we mostly inhabit shallow water between two deep ends. The deep ends are solitude and intimate connections with other people. We spend a lot of time connected with “friends,” but only on a superficial level. Typewriters are one way you can return to self-awareness, concentration, focus, and privacy, and make some kind of connection in the physical world with other people.

You just mentioned privacy. Typewriters do have a privacy advantage.
Absolutely. This phone conversation is probably digitally mediated and who knows who is recording it. Anything except an in-person conversation in a truly private place—and there are not that many of those anymore—is subject to digital analysis. And even if nothing is going to happen [as a result]—as it won’t in most cases—and even if we’ve done nothing wrong and the government isn’t going to come after us, it creates this sense that somebody is always looking over your shoulder. I find that unpleasant and it creates nervousness and phoniness. You start creating a persona—maybe deceiving others and yourself. So privacy is quite important, not just for security issues but for our sense of self.

Where can one buy a typewriter? Or get one serviced?
There are more typewriter shops and more typewriter repairmen—usually they are men—than one might think. I’m aware of about two hundred in the United States. Many repairmen are retired and working from home. But there are shops that do general office machines with some typewriter repair. And there are a few traditional typewriter repair shops, which are wonderful places to visit. They are the first place—if you are lucky enough to live close to one—where you should look for a typewriter. They may be a little more expensive than other sources but you will have a professional who has cleaned and worked on the machines and fixed them. And you will get to know somebody with a wealth of knowledge. Craigslist can also be a good source, as can thrift stores or antique malls. Of course, eBay is worth looking at, just to get a sense of what is out there and for what price. Ideally you want to buy locally, though, so you can test the typewriter in person and so you don’t subject it to the risks of shipping.

“The Typewriter Revolution” includes lots of helpful tips on caring for a typewriter. But can you get typewriter parts and supplies these days? Or is it kind of a Mad Max-ish world where people are scrounging for every ribbon they can get?
It’s not that bad. What everyone asks about is ribbons, but they are easy to find. For the last chapter of the book, I interviewed professional typewriter ribbon maker, Charlene Oesch. Oesch [of Baco Ribbon] is a second generation ribbon maker. She has this equipment she inherited from her dad and she is the only one who knows how to use it. That sounds a little bit alarming but she is certainly not the only one [making ribbons] and I’m confident that people will figure out ways to make ribbons if the supply dries up.

Aside from that, parts for common machines are not that hard to find because the machines are common and you can find them on eBay and develop a stock of parts machines. Or you can find a typewriter repairperson or a fellow typewriter lover to give you a part. Of course, if it’s an unusual or imported machine you might have to hunt for a while.

Do you have any tips for someone looking to buy a typewriter in 2016?
“The Typewriter Revolution” has a chapter titled “Choose Your Weapon” which divides typewriters into four classes: Standard, Portable, Ultraportable, and Electric. I highlight several models that people typically enjoy using. I recommend lots of 1950s typewriters because at that point the technology was well developed, manufacturers were offering lots of features, and quality hadn’t started to go downhill as it did in the sixties and seventies. If I had to name just one American machine I would recommend the Smith-Corona Silent-Super. A lot of German machines are good. One that is a favorite is the Olympia SM9.

What should someone look for when testing out a typewriter?
Well, the condition of the platen—the rubber-covered roller—is one thing. The rubber will often harden with the years, or even crack or get deformed. Ideally you want to have a nice, smooth, and somewhat rubbery platen. And oftentimes type bars will stick at the printing point and there are various causes of that. Usually they can be fixed but if they don’t stick that is a sign that the typewriter is clean and has been well maintained. There are a lot of other things that can go wrong. For instance, there may be no carriage tension and it won’t advance as you type. Often the problem is that a draw band or pull cord has snapped and needs to be replaced.

Is anyone manufacturing new typewriters these days?
Yeah, there are lots of electronic typewriters out there. They are probably at your local Big Box office supply store. I know that Brother and Nakajima make them. There is also a small factory near Shanghai [Shanghai Weilv] that manufactures plastic-bodied manual typewriters. They are not very good but they are available.

What are some of the ways people are customizing their typewriters?
One thing you can do is to remove the body panels and paint various designs. You can also strip off the paint. I like doing that and revealing the bare metal. I have an Underwood [pictured above] where I stripped off the paint and put old-fashioned metal-ringed keys on it, as well as a 3D Underwood logo. Now it looks fantastic.

What’s the most creative use of a typewriter that you’ve heard of recently?
One of my favorite artists who uses typewriters is Tim Youd. I met him in Carmel, California, this summer where he was re-typing a novel by Richard Farina called “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.” Youd pays tribute to a novelist by typing the novel using the same model that the novelist used. He types using only two sheets of paper—one behind the other—and keeps re-using those two sheets. So pretty soon it’s just a black mass of ink on the top sheet and the ink starts to seep through to the backing sheet. He ends up with this “diptych” that represents all the labor that went into the particular words. He also likes to do the typing in public, in a place that is relevant to the novelist or the story. He is in the midst of a ten-year quest to re-type a hundred of his favorite novels. It’s kind of absurd, but he would admit that and say that the absurd is thought-provoking and I think it is.

Did you write “The Typewriter Revolution” on a typewriter?
In part, but it’s too complex and required too much online research and communication for it to be practical to do it all on a typewriter. But I did brainstorm a lot of the key philosophical ideas on typewriters. I thought that was important and helpful. That’s one of my favorite uses of typewriters; not to create a finished manuscript, but to brainstorm and see where it takes me.

How many typewriters do you own?
I’ve lost track exactly, but more than three-hundred. I’ve got them in my office at work, in my study at home, and in the attic, basement, and garage. And now I do typewriter repair as community service, so now some of those typewriters belong to other people or are parts machines for repair jobs.

Do you have a favorite machine?
If I had to pick my sentimental favorite it would be my Remington Noiseless Model Seven, because that was my first one. My dad bought it for me when I was twelve. But another one of my favorites is one I got just a few weeks ago. It’s a 1938 Adler Standard and I like it because it feels so good. It’s snappy and springy and precisely engineered.