My great aunt gave me an Underwood Standard Typewriter made in the late 1930’s. It’s a great big hunk of metal that weighs almost 60lbs. But it got me curious about the inner workings of the machine that ran the world before the computer. Popping off the cover, I examined all the intricate inner workings of this desktop document creating behemoth and found what you’d expect from something that has been in a basement for longer than I’ve been alive. I wanted to see if I could breathe new life into this old machine, but I realized quickly that I was out of my depth and almost resigned the ancient Underwood to the life of a simple bookshelf ornament. That is, until I walked down 4th and Bainbridge.
Enter Bryan Kravitz of Philly Typewriter Repair. His little window display by the 4th Street Delicatessen referred me to his website. We got to emailing and, like Dr. Frankenstein, he brought back to life my once dead Underwood Standard. Now it types like the day it moved off the manufacturing line and I have a whole new way to experience writing. Will I be writing all my Geekadelphia articles on this machine? Probably not. But for notes, letters, and the occasional craft, it works well!
Bryan was kind enough to chat at some length about his life of repairing typewriters and the history of these fascinating machines. He not only repairs old typewriters, but sells restored and refurbished ones as well.
When did you get into repairing typewriters?
I began working on typewriters in 1975. At the time I was fascinated when working with the bindery equipment used to at a direct mail company. I would take 10,000 and up sheets of paper fresh off of a printing press then fold and insert a number of pages into an envelope, seal it and then apply the address with mechanical equipment that would place the address onto the envelop with transfer fluid. Next step is sorting, bundling, sacking and working with postal regulations then take it to the post office. One day I was working on a project for a local college and a professor came in to finalize the job before I sent it to the post office. He watched me running the machines and then handed me a brochure for a local trade school and mentioned that I may want to visit the typewriter repair class. I went there and met the teacher who was a poetic mechanic who made the mechanical terms come alive. I was hooked and within a month I took a couple of classes and soon talked myself into a typewriter repair shop. I happen to have a wonderful experience there because the owner would come in after he spent his day in the field and pointed out where I got stuck, three or four machines at a time. I went through about 18 months of training knew enough to be out in the field on a daily basis. I was getting paid for something I have a passion for which continues to this day.
What is the history of the typewriter?
Starting in about 1880 the typewriter quickly became a fundamental part of our cultural, social, commercial and industrial world. It was instrumental to emancipation of women, opening up a whole new field for female employment; it placed the means of communication in the hands of people, uncensored by political doctrine or regime; it allows writers to write as quickly as they thought. These machines created a clean, universal format, allowing for the immediate and modern presentation and dissemination of thought in a way that handwriting never could. It truly was a revolution.
How many typewriters do you have at home? Which ones?
I now have about 30 machines around and people bring me more all of the time. There is quite a bit of interest in them at this time. My collection has many that are manual and electric portables in cases. They date from the 1920’s till the late 1970’s. I have a few that are collectors’ machines but most of them are for people who know that it’s better to use a typewriter rather than a computer when writing original drafts. The oldest machine I have is from 1890 that you can’t see what is being typed.
Do you still use typewriters yourself?
I like to send out greeting cards with typewritten notes on them. What really gets people’s attention is when an address on an envelope that is typed out. A friend getting married asked for a typewriter as a wedding gift. He had it set up as the guest book at the reception. Wedding coordinated style notepaper was supplied and each person typed a personal greeting to the newlyweds. It was a big hit that they will cherish forever.
You mentioned that there is a resurgence in the use of typewriters. Why do you think that is?
The use of old technologies is criticized for being anachronistic and pretentious, but people from politicians to artists are acknowledging the benefits of older technological instruments such as typewriters. The typewriter offers a distraction free method to get ideas from our minds onto paper. We live in a world that promotes distractions and I’m not sure how we get anything done.
You told me an interesting story about spies!
Recent headlines read: “Germany ‘may revert to typewriters’ to counter hi-tech espionage” Germany’s head of NSA inquiry, Patrick Sensburg claims communications technology mistrusted in wake of US spying allegations. Sensburg announced that Germany’s government officials might start using typewriters, as they are seen as being an “unhackable” technology.
Do you think there was a golden age of typewriter engineering?
Once Underwood figured out the best and most logical mechanism in about 1904 (the typist could see what they were typing while sitting comfortably on a chair), the engineers had a field day making all kinds of improvements. It was not until after World War II things started to become cheaper, more streamlined and colorful paint jobs (like the cars) that offered more features for features sake and less forward thinking of mechanical engineering.
To look at typewriters from the past we can make the connection to the present technology?
The best example is the IBM Selectric. It was the first machine to have an enclosed carrier and print mechanism that printed onto a stationary rubber roller. It laid the groundwork for engineers to design many of printers that we use today.
If someone were looking for a typewriter, what model would you recommend?
I suggest a good portable typewriter. Smith-Corona made nearly the same machine from the early 1950’s until their demise in the late 1970’s. Royal made very good machines although the models kept changing, the quality was there. Olivetti, Hermes and Olympia made some great machines but they are a little harder to find at a reasonable price.
What were some of the most unique or interesting machines you’ve worked on?
I recently cleaned up an Olivetti Valentine which was made in the late 1960’s and is so so sexy. This beautiful lipstick red machine looks like it’s going jump up and give you a kiss! At the other end of the scale, I found a 1890 Caligtaph 2 in somewhat rough shape but worthy of my time and attention. It’s easy to see how the early typewriters borrowed technology from the six shooter revolver pistol and used it as cylinder of typebars in a basket and typed against the bottom of a rubber cylinder (Remington made guns for the Civil War then in the 1880’s found use of the same factories to make typewriters). The machine has two full keyboards: one for the upper and one for the lower case. It’s a real collector’s item.
What sort of services do you offer at Philly Typewriter Repair?
I get phone calls on a daily basis from people who want to get their father’s, grandfather’s or great-grandfather’s machine back into shape. Most of the time they have been neglected and with a good cleaning, oiling, some adjustments and a new ribbon, they sometimes work as good as the day they were last used some 50 plus years ago.
Besides repairs there are a good number of machines that people no longer want but have a good amount of life still in them. I get them in as good a condition as possible and sometimes paint them in beautiful colors with modern automotive type paint and make them available.
I sometimes get calls from people asking me to walk them through repairs they are wanting to make themselves. I give them all of the information I can but they usually end up bringing me the machine to work on. I give people a lot of credit who want to attempt to dive into repairing one of these sweet machines.
The typewriters are located at MaMa (Moving Arts of Mt Airy) two blocks off Lincoln Drive at 6819 Greene Street at the corner of Carpenter Lane in Mt. Airy. I will always be at this location for typewriter repair services and to answer questions on every Tuesday between 2 pm and 6 pm and some part of the weekend during the holidays. There are also are typewriters on display at 703 South 4th St. in South Philly.
Who is using typewriters?
Writers, artists, pre-school kids, as wedding guest books, traditional collectors,
hipsters/young urban-living types, Baby Boomers/nostalgia and those with a political interest in privacy.
There are those who have difficulty producing legible handwriting such as the elderly. People with motor skills issues that suffer with intellectual and developmental disabilities: autism, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, arthritis, traumatic brain injury and stroke victims. People who suffer with carpal tunnel syndrome can use typewriters as part of an exercise program.
Typewriter vs computers?
While we certainly appreciate the speed and technological ease that computers offer, we just couldn’t let go of our portable typewriter with the soothing clickety-clack of its keys and workhorse reliability that never crashes, succumbs to viruses, or quits during a power outage. All persons past the age of discretion should consider the always-reliable manual typewriter. It moves at a pace that allows ample time to compose your thoughts, and we think it brings back a certain romance to composing letters or drafting your first novel. Typewriters solve a big problem for writers or anyone on computer: distraction… no internet, no games and no email.
For more information, go to my website: PhillyTypewriterRepair.com or call me at (267) 992-3230.