Lost Knowledge: Manual Typewriters

Craft & Design Technology
Lost Knowledge: Manual Typewriters

Lost Knowledge explores the possible technologies of the future in the forgotten (or marginalized) tech of the past. We look at retro-tech, “lost” technologies, and the make-do, improvised “street tech” of village artisans and tradespeople from around the globe. “Lost Knowledge” was also the theme of Make:, Volume 17

Typewriters are enjoying something of a resurgence these days. They have obvious antique/collectors appeal, they’re amazingly cool machines (as the photos below will attest), and in these increasingly cash-tight times, a manual typewriter needs no electricity, requires no subscription fees, is cheap and easy to operate, and doesn’t come with its own bundle of time-sucking distractions, like the PC I’m typing this on (while fielding IMs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook updates).

To get started on repairing a manual, or if you want to start shopping for one, the place to begin is the Classic Typewriter Page.

From their “Typewriter Parts” page:


From their “Brief History of Typewriters” page:


The effort to create a visible rather than “blind” machine led to many ingenious ways of getting the typebars to the platen. Examples of early visible writers include the Williams and the Oliver. The Daugherty Visible of 1891 was the first frontstroke typewriter to go into production: the typebars rest below the platen and hit the front of it. With the Underwood of 1895, this style of typewriter began to gain ascendancy. By the 1920s, virtually all typewriters were “look-alikes”: frontstroke, QWERTY, typebar machines printing through a ribbon, using one shift key and four banks of keys. The most popular model of early Underwoods, the #5, is still to be found everywhere.

From their “Typewriter Spotlight” gallery


American index typewriter No. 2
The American is a charming and attractive index typewriter (a writing machine in which the action of selecting a letter is separate from the action of printing that letter). Index typewriters were popular alternatives to keyboard typewriters in the 19th century, as you can understand when you compare prices: a Remington cost $100, an American index $5.

Two models of the American are known; on the #1, the index plate is slightly smaller and does not curve around as far as on the #2. The American was patented in 1893 and was marketed as late as 1912. It contains only 35 parts and prints from a strip of rubber type. In England it was sold as the Globe — and on the continent as the Champignon!


Franklin The Franklin is a delightful typewriter that is always a favorite with collectors — its curvy lines are irresistible. This handsome machine was invented by Wellington P. Kidder and patented in 1891. Kidder went on to invent the popular Wellington (patented 1892), a thrust-action machine. Later, Kidder developed the thrust-action principle by contributing to the Noiseless and inventing a small thrust-action portable, the Rochester, in 1923.

The Franklin is a downstroke-from-the-front machine with a curved keyboard. At least three British typewriters, the Salter, English and Imperial, have similar designs. This configuration offered visible writing (at least to a typist who craned her neck forward). Many nineteenth-century typewriter designers viewed the curved keyboard as ergonomically superior to the straight.

Most typebar typewriters use complicated series of linkages to join the key to the typebar. But the Franklin is amazingly simple: each key is on a lever whose geared teeth mesh directly with those of a typebar. Remington portables of the 1920s and 1930s use a similar mechanism, made only slightly more complex through adaptation to a straight keyboard and a frontstroke mechanism.

From their “Basic Typewriter Restoration” page:

These are happy hours for me, as I get to discover the various parts and features of my new typewriter and I start to uncover the beauty hidden under the filth. The paint on your typewriter may appear cracked and dull, but chances are that you are looking at a century’s worth of tightly compacted dirt, ink, sweat, and cigarette smoke. (My Caligraph’s surface looked like lizard skin when I first found it.) If you can manage to remove that layer of crud, you may find that the underlying paint job is still smooth and can be made to gleam. If you’re unlucky, the crud will turn out to be a layer of varnish applied at the factory, which has grown wrinkly and brown with age; that can be very hard to remove. Of course, if you’re lucky enough to find a typewriter that has been kept in a case, this won’t be an issue — it will just need a little loving care. In any case, you’ll find the following items useful:

  • Soft, clean, white cotton rags. You’ll go through a lot of these. The gentlest approach (recommended at first) is to wipe the typewriter with a wet rag, or a rag dipped in water with a few drops of dishwashing liquid.
  • Brushes: you can try toothbrushes, nail brushes, brushes for cleaning firearms or dentures, and artist’s paintbrushes.
  • Dental picks are used by several hobbyists as a means of reaching and manipulating interior areas.
  • Q-tips are nice for cleaning hard-to-reach areas.
  • Instead of using Q-Tips, you can also roll your own swabs using wooden applicator sticks (6″ long x 1/16″ diameter) and cotton batting. Bamboo skewers work just as well, and they last for days/weeks. One roll of cotton batting will yield about a million swabs. As soon as a swab is dirty, you pull it off and replace it. The most important thing is to use damp–not wet–swabs. You can achieve this by rolling a wet swab on a piece of blotting paper. By doing this, you avoid flooding the surface, and water won’t seep into all the wrong places.
  • For initial dust removal, the vacuum-cleaner hose attachment kits sold in computer and computer supply stores and catalogs work very well. They are especially helpful in cleaning mechanical parts. One such kit is the Mini Vacuum Cleaner Set sold by Miles Kimball, 41 W. 8th Ave., Oskosh, WI 54906, tel. (414)-231-4886. It’s item # 55704 and costs $ 9.98 + $ 2.99 shipping.
  • For more precise blasts of compressed air, buy a canister intended for cleaning electronic equipment (these are available at most office supply stores).
  • You can also just take your dusty old typewriter down to the gas station, and take advantage of their compressed air. (Probably not a great idea for rare typewriters.)

From their list of “Typewriter Repair Shops”

Their lengthy list of “Typewriter Repair Shops” includes the video of U.S. Office Machines, the three-generation LA repair shop we blogged about last year:


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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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