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:


13 thoughts on “Lost Knowledge: Manual Typewriters

  1. Brad says:

    Funny there is a post about this now. I just picked up my 1923 Underwood last weekend. I haven’t thought about it for years, and haven’t used it for about ten years.

  2. ash says:

    its as if you knew i had just watched ‘naked lunch’

  3. Mike Clemens says:

    …just gone underground. Typers live on as typecasters, bringing a little analog love to the blogging arts (see http://www.strikethru.net) and anyone inclined to get back to a little distraction-free writing. Plus, their sound and shape and smell is wonderful and personal, compared to our sterile silent computers.

  4. Mig says:

    Hi, I have a suggestion for your lost technology column: neon lighting.

    It appears that the last school teaching this (how to make it, at least) has closed in the UK and it is no longer being produced here. There is VERY little web material out there. I recall an article in an old make (early 2007?) about a lady who served an apprenticeship and now has her own neon store. Maybe you could follow this up with some descriptions of how the technology works, where it is headed and how to go about getting into it.

    The technology seems to be being superceded by LED signage and, presumable OLED in the near future but nothing really compares to the glow of a well-made neon installation.

  5. Gareth Branwyn says:

    @ Mike
    Thanks for that Strikethru link. Cool blog. I’ll add it to the list of resources in the piece.

    That’s an excellent idea for a future column. I’ve added it to the brainstorm list (in my Maker’s Notebook :-)

  6. Mig says:

    @ Gareth

    Thanks, I think it is a technology combining several techniques that would be of interest to a wide range of makers.

    Glass forming, vacuuming out the air (maybe that has a proper name), electronics, pumping in the gas, CAD to design the way the tubes will form an image etc…

  7. Peter says:


    While in college, I repaired Teletypes. These were the pinnacle of over 50 years of largely unseen work, mostly by tendrils of “The Phone Company”, to efficiently move text over telephone wires. Incredible machines, which vanished suddenly as the confluence of digital logic, microprocessors and high speed modems created the dumb terminal, or “glass Teletype”.

    Imagine the task of converting a serial data stream to parallel, then decoding and printing the appropriate character…all mechanically!

    Old tech is fun stuff.

  8. The Oracle says:

    @Mike – Why exactly do you think a typewriter is analog? It is very much a digital device, you press a discrete key, get a discrete letter on the paper.

  9. dwdelong says:

    I was pleased to see your new column on the role lost knowledge can play in thinking about technologies of the future. I have always regretted not saving my manual Smith-Corona typewriter to show my children what real typing was.

    Readers interested in this subject of lost knowledge and technology might be interested in my work summarized in my book: “Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce.” More ideas at my website: http://www.LostKnowledge.com. Everyday now we are losing important knowledge about technologies, such as neon lighting, described in one post. These losses are sometimes just inconvenient or annoying, but they can also be extremely costly and dangerous.

    We need to become much more conscious of retaining knowledge in our increasingly technology driven society. As a researcher, I’m always looking for stories about the specific impacts that lost knowledge has on organizations and society. For example, what happens when we lose all knowledge about maintaining neon lights? Should we care? Is there a cost involved? Or is it just something of interest to historians and collectors? –David DeLong

  10. gentlymadgirl says:

    There was a fabulous place in San Francisco called The Typewritorium – I had my dad’s typewriter when I attended college (1980’s) that was a Regal he’d had in highschool (late 1950′). Worked like a dream with the black/red ribbon, but I was desolated when it broke while typing a paper needed the next day. They not only had the parts, but fixed it while I waited, and it didn’t truly die for another ten years.

    I just found this online:

    A2Z Business Systems is a full service office equipment dealership providing sales, service and supplies to San Francisco Bay Area businesses since 1895.

    Formerly known as the Typewritorium, A2Z Business Systems offers Multifunction copiers, scanners, fax machines, printers and other office equipment from the industry’s leading manufacturers such as Xerox, Panasonic, Hewlett Packard and Sharp.


    so they are still around!!

  11. Dave says:

    Lots of vintage technology can be found at the Vermont Country Store website, including a brand new Olivetti manual typewriter for $199 (http://www.vermontcountrystore.com/browse/Home/For-The-Home/Home-Furnishings/Home-Office/Olivetti-Manual-Typewriter/D/30103/P/1:100:1030:10320:101030/I/f09529?evar3=SEARCH)

  12. Anonymous says:

    I have a Smith-Corona “Clipper (‘Floating Shift’)” manual, portable
    [ca. late 1940’s/early1950’s?]; I’m unable to locate its serial
    It is operable, but seriously in need of cleaning and [possibly]
    repair. Do you, or can you, service this relic?

    (I will need an estimate for the work needed to be done.)

    If you believe you’re able to service this machine,
    what are your business days/hours?
    If not, please advise who could do this for me, where
    such a repair shop would be and any contact information.

    Thank you!

    Happy New Year!


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  13. David Hutton says:

    Great basic tips for caring typewriters. I’ve been restoring typewriters since 2013 and taught myself and have a professional to do the really difficult job of repairing the intricate parts such as the platen which I don’t have the patience to correct it myself. Check out my store at http://www.damerino.etsy.com I’ve got a collection of working typewriters that have been rescued from scrap yards.

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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.

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