Monday, August 29, 2011

Greetings from the Mighty Oliver 9

Our typewriters have personalities.

It may sound strange, but the typewriters inhabiting the main parts of our house carry on conversations with the family. The Adler J5 is somewhat timid and afraid of water after being cooped up in someone's basement for years. It was almost inconsolable during the east coast hurricane. The Royal Quiet Deluxe is pretty much pristine having apparently been stored in its case in a closet. It is happy to have fresh ribbons and is neurosis free.

However, we have one petulant rock star of a typewriter currently residing in the kitchen: the Oliver 9. If a typewriter could command swarms of robotic minions to take over the world, this would be the one. And who can blame the Oliver with its highly patented and brilliantly marketed pedigree?

Early typewriters are several steps beyond awesome due to a wave of innovation and radically varying design philosophies. This was the era of first patents and attempts to work around multiple patents. For a good sample of typewriter history, go here:

The first commercially successful typewriters, designed by Sholes and Gliddon and later marketed by the Remington Company in 1873, were an upstroke design where the operator could not see the words. This is the machine that brought typewriting to the office and later to the masses.

I won't repeat the entire history of the Oliver Typewriter Company as it is lovingly detailed on Wikipedia. Their production run in the US lasted from 1896-1928. The fundamental design is a novel means to allow the typist to see their work in real time. This lead to a rather extreme and entertaining rendition of a downstrike design.

According to the Typewriter Database our Oliver was manufactured between 1915 and 1919. My best guess is 1915-16 given the lower end serial number. Someone has a very special birthday coming up.

I spotted the Oliver in a display case at a local antique mall where it sat unloved for almost a year. The first thing I noticed was the distinctive typebars. Arched on either side of the platen, this downstrike design delivers tremendous force. I had not owned a typewriter since college. Frankly, typing was my nemesis in the pre word processor era. I used to pay someone to type my term papers.

But this was one cool machine. I happened to visit the day the booth owner was cleaning up and he cut me a deal. A half can of brake cleaner, selective oiling and a fresh platen return cable later it types almost as good as new.

The act of typing with this machine is just darned cool for a tech junkie. I get to watch the mechanism at work and it types definitively. The key feel is surprisingly light for such a substantial piece of metal. The base is cast iron with conveniently located wings that the make lifting and moving a possibility; albeit a potentially hernia inducing one.

There are other distinctive features in this almost 100 year old machine. It has a three row keyboard with a full front/back platen shift mechanism – shift back for caps or forward for special keys. Our machine features an Oliver designed font known as “Printype”; an innovation meant to emulate the look and feel of contemporary books. Given inherent adjustment issues with the type bars, our Oliver produces a very organic and imperfect rendition of book text. However, we have never been able to jam keys as with more traditional designs.

One other prominent feature: other than the platen cover, keys and a couple of lever covers, this beast is made of solid metal.

The typewriter mechanisms relegated to the thrift shops of the world in the 1980s with the advent of personal computers settled on similar design principles with four rows of keys, easy tabulation and basket shift. While they may all look similar, they came in a range of build quality and precision. I just gave up trying to fix a cheapish 1960s ROYAL portable. A 1959 Olympia SF, however, is a finely honed piece of precision machinery that is a joy to work on. The Oliver isn't a precise device, but it is bombproof and gets better the more it is used.

I am constantly amazed at how well manual typewriters continue to work after years of neglect. As long as there are fresh ribbons, the best will still be running 100 years from now. I'm confident a remnant Nerd subculture will continue to appreciate the era of all metal machines.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The First Post (Overcoming Writer's Block)

Welcome to my blog! After several weeks of options paralysis, I decided it was time to write something.

This blog is dedicated to vintage technology. Yes, that is a broad subject area. I should narrow it down to one topic and write about it obsessively, but like a moth to flame I am attracted to a wide array of interesting bits of technology. After all, I have over 100 years worth of post Industrial Revolution objects to play with.

Since I was a kid, I've enjoyed taking things apart to see how stuff works. Now, between the Internet and a flood of old stuff leaving garages and basements, I can easily research and learn about my obsession of the week for no other reason than desire, and perhaps a bit of OCD. I grew up in the space race era and witnessed the transition from vacuum tubes to transistors to microprocessors first hand. As a photographer, I've shot with manual and auto focus film cameras and several generations of digital compacts and SLRs. Now I combine bits of both – but that is a different story.

In many ways, we are in a golden era of technology. Moore's law is evident in our daily lives with cameras on an 18 month product cycle and computing technology moving faster than most of us can keep up with.

There is another side of the golden era if, like me, you happen to enjoy old machines. In the last month, I've rescued a 1960s typewriter (Adler J5) and a 1973 pocket calculator (Sperry Remington 663) - each for $0.50. I also put together a circa 1978 gaming system (Sony Trinitron portable TV and Atari 2600) for all of $15.00.

The Adler is cleaned, lubed and no longer smells like someone's basement. It currently resides in our kitchen where it carries on a lively discussion with the kids. The mighty, four function 663 resides next to my laptop. It's bigger than my backup hard drive, but the display amuses me as it uses the same VFD technology as the instrument panel in my 2010 Prius and the keys have a really nice feel. As for the video gaming system, I'm still trying to decide whether retro gaming is all that. Maybe I will port the Atari to our LCD TV.

So what can you expect to see on this blog? My current obsessions include: programmable and toy robots, giant Japanese robots of the 1970s, manual typewriters, the maker movement, cameras and photography, Nixie tube devices, old books about technology, instruction manuals and catalogs and advertising featuring the stuff I love. And yes, there is a fair share of not-so-special tech bits that get repurposed into junk bots. Some are static and some have been wired with recovered electronics where possible.

Thanks for joining me. I'll post research and resource links as I go along. I just discovered the joys of the Typosphere and will most likely typecast some of my entries.

Next entry teaser photograph: