By David Michael Newstead.
I was eager to restore my grandfather’s typewriter. To start, I researched the company and the product as much as I could, but something told me I should seek out expert advice while such experts were still around. When I called one repairman though, I found myself struggling to explain the typewriter’s condition with the technical vocabulary for a device that had essentially fallen out of use. The man used terms like upright, portable, bracket, and ribbon, which surely referred to something specific that I couldn’t pretend to understand just yet. Later when I went by his workshop, I found a basement filled floor-to-ceiling with old typewriters as he explained how he has to cannibalize parts from one machine to repair others since replacements are no longer being manufactured.
Interestingly, the repairman was an elderly African-American gentleman who said he had worked for the NSA for 30 years, repairing typewriters just as he continues to do in retirement.
We talked for a bit and I tried to say something clever like, “You know, the NSA might be better off if they still used typewriters.”
Then, he said he’d take a look at my machine and get back to me. Weeks passed though and when he finally returned the device, he said there wasn’t much he could do. There were no replacements for that model.
“All the parts are there. It’s just gummed up a little,” he told me, whatever that meant.
I felt discouraged at the time that nothing could be done or done easily, I guess. And a few months would go by before I knew how to proceed. The internet didn’t have much information, which was frustrating. There weren’t a lot of people I could ask. And it’s not as if typewriters are a common thing you pass in the street. In the meantime, I moved apartments again, dutifully carrying my typewriter with me as I had done for the last few years. I mean, I was still interested in restoring it, but how? That was the big question.
Before I consulted another expert, I eventually came up with a new plan. With expert help, I’d be able to identify exactly what needed to be replaced and how and then I’d find a 3-D printer to make the part to specifications! I don’t even know much about 3-D printing, but it seemed like a good idea.
The trouble was, the few typewriter experts that are alive today are a very small group of eccentric old guys. And the knowledge that they possess on this subject also makes talking to them about something like 3-D printing almost comically impossible. So much so that the second repairman I met was a former restaurant owner who said his daughter often tells him that he needs to “get out of the Stone Age.” A self-described Afghan Hippie, he had moved to the U.S. in the early 1970s and got into typewriter school to help mitigate student visa problems. Yet, years later, he had a clear enthusiasm for his profession and a familiarity that could address any of the random questions I asked as he walked me through the particulars about my machine.
“I love these things,” he told me and I believe him.
Still, after taking everything apart and putting it back together again, we ran into the same problem as before. Lack of replacement parts. I needed a new “escapement bracket” for a typewriter model that hasn’t been in production since the mid-1960s. He couldn’t find one and neither could anybody he called. In futility, I tried to solve everything by talking about the wonders of 3-D printing, but I could see that none of my points were really connecting. It turns out that this generation gap was wide and impassible. No matter how much I tried, he didn’t understand. And once again, I’d hit a roadblock.
Later, when I stopped to think about it more, I realized that in a few short years no one will be left who has had any real experience with typewriters – either repairing them or writing with them and everything in between. This isn’t a tragedy exactly and one day the same thing might happen to all the devices I use now. Perhaps if I wasn’t compelled for personal reasons, I wouldn’t care either way. But it’s strange to think that something that was once universally in use is now all but forgotten.
My quest continues.