Tim’s Museum of Obsolete Tech – 2

Underwood Manual Office Typewriter

Moves and unstable employment, some years ago, left me with few toys, but I started to make up for that once I had a nice apartment and steady work. When I saw an old typewriter being given away, I seized the opportunity to acquire a photo prop for promoting my new editing business.

Floppy disks, even in the rigid-cased 3 1/2 inch format, are long gone,* but we still use their image as a icon for saving files. Similarly, while fountain pens and typewriters are no longer the tool of choice for writers, many writing organizations and contests use pictures of fountain pens or typewriters to promote themselves. A picture of a laptop is vague – it could mean anything – while a picture of typewriter says ‘writing.’

Although the goal was photo prop, I hoped the machine was functional, and it was. It just needed a little cleaning and a new ribbon (yes, you can still buy them). The end-of-line warning bell does not always work, and some keys stick, but I’m too slow a typist for these to be concerns.

I’m too used to electronic composing to consider writing a book, story, or even a poem on a typewriter, but using a typewriter to prepare a card or letter, or a poem for distribution, elevates the printed text into a craft item. Then there are the people who produce visual art with typewriters, but I know my limits.

Underwood started out as a company producing carbon paper and ribbons for Remington typewriters. When Remington starting making their own ribbons, Underwood started making typewriters. Between about 1900 and 1920, Underwood was the largest typewriter company in the world, but their star faded. Olivetti, an Italian typewriter company founded in 1908, bought a controlling interest in 1959 and by 1963 the company was Olivetti-Underwood.

My typewriter is hard to identify. The front label says Underwood Standard, but I cannot locate any information about this model. It resembles a TouchMaster Five. The back label says Olivetti-Underwood. This would make it no older than the early 1960s. The back label also notes that this typewriter was made in Don Mills, a suburb of Toronto, in Canada. The Underwood Standard may have been a Canadian model.

The machine weighs a little over 30 pounds (not including paper), and is large. It’s tall, and has a 14″ carriage. Surprisingly, at least to me, the typing action is smooth and requires only a light touch. I assume that for an office manual typewriter, as opposed to a portable, size and weight are of minimal concern. This allows mechanical components to be added and laid out ideally for long and comfortable use.

This video demonstrates a TouchMaster Five, and some of its interesting features. In addition to the popup front panel and sliding doors on top, there are access hatches on the sides. This model has a 12 inch carriage, but otherwise is the same as mine.

When this typewriter was made, manual typewriters were a mature technology, and the machines lasted. Electric typewriters were already decades old, but the introduction of the IBM Selectric in 1961 meant any office considering a new machine had the option of an electric that was fast, quiet, jam free, could use multiple typefaces, and took up less desk space (as the carriage did not travel). The market for office manuals shrank and the manufactures focused on smaller machines. I believe this was the last of the Underwood typewriters, and among the last of the full-size office manuals. The name returned briefly in the 1980s for typewriters made by Olivetti.

*I no longer use floppy disks, but my box of computer goodies includes a 3 1/2 inch floppy drive that connects to a USB port, and I have used it a few times to retrieve material for friends.

Categorized as Writing

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

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