Tim’s Museum of Obsolete Tech 5

Olympia Regina Deluxe Manual Typewriter

Photo of front of typewriter and mug for scale. Top of mug is same height as top row of keys, and top of typewriter is about an inch higher.

It’s not often I try something and think “I never knew it could be like this.” It’s even less often I can share that discovery, but this typewriter gave me that feeling and I’m here to share it.

How to say “I never knew it could be like this.”

Olympia, a German company, was late to the typewriter game. The German industrial giant AEG started making typewriters in 1903, but didn’t have much sales success until 1921. By the 1930s, they were using the brand name Olympia, after a popular model. The Olympia factory was in Erfut, and after the Second World War it came under Soviet management as part of East Germany. Some of the plant workers fled to the west. They set up a new company called Bielefelder Typewriter Works, and later Orbis Typewriter Works. In 1949, the International Court of Justice ruled the West German company had the right to the Olympia name. After that, the East German company used the brand name Optima.

Photo of typewriter case. It is square, and covered with black leather.
The case makes a great rigid carryon bag.

From the late 1940s through the 1970s, Olympia made and sold typewriters in three lines:

  • SG – Schreibmaschine Groß (large, suitable for offices)
  • SM – Schreibmaschine Mittelgroß (medium, portables for office or home)
  • SF – Schreibmaschine Flach (compact, [literally – flat] portables)

Electric typewriters had an E appended to the model designation. In the mid-1980s, I owned a former typing class SGE-30, a wonderful machine that I had to abandon when I moved cross-country, due to its massive size and weight.

The SM series are the sweet spot for writers – full featured but compact. Purists debate which SM model is the best, and suggest the quality declined in the 1970s with the last model in the series, SM-9.

Photo looking down on a typewriter from above.
The orange dot on the space bar is a decorative element. The non-character keys on the sides, such as backspace and margin release, are slightly higher than the character keys.

During the 1970s, Olympia began using various model names, sometimes in deluxe and regular versions. Deluxe might add features such as tabs and multi-coloured ribbons. Like other office machine companies, Olympia outsourced manufacturing to other countries and suffered competition from electronic calculators and then computers. Like other companies, they started making electronic typewriters.

My first encounter with Olympia was in 1982. A library I worked at had a Commodore 8032 computer, plugged into an Olympia office electronic typewriter for printing. The daisywheel element (interchangeable for different typefaces and fonts), printing on plain paper, gave much better results than the then-common dot-matrix printers on fanfold paper, though at a much higher cost.

Note the holes in plastic guides, for drawing lines on the paper.

In theory, the IBM Selectric could have worked as a computer printer, but the Selectric did not use ASCII code, commonly used for computer printing at the time. Selectrics had their own unique code. This was odd, given that IBM was also making computer printers. One of the Selectric designers calls the inability of Selectrics to use ASCII code “one of the biggest professional failures of my life,” though the circumstances sound more like a management failure. Third parties, including Wang Computers, created adapters to modify Selectrics for computer printing, but Selectrics could not print more than 15 characters per second, while daisy-wheel devices could print 2 to 3 times faster.

Again like other office machine companies, poor corporate management kept Olympia from succeeding in new products such as computer printers. AEG had financial problems unrelated to Olympia. Daimler-Benz bought AEG in 1985, and the people at the top of this transportation and technology giant had little interest in a struggling typewriter division. Olympia closed all facilities in 1992, and sold the name to a distributor of office and household electronics. (A couple of typewriters are available, under the banner “still not completely out of date”).

Photo of instruction manual pages for typewriter.

The serial number of my typewriter dates it from around 1981 or 1982. It could be a descendent of the SM-9, but the lineage is unclear. By this time, Olympia was making typewriters in West Germany and other locations, but also buying and rebranding typewriters from other manufacturers – including Optima. The former Olympia/Optima plant in East Germany had become part of the electronics conglomerate VEB Kombinat Robotron. Robotron sold typewriters under many brand names. Robotron also made or sold computer and printer products for Epson and Commodore (researching typewriter lineages repeatedly illustrates that it is a small world).

Photo showing Made in GDR label on the back of the typewriter.

My Regina Deluxe is labelled Made in GDR (East Germany), so it was probably built by Robotron. It may owe more to the Robotron Erika series than the Olympia SM series, though they have a shared pre-war ancestor.

Regardless of where it was made or who made it, this machine is a delight. Though a portable, which fits securely into its carrying case and includes a carriage lock, full-size features include tabs and a space bar that can do a half-space, a full space, or a repeating space, depending how you press it. The ribbon selector, in addition to the red, black, and stencil positions, includes a setting for the middle of the ribbon. If you are using an all black ribbon, you would normally use first the black setting for one half of the ribbon, then the red setting for the other half of the ribbon. The middle setting allows you to use the normally unused area in the middle of ribbon, to get the maximum usage from the ribbon.

Photo of the cover of the instruction manual.

My Speedwriter portable has 42 keys, allowing 84 characters, while this portable has 44 keys, allowing 88 characters. There’s no fiddling or cheating to create ! + = or 1. The clear plastic alignment guide includes holes that can be used to draw vertical or horizontal lines on the paper (by moving the roller up or down, or from side to side).

The shift moves the basket (the set of typebars), not the carriage, making it lighter and easier to use. The print quality is good, though in part that reflects the relative youth of this typewriter.

Letter set of the Olympia Regina Deluxe.
Letter sets of the SCM Secretarial 250 and the Underwood Office Standard.

Finally, the typing action is, to me, incredible. On my Underwood, and even more obviously on my Speedwriter, when you press a key, it moves towards you as it goes down, due to the lever mechanism of the key. The mechanism on the Olympia allows the key to go straight down (similar to an electric or electronic keyboard). The movement is smooth, soft, and even. On the Speedwriter, you feel the impact of the typebar hitting the roller on your fingers. On the Olympia, although the keys reach a soft bottom, you don’t feel the typebar hit the roller.

The all plastic case probably makes this less machine less durable than earlier steel-cased typewriters, but on the other hand it saves weight. And I like the angular design. Of my five typewriters, this is my favourite. It’s an ideal combination of size, features, and ease of use. If your only experience of manual typewriters is 1950s office machines or the cheap portables of later decades, trying a high quality machine from the 1980s is a happy reminder of what careful design and precision manufacturing can accomplish.

Photo of typewriter mechanicals from the bottom.
The row of little metal tabs along bottom are the tab stops, in unset position. Setting a tab moves the appropriate tab up, ready to stop the carriage at the right position when the tab key is pressed. The round spring moves the carriage after each keystroke, and the bell indicates nearing the margin. The large holes in the feet secure the typewriter to the base used in the carrying case. The base also screws on, through the two holes between the feet.

PS. For a couple more days, my romance novel Ocean’s Lure is available as an eBook for just 99 cents. https://somewhatgrumpypress.com/oceans-lure-covell/

Published
Categorized as Writing

By trc

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

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