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Erika and Sterling

December 28, 2021 am31 1:12 am

New technology is cool for kids. Even when it’s not new.

Just before the pandemic I found myself reading about old machines: typewriters.

I used them when I was a kid. Mostly electric, occasionally a manual. I took a typing class in 9th grade.

Over the last few years, on my travels, I noticed that many historical or technical museums in other countries included them in exhibits – either as examples of technology (saw one like that in Quito) or as the possession of a famous man (saw one like that in Beograd).

Before that I admired how Ed Darrell included typewriters of historical figures and authors in his blog, Timpanogos (aka Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub).

Not that many years ago a huge hit film had a typewriter as a major plot element. In fact, several typewriters show up in Das Leben der Anderen (Other People’s Lives), but it is a very slim Groma Kolibri (hummingbird) that is carefully stored under loose floorboards. By the way, the closing line of the closing scene is tremendous. Wiesler opens the book on display, and sees it is dedicated to him (or rather, his code name, which is no longer secret), and takes it to the clerk. “Shall I gift wrap it?” “Nein, das ist für mich” provides a layer of truth for the clerk (Wiesler is going to keep the copy) and a much deeper layer for Wiesler himself (this work of art is for him). Perfectly underplayed, over a score that adds, never detracts, from the film. Fifteen years later, and it holds up beautifully.

Back to typewriters. I dug a little. There were a handful of US manufacturers who dominated the market. Smith Corona. Royal. Underwood. Remington. A coworker’s wife collects Royals (originally from Brooklyn). These are easy to find. But I dug further. There are some great European typewriter manufacturers. Hermes – Swiss, finely machined. Olympia – German, solid. Olivetti – Italian, beautifully balanced and light. And some of the best engineering went into the portables.

And I thought of Das Leben der Anderen and read about the Groma. Turns out, the quality of this East German machine was quite high. Digging deeper, Olympia wasn’t really Olympia – it was a new West German company that took over the name. The original, rebranded Optima, continued to be produced in the DDR. And then I happened on it – Erika. A typewriter called Erika. The company has a name, Seidel & Naumann but they left it unobtrusive. Erika was the name of the typewriter. After the war the name of the company was eventually changed, more than once, but the typewriter remained Erika. Precision. Quality. Beauty. And I bought one. From 1958. Here:

The package arrived when I was out, and the postman left it at the post office instead of my apartment, which is how I ended up with it in my car, and brought it into work. Also, the case needs a new handle, so I was going to bring it with me to someone I would visit in a few days who might be able to make the handle. So I brought it into work, planning to leave it there a few days.

I showed colleagues, showing it off (it’s tempting to say “her” since the name is feminine, but it is, after all, a machine). Some kids saw, and were curious. I encouraged them to try it. It was so funny! They were hesitant. They didn’t know how to load paper, or advance a line, or bring the carriage to the start of a line. Typing was slow. For a few days a trickle of kids touched their first typewriter keys. A junior came to me, announcing it did not work. It turns out there is a difference between pressing a key and striking a key, which is not intuitive, but is easy to explain.

I put up a sign, announcing that there would be no charge if a student created a haiku or other verse. Of course there would be no charge in any case, but the sign had an instant effect, and I began to find haikus on pages left on the roller. Different kids were typing on the same sheet. The traffic got, not heavy, but consistent. I started posting some of their work on the office door.

And then the day arrived when I was taking the typewriter away, and I felt a little bad.

So here’s what I did. I went to a facebook typewriter collector’s and sellers group, told them my story, said no way was I leaving my gorgeous Erika in school, but did anyone have a more downmarket American typewriter. And I got a few responses, one was just across the GW, and I picked up a Smith Corona Sterling. The Sterling is simple, not elegant. But for the kids it is magical new percussive technology. I put up new rules:

Every day I find things that students type. I often enter the office to a clickety-clack, and smile. Most students work alone. Often I find them with a partner. Some like a fuller audience. It’s mostly seniors – they know me. But one lunch I was at my desk and heard a rustle, and I saw the tip of a head disappearing behind the door-frame. It was a freshmen, who wanted to know if she could try it. I don’t think she did.

Over time the rhythms seem to be getting steadier. One senior has written letters to friends and family. Each letter, I have noticed, eats up exactly one page. One day I found a few paragraphs, explaining why the author’s choice of best quote in Lear was better than the teacher’s choice. Sometimes there are brief philosophical tracts – navel-gazing with short attention spans. But mostly, there are haikus.

I have also recovered three sketches of students typing. I think I’ll keep the Smith Corona in the office for a while.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 29, 2021 am31 1:55 am 1:55 am

    My wife gifted me a Underwood 1970 student model typewriter last year. I took typing in high school 1966-69 for two years, so when computers came around, I was already a streak on the keyboard. I use it some, but not as much as I should. It’s too easy to use the laptop. But, this year, I pledge to use my Underwood more by sending letters to grandchildren and what friends that are left alive. Nice post. I didn’t know about the east German connection.

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