Saturday, March 01, 2008

A Royal Fair Trade

I picked up the typewriter you see here, an Olivetti, from Matt McCormack at Ace Typewriter the other day.

It was part of a spur-of-the-moment trade that took all of two minutes to negotiate. Matt and I are easy.

I proposed a two-for-one deal. I would give Matt a black, crinkle-finished, Depression-era Royal portable in pristine condition along with a gray Remington Model 5 portable. In exchange I would get the Olivetti, a Linea 88, which I admired for its lyrical bulk and Italian pedigree.

Matt rejected the Remington saying that it would only end up in his basement, a kind of typewriter bone yard. He has never liked Remington 5s. The escapements go bad, he said, usually because of chipped teeth. I won’t go into the significance of chipped teeth along a typewriter's escapement bar except to say that letters, to say nothing of words, do not follow in orderly fashion when escapement mechanisms fail.

As it turned out, the Remington 5 I was offering for trade was just fine. Matt still didn’t want it. But, never mind, he offered a simple straight trade — the Royal for the Olivetti.

So what did I get in this Olivetti?

As you can see, it’s a standard, not a portable, but because much of it is plastic, it’s remarkably light. It has a clean Italian crispness to its design. Olivetti got that down cold, witness its Lettera machines, universally hailed for their simple elegance.

What Olivetti didn’t get was ergonomics — ever. You have to attack, nay, pounce on, the keys to produce even the most mundane phrase. The pinkie stretch to the shift key is at human anatomical limits, and returning the carriage requires the heft I reserve for the weight machines at the community center.

But I’m not complaining. The typeface is a modified Courier with a Euro-design edge to it. I can’t quite place it, but it lends a cool Italian flair to whatever you write.

As I snooped around to the back of the machine here in my office warren, I discovered that while the machine's design was Italian (circa 1966), its manufacture was British. In the words on a label, “Made in Great Britain.” The label doesn’t say where in Great Britain but because of my inherited affinity for Wales, I like to think of its being assembled in Llandudno, Conwy or Llangollen — however unlikely that may be.

On the very same label announcing the Olivetti’s British manufacturer as “British Olivetti Ltd.,” is fine print. I fetched my magnifying glass, Holmes like, to decipher it. To the right of an honest-to-God Royal Crest are the words “By appointment to H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh Office Equipment Manufacturers.”

Imagine, an aristocratic typewriter, right here in Portland, Oregon, right here in this commoner's cluttered office. Astonishingly, I had traded Matt a Royal for a Royal.

I call that a fair trade.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

British Olivetti factory was in Glasgow SCOTLAND and I think the prefix letter on the serial number was B

1:56 AM  

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