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  • Return to the Typewriter
  • Bruce Ballenger (bio)

My return to the typewriter began with a feverish compulsion to acquire not just one but a handful, beginning with the machines I used in college—a Hermes 3000 and a Royal desktop. But I didn’t stop there. I became obsessed with earlier typewriters, especially those with glass keys, and purchased a 1940s-era Smith Corona Sterling portable and a Royal Arrow. The touch of a fingertip on that Sterling’s black keys gave me a sensual thrill. A few weeks later, a West German Olympia SM3 portable arrived from an eBay seller, and I left it on my desk—to write on, I thought—but I spent far more time simply staring at it, running my hand over its graceful metal curves, tracing the chrome trim with my finger, and admiring the green wrinkle paint. My wife, observing all of this, suggested I mention this typewriter business to my therapist. She wasn’t joking.

A few weeks later I did.

“This is probably silly, but Karen said I should mention that I recently developed this sort of typewriter obsession,” I told the therapist. “I’ve bought a bunch of them over the past few months, and she thinks it’s a weird kind of nostalgic thing.”

In my case, nostalgia is an affliction, a warning sign that I’m looking backwards for something that I can find right in front me and I just refuse to see it. But I didn’t think the typewriter obsession was this kind of pathological nostalgia, and I told the therapist that, and he smiled and nodded in agreement.

“How many typewriters do you have at the moment?” he said.

“I think I have seven,” I said. “Or maybe eight.”

“Don’t you think that’s enough?” he said. [End Page 163]

“Oh yes,” I said. “I don’t think I’ll be buying any more.”

But two weeks later, I spent way too much money on a replacement for the first Hermes 3000—another Hermes, but in “mint” condition (and it was)—a move that seemed necessary because I had attempted to “fix” the carriage return and disassembled a part I could never put back together again. The situation reminded me of the time I tried to adjust the valves on my 1970 Fiat—the last car I felt I could actually fix—and had to call a tow truck to have the car taken to the repair shop. In 2016, there was no one to call in Boise to fix a broken typewriter.

But one day I did fix the Olympia, a success story that unfortunately later inspired me to tackle the Hermes, and it was a heady experience that made me love the typewriter even more. The Olympia sm3, a portable built in the fifties, exudes German engineering. If you turn it over and look at the gleaming guts of the machine, you see an orderly regiment of springs commanding a row of shiny type bars, all rigidly awaiting orders from the typist. There are stainless steel screws everywhere. Looking inside of the Olympia, I felt simultaneously intimidated and that anything was possible.

The carriage was jamming on the typewriter case—apparently a common malady for this model as it ages—and after a half hour of following the logic of connected rollers, springs, and screws, I found the one screw that would slightly elevate the carriage. It has worked well ever since. Fixing the Olympia gave me a giddy feeling, and it was not just a sense of accomplishment, but the feeling that in some small way I had recovered something I had lost: a machine that I could actually understand. My Fiat failures need not be prophetic, I thought, until I remembered the disassembled Hermes lying hopelessly in the garage. It is a very small garage, tenuously attached to our 100-year-old house, and it is where things wanted and unwanted collect, though I have always had a hard time distinguishing between the two.

There’s a community of typewriter lovers online—the “typosphere”—who diligently type their posts on their machines, scan them, and upload them to...


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pp. 163-174
Launched on MUSE
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