I hunt down typewriters. Not just any typewriter, but old typewriters. The heavy metal ones and occasionally, the plastics. There are certain brands, certain age requirements, certain kinds like manual typewriters that I look for. I pore over social media and online markets. I put the word out among friends. And I eagerly look forward to the next morning to find, as Tom Hanks observed in Castaway, what the tide has brought in.
I collect typewriters because they bring me satisfaction. Much like the pencils, pens, and computers I own, they are not just the object themselves but everything else they represent, forwards and backwards in time, including the present. Pragmatists fall all over themselves to argue that anything that does the job should suffice, but I dare them to eat the same dish every single meal and see if that does not transform into outright fodder by the third eating. The same with typewriters. They are there. They exist. Perhaps they no longer represent the technological apogee of a writing instrument, but not only do they still do what they were made to do, they are more.
They represent past, present, and future.
The Past. Typewriters were the cutting edge of technology in their day. They had an ingenious, intricate inner machinery that required only the pressure of human fingers to power the printing of a letter, the spelling of a word, the construction of a sentence. They were not cheap and to have a typewriter in the Filipino family signified the presence of education and substance. They were cherished tools of the educated and many countless Filipino professionals had the agency of the typewriter partly to thank for their advancement.
They were built at a time when planned obsolescence had yet to creep into the jargon of manufacturers. As such they were built to last and to be repairable.
They were from a time when architecture and industrial design was shifting from the fancifully ornate prewar art nouveau to the more serious linear and curvilinear modern and postmodern. To this day, it is a visual delight to see typewriter with shapes fully representative of the design developments of their decades within that century.
The Present. For a while, typewriters were lumped in with other technological detritus that had fallen by the wayside. Untold numbers of these machines have been crushed, demolished, and rendered for what metal could be recovered. That time is ending. More people are coming to realize that unlike obsolete electronic devices, typewriters have not failed in what they were designed to do. They are not utterly useless and given the service they have rendered, their beauty and durability, it increasingly smacks of ingratitude and sacrilege to extract and obliterate this machines from an appreciative and grateful public. Hence, typewriters are once again becoming prized possessions for personal collections of the wonders of the past.
The Future. No, I’m not counting on a dystopian future where power will be out and the only things that run all over again will be typewriters and man-powered machines. That’s Hollywood. Instead I see people choosing to slow down and to make things more personal once again. “Too much, too fast,” That’s what technology is accused of these days. And there are some who are rediscovering the singularity of purpose of typewriters. Typewriters are not going to change every half year. They’re not going to get additional terabytes of RAM. It’s a little embarrassing because all the RAM it contains is what is between your two ears. Typewriters do not have internet connections. They cannot cross reference to confirm facts in a few seconds. Using typewriters, one can only plod along steadily, hitting the keys until the article is generally done. There is peace in knowing there is no microprocessor racing light years ahead of you before you even get your next thought. It just sits there, quiescent, waiting for however long it takes you to form an idea. Peace, quiet, detachment. Other people are creating their own little work cocoons, a desk, a chair, a lamp, and a computer without internet connection. Or maybe a typewriter.
I belong to a special tribe of typewriter hunters, isolated in the islands known as the Philippines. The hunt here is different from similar hunters in the United States where the bulk of typewriters come from. Ours is a tropical country, known as one of the most disaster prone countries of the world, replete with monsoonal floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions. Besides the two world wars, Filipinos also added to the general confusion with martial law regimes and revolutions. What few typewriters there are to be had tend to be weatherbeaten by the heat, the moisture, and the temperature changes. There is a silver-lining to that, however. We have extraordinarily good typewriter technicians. And we have very keen typewriter hunters.
Perhaps you know of an old typewriter somewhere that’s being terribly neglected? A Royal, an Underwood, a Smith Corona, an Erika, an old Olympia or Hermes? I’d appreciate it very much because I know they’re out there in these islands. And with a little luck, I’ll find them.
1946 Underwood Rhythm Touch (L) 1928 Underwood No.5
Inset picture: ’69 Olympia SM9 portable