Achilles’ heels

by | Mar 20, 2015 | Uncategorized | 48 comments

PS: This is my 300th typecast.


  1. Gordon Tillman

    This was a great 300th post Richard. Very interesting, as always!

  2. Words are Winged

    Fox Portables have a distinctly odd issue in that their paper-release lever always seems to find its way, at the turn of the platen knob, rotated 90 degrees back from its original position. Their carriages, too, have the problem of slowly (over decades it seems, granted) sliding apart just enough to cause the entire assembly to wiggle annoyingly.

    Perhaps its just my own Royal portable, but the paper already fed through the platen always hits the part still on the paper tray, and causes it to scrunch and mess up the current writing lines angle.

    Underwood 3 banks have a knack of losing the small, angular piece designed to raise the bell-ringer up at the end of the writing line. Its only held in place by a small metal stud and the spring its attached to.

    Corona 3's shifting mechanism is designed in such a way that if the sliding piece of metal at the back of the machine gets sludge-d, issues aplenty arise in trying to shift to Figures. Also of note, on models with automatic ribbon reverse, if in putting a new ribbon on the old spools you wind too much ribbon onto the spools, the machine will continuously try to only allow one side to wind. This is more user error, but I've not had this issue on other like machines.

    These aren't so much Achilles heels as much as oddities I've observed, I suppose

  3. Ted

    The Floating Shift Smith-Corona typebar linkages that pop open so easily. I've heard that this is a *feature*, but I consider it to be a very serious bug. (:

  4. michaeliany

    The Groma Kolibri's return lever sits too low and scrapes the ribbon cover so that all these machines bear this scar. The metal ribbon cover can be damaged with this indentation mark and at the very least, the unsightly paint loss is an irritation.

    Due to its stylish yet imperfect shape, 1930s Triumph Norms tend to have cracked bodies. The one-piece bakelite shell features two almost architectural horns on top and it is here where the damage happens.

  5. JustAnotherGuy

    Some I can think of off the top of my head are the 40's and 50's Royal portables being liable to joining words and letters, the Cole Steel/ABC's fragile escapement being so low to the ground and therefore vulnerable through the open base, degrading rubber washers on Olympia SM2s, 3s, and 4s, Facits with frozen carriages because of disuse…

  6. Unknown

    Richard- Thanks for the mention! Ironically, just today I was sizing up the task of reproducing the SG-1 paper support, and I think I can do it.

    I am starting on re-popped rubber feet for typers too, as well as handles – which will not be Bakelite but much, much stronger.

    In any event … as a statistician of sorts (my first profession), I'd say that your observation is true – that every machine has a flaw that stands out. It should not be confused, however, with the "I found it in the last place I looked!" phenomenon? Meaning, when presented with any typewriter, no matter how finely designed and crafted a machine it is, that you will eventually work through all its systems and find a weakness (to you). There are some legitimately flawed aspects of a lot of typers that I can think of off the top of my head. The SG-1 paper support is a great one. The Corona Folding 3 is another … the whole machine. Just kidding. :-)

  7. Anonymous

    The Skyriter has the most ridiculously small platen knobs and super-slim platen that causes curly paper problems. There is no carriage release lever on the left on the model I have, and being left-handed, it catches me out a lot. Carriage return is weird too, come to mention it. However I wouldn't get rid of it for these heels.

  8. Unknown

    I think that the worst Achilles's heel of any machine are the feet. Dang those nasty buggers!

    For the Hammond, it has always been beyond me why they made the type shuttle out of vulcanized rubber. I have already had a causality with a semi-colon. I am too afraid if typing on it now!

  9. Walter

    Whoa! 100+ years…. …. maybe still too soon? ;_)

  10. Walter

    Concur. When the engineers design for lightweight convenience, they should always keep in mind that the design should be meant for, you know… humans. ~T~

  11. Matthieu Théorêt

    Same for my Studio 44 on the top cover. Had to create a small bumper to make sure the lever was clearing the cover.

  12. Matthieu Théorêt

    I'd be a happy buyer for one of your SG-1 supports, if you can get them right! Eleonore, my cursive SG1, feels just incomplete without it…

  13. x over it

    Happy 300th!

    The Torpedo 18 has a weakness, but only on the ones made for a couple years starting at 1959. Many of the parts corrode/get white buildup. Sometimes it doesn't seem to affect typing but sometimes it does, quite drastically.

    Segment-shifted Imperial Good Companions tend to get shadowing but I think it might be related to wear since not all of them do.

  14. Don Lampert

    One off the top of my head is, the Margin Set lever locations on the R C Allen's. Located at each end of the carriage, it's easy to touch them when pulling the carriage release lever, or even turning the carriage knobs, causing the margins to reset themselves where ever the carriage is at that moment. Otherwise, a fine american office standard
    Happy 300th !!!!!

  15. Ted

    Oh, Hermes 3000, the magic margin levers placed where everyone else puts the carriage release. I *constantly* end up zinging my margins when I meant to manually back up the carriage a little. :D

  16. Miguel Chávez

    My biggest gripes with portable typewriters are two: in the Olympia SM 9, otherwise a very nice machine, the carriage lock seems to engage on its own will if you are forced to press the Margin Release key at the end of a long paragraph. It takes a bit of fiddling to get the carriage to unlock.

    And in most portables, it's quite annoying that they behave like running marathonists, sliding all over the table when you use them. Every two or three lines you have to stop and reposition them in front of you or risk twisting your spine to a very unnatural corkscrew shape. (O course, part of the blame for this goes to Pledge and the smooth surface of my Ikea work desk, but still). This does not happen with my Olivetti Studio 46 (great machine!) or with the heavy desktop models.

  17. gee

    300th Post! Great job… good reading… genius… generous… I'm grateful you exist.

  18. schrijfmachine

    The achilles heel on most older typewriters is the string. That's often deteriorated and broken. I can't understand how something so robust as a typewriter had a string of organic material!

  19. Erik

    Great idea for, and congratulations on, #300 Richard! The heel I've been dealing with lately is the lack of a paper support on some of my favorite machines. I'll never understand why so many beautifully engineered portables lack this simple feature. It makes using these machines on a crowded desk a real hassle.

  20. Unknown

    Brian, do you have a website for your reproduction parts? I'm trying to figure out how to get some new feet for a royal Royalite. On the one I have the screws that hold the bottom plate to the innards pop through the rubber, so don't hold it in place. I've been pondering how to rig up something that works, but repro feet would be perfect.

  21. Bill M

    Great observations Richard. I have an Underwood with an absoultely asinine tension spring design. I found the same with an Oliver, yet I find the Corona 3 a nice typer. My pet peve is with the Hermes margin set being so close to the carriage release and lock buttons I press it too often by mistake. The SCM carriage release levers are another short fall of an other wise nice typewriter series. American machines are notorious for lacking paper supports and end of page indicators. Another feature lacking on most portables is the tab bar like on an office size machine or a Classic-12. I really like the Hammond Multiplex, but the fragile design of the springs on the anchors for the stop pins I find lacking. Olympais, they are just plaiin slow. Royal HH, of which I have 3, all have a way too heavy carriage return to make they really nice machines. Even my Underwood standards have a weak spot, the way the ribbon is positioned making changing ribbons a royal pain (almost as bad as an Oliver).

    Thanks for pointing out the Studio 44 problem, That may be why mine does not very good touch.

  22. Bill M

    oops, does not have a very good touch.

  23. Rob Bowker

    You stirred a hornets nest here Richard! I think it is because of their quirks and weaknesses that we sort of like old typewriters. If they were all perfect, well, there'd be little joy to be had in using them. My Type-O-Matic workhorse is a Lettera 32. The detents on the line advance must be worn or need attention as every new line starts a millimeter or so low and comes to a correct level by the end of the line – solution: tickle the r/h platen knob every line. Stupid, I know. BUT there's a comment about the folding return lever itself above and in relation to a Studio 44. These levers are soft aluminium and the stepped recess that acts as a stop to prevent the deployed lever scraping the ribbon cover can wear and allow it to drop below the optimum angle. It is fairly easy to fix by removing the lever (catch the wave washer! – you'll need it later) and use a punch and a very gentle hammer-tap to re-form the niche. A gentler approach is to use the tiniest dab of JB Weld (or similar epoxy) in the worn recess. Reassemble the lever and position it in the correct deployed position so it rests gently on the still-soft JB Weld (pack the cover with a thick piece of card if you like) and then raise the lever until the epoxy cures. I have done each method on a Studio 44 and a Lettera 22 to great effect.

  24. Rob Bowker

    Richard sent me book wrapped in something like this. I haven't a clue whether it was intended as packaging or for typing but even my most flighty portables sit rock solid when I place it between them and my polished oak desk.

  25. Richard P

    Be sure you use a rubberized impression strip when typing with a Hammond. That will reduce the probability of damage to the type shuttle.

  26. Richard P

    Olympias, just plain slow? That's a new one for me. When clean, they should be quick and snappy — especially the basket-shifted machines.

  27. Nick Bodemer

    Words are winged: Your Royal portable may need new feed rollers.
    I can think of many Achilles heels:
    Royal Royalite: (do I really need to explain?) hard to fix, easier to replace
    Smith-Corona Corsair–prints well in Pica, horribly in Elite (it typed like an old typewriter font as soon as it was out of the box according to "Which?" magazine.)
    Barr Portable (I don't own one) Consumer Reports tested the Barr in 1937–the first thing that went wrong was the carriage-return lever falling off because of a weak rivet.
    Olympia Portables, 1956-1970: As machines, they are wonderful, but the case handle (the little strap) is just stupid. It would be okay on a 10 pound portable, but to put it on a 25 pound portable–that's just mean.
    Royal Mercury: Whatever was used for soundproofing resembles an asphalt roofing shingle and makes it louder. It requires soaking the body panels in hot water, which makes it gooey. (and removable)

  28. Nick Bodemer

    Plastic-bodied Consul portables: The slightest impact will crack the plastic. It seems like it wasn't designed for a front panel, as the panel is cheaper plastic than the rest of it, and breaks into 5 pieces after setting the machine down. (the reason most don't have it anymore)
    Hermes Baby: Dreadful for touch-typing. I can get 50 words per minute out on an Olympia SM9, but as soon as I go to a Baby, it turns to 5 wpm–definitely not meant for someone with big fingers…
    Remington Deluxe Remette: Why is this Deluxe–its differences from the standard Remette are miniscule, yet when new it cost $10 more and still has no bell.
    Smith-Corona Classic 12–circa 1982: Mechanically it is wonderful. The injetion-molded case is good, but you need to make completely sure that it's latched. Mine wasn't–it did a backflip onto a downtown Seattle sidewalk. The ribbon cover (which is designed to lift off) popped off with a few scratches and the only damage was to the plastic margin stop buttons–amazing! (I took them off of a Corsair) It still works very well.

    Royal portables (1962-1982): Royal, for some reason, thought it would be a good idea to create a case that when carried correctly, is sure to hit people in the knees; if carried incorrectly, it hits the carrier in the knees. (Tonya Harding would have loved it!) Royal was proud of it, too–they called it the "Swing Away Handle"
    Royal Portables (1948): Royal claimed at this time that their case was fiberglass, because that's what the case manufacturer told them–they had really used laminated cardboard. Royal soon found out and sued.
    Royal Portables (1955-1960): The biggest Achilles heel–the case. If exposed to sunlight, it will discolor, and begin to disintegrate. Robert Montgomery, owner of Bremerton Office Machines told the story. (Another lawsuit by Royal against their case manufacturer) He had one in his window with the machne on top, and when he pulled it out, it left a shadow of where all the keys had been.

    The best case in the world that I can think of: 1940-1954 Smith-Corona cases. Mr. Montgomery told me about a factory sales rep (picture John Candy) who would stand on the case with the typewriter inside–no damage. (I still wouldn't try it…). The cases are 3/8 inch plywood and are amazing. However, you want to remove the lining–the glue used to hold it on is organic and produces a horrible smell. The solution is simple–put the case in a bathtub. Line the inside top and bottom with liquid dish soap–not the kind for dishwashers, but for manual washing. Fill the tub with hot water. Splash the soap around the inside of the case, which should be full of water by now. When the case lining starts to peel, finish the job. Peel it off, and use an expendable sponge (with a green scrubbing pad) to take off the brown glue. Drain the tub, and let the case dry–in the open position. The wood underneath will be surprisingly pretty. (Quick caution: 1930s Royal hinged cases often have a thick cardboard top panel. Be very careful when cleaning it. Also, if you are cleaning a Remington Noiseless case, the lining is snakeskin and turns slimy and gross when being removed)

    1950s Smith-Coronas–many of the Holiday cases have a tendency to spring open at the hinges. They are designed to come apart, but they never do it at a good time.

  29. Ton S.

    Triumph Perfekt – tends to get stuck on the base of the case, you'll need a crowbar to get it out.
    Olivetti Valentine – typebars cover gets scratched when you slide it in and out of its tub/case (okay, don't get started with many other flaws of the Valentine)

    Awesome post!

  30. RobertG

    Wow. This hits a spot!
    From my limited set of machines, I see two classes of defects in them. There are design vulnerabilities (Speedline return lever, bound to scratch the cover) and there are age-related defects (like the cushioned feet of Noiseless portables).

    By now most typewriters are being used way beyond their imagined lifetime, most having survived a long period of neglect and (bad) storage. Am really amazed at how well they still perform still – much (but not all) of the age and wear related defects can still be repaired today even.

  31. Richard P

    Good point.

    Successful typewriters were made to be very tough, and when they had problems you were supposed to repair them, like a car, instead of replacing them. Still, I imagine that even the most enthusiastic Royal salesman who sold an HH in 1955 would be amazed to see how long that typewriter would last. He'd have expected that it would still be going in 1965, even 1975 — although he'd hope that by then, the office would be ready to buy new Royals — but would NOT have dreamed that 60 years later, in the year 2015, people would be using that typewriter.

    Whatever their flaws and quirks, nearly all typewriters are far more durable than the computer on which I'm writing this sentence.

  32. Robert Messenger

    Two spring to mind: The Olivetti Studio 42 carriage lock, not so much as Miguel says about his Olympia SM9, but it does wobble about a bit and can get caught in under the carriage, meaning you can only type in caps! On any Studio 42 I've owned, I've removed the carriage lock as a precaution. Also, on the later (post-WWII) Imperial standards, similar problem to your Burroughs, but as they are "demountables", the shafts just fall out when you take the top plate off.

  33. Martin A. Rice, Jr.

    OLIVER! The type bars get out of alignment???? You';ve got to be kidding! Sure, if you through it down the stairwell. They only get out of alignment if someone deliberately abuses them!!!!

  34. Unknown

    Definitely important! You also cannot get a proper impression without one.

  35. rn

    Yes, yes — but in my experience the biggest flaw with all my typewriters is me.

    I type too hard for most of my noiseless portables and so get fuzzy impressions and occasional extra skipped spaces. I have the same fuzz problem with an early Patria. My pinkies are not strong enough to be totally comfortable with the carriage shift on my Noiseless 10 and Alpina wide-carriage. My hands have never quite adapted to the key configuration on the Oliver.

    And that's not to mention all the people problems I've inherited–bent paper bails and cracked space bars and linkages that have been pointlessly removed.

    You get the point. Pogo was right: we have met the enemy and he is us.

  36. Don Lampert

    Well, unless we are of a certain age, where we actually had typing lessons in high school, or learned on a job, most of use are not really proper typists. I try to do it like the lady in the Youtube 1940's typing film, and when I do, I'm pretty good, and fast. Unfortunately in our sloppy computer/text me way – I make mistakes, and am sloppy on both my computer and typewriters
    I can concur with rn 's message.

  37. Piotr Trumpiel

    Olivetti portables – great machines as they are – in my opinion have the ribbon spool nuts as their Achilles' heel. You can lose them, you need a spool with bigger hole diameter (usually – as people can get creative here :) ) to accommodate them, they can loosen up = ribbon stops moving.
    On the other leg – Letteras' carriage lock. The bar stopping carriage movement is quite thin and prone to bending when someone hits (even lightly) the carriage from the side with lock engaged. Then the lock gets jammed – usually in the open position though.

  38. Anonymous

    Hey, when reading this I had a thought… I reckon that old typewriters are bit like classic cameras, which are my passion. All of them have their own "character", all have their own strengths and weaknesses. I recently discovered on of the websites where people can upload their designs for 3D printers and sell their products some usefull bits and pieces that can help to keep old cameras going. I don't do 3D printing myself but I think that if some typewriter afficionados were made aware of this, I am sure that the typosphere community will start to produce designs for gears and wheels and whatnot so that there are "replacement achilles' heels" available to keep these machines going for many years to come.

  39. Richard P

    That's a very good idea, and I agree.

    Until the 3D part database comes to be (and 3D printing technology improves a bit), traditional molding may still be superior. Brian Brumfield has been working on molding some frequently broken typewriter parts (such as Hermes platen knobs) and they should soon be available to the public.

  40. Typewriter King

    This to Brian Brumfield: As an amateur typewriter repairman, there can certainly be a case made about some machines as seeming to have the same problems as a Corona Folding 3–"Everything." But I can tell you this: I am thankful for such typewriters. They taught me everything I know. It took an impossible, ornery, and contrary Remington Electri-conomy to teach me how to keep a typewriter going. Just about everytime I wanted to use it, something went wrong with it and I'd end up having to do almost a major repair job before I could complete a homework assignment from High School. It could be just that machine alone that was a lemon, I don't know. But I am grateful to that machine for a lot of what I know about typewriters.

  41. Typewriter King

    I read on another blog somewhere that Royal portables' escapement mechanisms are weak and wear out fast. In my 35 years of amateur typewriter repair, I have not found any evidence of metal erosion or fatigue in any of them. But the interesting thing I did find was that both Royal portables and uprights have a tiny little wheel on the rigid dog of the escapement mechanism. The loose dog is plain. I did find that sometimes, if you type too fast for it, the machine will tend to pile letters. But then, so do Underwood upright typewriters.

  42. Typewriter King

    Boy, you said a mouthful there!! I have a 1952 Royal HH that stood sentinel in a utility room where I went to sixth grade back in 1980. I fell in love with it then–at 12 years of age!! I wanted to try it out, but was afraid to ask. One of my teachers told me that the letter C tended to stick on it. Nobody fixed it–just complained about that hoary old thing. It was only 28 then. Fast forward to about 2009, when a former school trustee showed up at my door wanting me to repair it for him. I ended trading him out for another Royal, an FP 1960 model. I unstuck the letter C (Yeah!! It was the same machine I loved years ago, and it's ALL MINE NOW!!!!) Those teachers didn't know what they were talking about. This thing is a TANK. It types beautifully. The touch is still great, even after scores of other typists have had a shot at it. You could type under water with it. Next year, it will have outlived my own Mother!!!

  43. Typewriter King

    I once had a 1960 Underwood Documentor electric typeweriter. It was a nice machine. It printed beautifully. But those tiny round keys were spaced so far apart that I usually struck two of them at the same time. You had to have tiny, spread-out fingers to be able to use it–hands like a garden rake.

  44. Unknown

    I think you're echoing the exact sentiment of the original post and my poor attempt at comedy through hyperbole. Of course you are going to learn more from problematic machines … And my sarcastic jab at the Corona 3 was a highlight of how willing that machine is to help teach us all something. :)
    Selectrics take me to school every time I put one on the bench.
    A broken key lever restore spring on a Remington Noiseless : schooled! A broken typebar on a Torpedo : schooled! Flat rollers : schooled! Learning how to reproduce parts : schooled! Everything is a learning experience, and I for one relish it, and it sounds like you do too (even though we both might mumble curses from the corners of our mouths while donning the hat of education). Viva la Schreibmaschine! ;)

  45. Richard P

    How wonderful to acquire and restore a worthy machine from your own past!

  46. Neil Thayer

    That metal guide around the return lever of the Underwood 5 and similar models is, for me, one of its most annoying attributes. Every single I time I use the lever, either my fingers brush around the guide or I find myself positioning my finger to try and avoid contact with it. No other typewriter I've used has such a guide, and, along with a few other things (sadly, things that *define* an Underwood as an Underwood), it negatively affects the overall experience for me.

  47. Shawn McClure

    May I ask how you created the text of this post such that it looks like it came out of a typewriter? I've been looking for good solutions to doing this and would be curious to learn yours. Thanks for any help.

  48. Richard P

    Sure: I typed it on a real typewriter, then scanned it. It's called typecasting. You need a typewriter, my friend!


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