Hot off the Varityper

by | Jun 22, 2013 | Fred Woodworth, Insurgency, Varityper | 19 comments

Issue 47 of Fred Woodworth’s Mystery & Adventure Series Review recently reached me, along with a short essay by Woodworth on why he uses a typewriter to produce the publication. If all goes well, this essay will eventually be incorporated into my book, The Typewriter Insurgency: A Field Manual for the Typewritten Revolution.

Woodworth doesn’t use just any typewriter, but a Coxhead DSJ Varityper — just the magical contraption I recently found at the antique mall:

Woodworth writes in praise of this mechanical technology: “I can use it in every sense, instead of being used by it.” In the same issue he makes the delightful observation that since the mainspring in an old typewriter or clock normally remains partly wound up, it contains potential energy that was put there by a particular human being decades or even centuries ago.
And then I found this in the Review‘s lively Letters department:

Thank you, kind sir! I haven’t reproduced the name of this reader in Alabama since I don’t know whether he wants it publicized on the blog. But I appreciate this well-written illustration of writing to the future and of a complex exchange among media. My January 2013 essay has now been referred to in a letter published in June 2013. An intolerable delay? Not at all—this kind of temporal distance can provide room for reflection and deeper consideration, whereas online, we’re apt to forget what we read within hours. The thoughts exchanged here went from typewriter to blog to typewriter to Varityper-printed magazine to blog—a model of fruitful typewriter-computer interaction.

I have two copies of this issue of the Review. If you think this is a publication that might seriously interest you, be the first to request a copy in the comments and it will come your way.

My thoughts on typewriters and the future

More on the Mystery & Adventure Series Review


  1. rn

    Richard 'Robin Hook' Polt: please send that mag to me:
    Robert Neuwirth
    195 Chrystie Street, 203A
    NYC 10002

    Keep on with the revolutionary activities!


    PS What makes this particular varityper particularly special? How is it different than the other electric varitypers?

  2. Richard P

    Let's Rob from the rich and give to the poor!

    You got the magazine.

    The DSJ has Differential Spacing and Justification. So it assigns different widths to different characters (but can also be adapted for monospace typing, I think), and it can justify the right margin. You can see the results in the scan from the Review.

  3. Unknown

    That a (non-Amish) publication still uses a Varityper is pretty incredible.
    The reason why I say non-Amish is that I have reason to believe that they use them when they print some of their books. It's just a hypothesis, probably easily proven wrong, but I like to think so because it's neat. In fact, I'll see if I have one about and I'll scan a page for you to see.

  4. Richard P

    The Varityper does require electricity, so I don't think Amish would be using one directly.

  5. Unknown

    Many sects are allowed to use electricity for business purposes, and many (at least in the MI/IN area) are allowed to hook batteries up to AC converters and use things that way.

    Meanwhile, I'll also put forth IBM Executives with carbon ribbons as another option. I'm also having an impossible time of remembering where I put those books!

  6. Rob Bowker

    There are a couple of these Varitypers for auction as a job lot with some other machines on UK ebay. They were in terrible condition having been stored in a barn for many years – but recognisable with that wide eyed gap-toothed grin :-) Interesting story! I was reading a fairly recent back issue of Creative Review and it would seem there's a resurgence in Riso printing. This was the 80s colour version of a Gestetner or Roneo wet copier. Some good stuff never dies nor even fades away it seems.

  7. Richard P

    Thanks for enlightening me. But digital technology is out of the question for them?

  8. Richard P

    They don't look too bad. I hope some British collector will be interested in stopping by Leicester to pick them up.

  9. Unknown

    Well that's the other weird point.

    Some Amish pretty much are allowed to do everything we are when they are at work. Smartphones, internet, everything. By that point being Amish doesn't make any difference.

    As far as I know, at home, yes. They are a lot more restricted at home.

  10. Ton S.

    "I can use it in every sense, instead of being used by it." Well said, and so true.
    It's great that your getting more material for your book, and that letter is so cool. I'm intrigued who wrote it.

    T-Day cheers, Richard, hope we'll celebrate next year with the publication of your book!

  11. Richard P

    Thanks. I'm not sure the author of the letter has ever commented on this blog, which is why I left his name discreetly off.

  12. Peter

    The author in question has indeed posted before, and has enjoyed this blog (and the wider work of its author) for a long time. I'm honored that writings of an obscure typewriter enthusiast from central Alabama could be considered a useful contribution to the discussion. Vive la revolution!

  13. Richard P

    Thank you, Peter! Your thoughts are very useful indeed.

  14. rn

    I received the magazine, Richard. Thanks muchly.

  15. Phil

    I dream of owning a Vari-Typer some day. I was hoping that you bought it and the photo was in your home, but then seeing the cord wrapped around the carriage, I knew the photo was taken in the shop. I didn't realize until maybe a year ago that the VariTyper was a direct decendent of the Hammond Multiplex. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn't get acquainted with a neighbor in the same apartment complex, who was a VariTyper repair technician (1958). Whenever I looked in his open door, he was working on one on his kitchen table. I'm sure he would have let me borrow one to try out. By the way, early VariTypers were manual. Electrics didn't appear until the 1930's or later.

    How much did they want for their Vari-Typer?

  16. Phil

    Sorry, I just came across your blog this morning. In reading older posts, I found the one about the Varityper, so I am up to date. I assume that you know, justified type requires two copies of your document. The first pass to determine the space to be divided. Like I did as a kid, I would count the spaces at the end of each line, and insert them when I retyped the document.

  17. Richard P

    Thanks for commenting, Phil. It would have been great to get personal training from an experienced Varityper man!

    I haven't had a chance to study the user's manual yet, but I think that although justification does require typing each line twice, the machine can mechanically determine the spacing to be used on the second pass — no human arithmetic needed.

    Very late Hammonds and very early Varitypers are similar, with aluminum frames, and Hammond was also experimenting with electrification — there was an electric Hammond on eBay not long ago. Varitypers were soon all electrified. I have one from the '30s in my collection.

  18. Unknown

    For what it's worth ( a year out of date ) the single largest issue for Amish as it relates to electric devices in the home (telephone qualifies), is that it connects their home to the outside world (in the largest sense). That's why some do have telephones in a phone booth at the edge of their property, or work around the direct-connection issue by using cordless technology. Electrical generators can be okay, for instance. I've heard of an Amish man that mated a Selectric with a chainsaw motor. But they could run a Selectric off of generated electricity without much trouble. Of course all these things are tempered with the fact that there is no one set of rules or caveats for the entirety of the Amish culture. Individual colonies, with their own bishops, set rules as they see fit – and create allowances likewise.


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