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Exploring the world of typewriters

Brad Rowe
Jeff Rankin
Monmouth College
Brad Rowe

During the pandemic, Brad Rowe used his time alone at home to explore the world of typewriters. The professor of Educational Studies at Monmouth College now owns 15 or 20 "vintage machines" and has started holding "type-ins" or "typewriter socials."

Having grown up in the 1980's and 90's, Rowe had no experience with typewriters - until COVID came along.

"During the initial wave the COVID shutdown when everything went remote and all of our work was online here at the college, it didn't take long for me to start to feel the adverse effects of being on Zoom all day. And I realized I needed to balance all that screen time with something more tactile and that's when I discovered the world of vintage typewriter repair which for me has been a great way to counter the intrusion of the digital into almost every aspect of our lives. So I began to collect machines and pick up machines at garage sales and Facebook Marketplace."

"Retro, older tools and technologies have always in a way appealed to me. And I think what I find intriguing about older technologies in general and typewriters specifically is that they allow for more human touch, more physical manipulation by the user. And I enjoy that friction and effort required to get the technology to operate, and typewriters require that physicality."

He now owns 15 or 20 typewriters , some just for parts but the rest are fully functional, with the oldest a Smith Corona portable from 1928.

"That's a hard question to answer, if I have a favorite, because I have four or six that I use on a regular basis and each one appeals to me in a different way. Some are beautiful aesthetically and I just like to put them on the shelf and look at them. I have a blue-ish gray 1958 Olympia SM3 that I love and I've put a blue ribbon on it. So that one is really fun to type with - I love the sound that it makes, I love the way it looks. But that's not the one I have a sentimental connection with. The one I have a sentimental connection with is the first one that I acquired and that's a 1960 Smith Corona."

Rowe has taken his typewriters to an after school tutoring program in Monmouth, for 8 to 11 year olds.

"When they first encounter a typewriter, they just light up with awe and possibility, and they want to know how it works. It's a mystery to them how ink can be put on paper without a computer screen or without printer. So kids quickly become captivated by the sensory experience - how heavy the machine is, the sounds of the type bars and the keys, the click-clack sound, the sound of the margin bell. And they really enjoy the physical force it takes to manually return the carriage rather than just pressing enter like we do on the computer keyboard.

And he's held type-ins or typewriter socials at both Monmouth College and nearby Knox College. He also calls these events "Snail Mail Socials," and provides real paper, envelopes, and stamps.

"For students to type letters to friends or family, and they walk over to the student union and drop a letter directly in the mail. And many students have told me it's their first time sending a letter in the mail and that really warms my heart. The fact that a college student in 2022 could just send off a text or email to their grandparents or a friend back home. They were able to physically mail a typed letter to a loved one or a family member."

"I thought having eight machines would be enough and sure enough there was a line of students, college students lined up to use typewriters. It was a beautiful sight - they're sitting there scrolling on their phones waiting in line to use a 1956 Smith Corona."

To learn more, Rowe recommends a book by Richard Polt, "The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist's Companion for the 21st Century," for the history of typewriters, plus information on how to repair and maintain them. He also learned how to repair them from YouTube videos, and the Antique Typewriter Maintenance Group, on Facebook.

A native of Detroit, Herb Trix began his radio career as a country-western disc jockey in Roswell, New Mexico (“KRSY, your superkicker in the Pecos Valley”), in 1978. After a stint at an oldies station in Topeka, Kansas (imagine getting paid to play “Louie Louie” and “Great Balls of Fire”), he wormed his way into news, first in Topeka, and then in Freeport Illinois.