Flynn Taggart Out of place, out of time, and out of my mind.


Engineering a Revolution

Earlier today, I began to disassemble my Hermes Rocket in preparation of it's cleaning. I've done this with all of my machines, but the engineering involved with creating a manual typewriter still amazes me. After removing the outer shell, I spend a good 15-20 minutes messing around with all of the exposed parts. I push buttons, watch the levers move, see where the linkages connect, etc. It makes me think of Luke Skywalker's bionic hand in Star Wars.



I apologize for the lousy photo. I was lazy and took it with my iPhone.

I realize that typewriter engineering wasn't always as impressive as a mid-century Hermes Rocket. Like most technologies, early typewriters weren't reliable and widely varied in design. It took several decades of tinkering to get it right. Old or new, it still bends my mind that this many tiny parts are able to operate not only in unison, but with an enormous degree of accuracy and reliability. Further compounding my amazement is that all of this design work was done in an age without computers.

In this era, we take for granted that we can plug a bunch of mathematical formulas into a computer and virtually design a complicated mechanical machine, like an automobile, without picking up a wrench. How in the hell did engineers manage to create a typewriter, with hundreds of tiny moving parts, without a computer? All of these moving parts are sculpted with impressive accuracy. Linkages wrap around each other, gears spin, rubber platens move up and down, carriages slide laterally, hinges rotate... And none of it interferes with the operation of the device as a whole.

I like to think of myself as mechanically inclined. I can assemble and disassemble many things, teaching myself how they work as I go. But, I cannot fathom designing a typewriter from scratch and achieving a near-zero percent margin of error. If I was wearing a cap right now, I'd tip it to the countless typewriter engineers that, against all odds, made it work so beautifully.

Comments (10) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I admire that ability. I like the same mechanical gee-whiz aspects but lack the aptitude.

  2. Yeah, that’s exactly what I think when I see the many precise moving parts of a typewriter.

  3. I admire this machine too, but have to speak up on behalf of some very well engineered early typewriters. We may not see them as ergonomic anymore, but the Smith Premier double-keyboard understrokes were super-precise and well made. Other makes such as Williams and Hammond, or slightly later typewriter such as Fox and Underwood were very good too.

    • Very true. There were some great early typewriters. I guess what I was getting at is that in any product life cycle, there are plenty of failures in the early days as inventors, designers, and manufacturers all struggle to create something consistently reliable. Especially in typewriters, where the final product is so mechanically complex.

  4. It didn’t hurt that the designers had decades to perfect the design, either. I’m boggled by ultra-portables like the Baby/Rocket. Lay them next to a standard machine, and you can see how clever they had to be to smoosh most of that functionality down into something you can easily slip into a briefcase. And then look inside the guts of a standard machine and realize that pretty much all the space is being used.

    Worth a double-cap doff, at the very least!

    • Agreed! It’s amazing how much stuff they packed into them. You’d think that with the advances in portable design, the interior of the standard desktop machines would have become more spacious (or the machines smaller), but as you alluded, they still loaded them with parts and functionality.

  5. That’s a big part of the fascination for me too.

  6. I envy typewriter designers minds.
    Precise and boxed but yet ingenious with varied methods and ways to all produce a same machine.

    Sigh, if only I had a 10% mind like theirs, it would help me very much to just open the silly thing sometimes.

  7. Would you happen to have a photo of the undercarriage? I have a loose spring on mine and I want to know where to reconnect it.

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