On a recent Saturday morning I visited the Cambridge Typewriter shop to pick up my refurbished Corona. Enter this small storefront, and it seems that time stopped somewhere in the 1940s. The tables and shelves are packed with dozens of typewriters, in rows and stacks, and all neatly labelled. Typewriter advertisements adorn the walls. The air is faintly redolent of oil. The middle-aged shopkeeper wears a long mechanic’s smock, once white but now dappled in grease and oil. Given a machine for repair, he bends his face close and peers over his glasses, as an anatomist scrutinizes a specimen. He purses his lips and blasts away a cloud of dust. His fingers set the rods and rollers into clattering motion, then silently he nods.
I bought my typewriter two years ago, for one hundred dollars, from an on-line seller. It’s a Corona Four, built in 1924, when Calvin Coolidge won re-election. I hoped this antique machine would embolden my literary efforts, but I was skeptical, in the way that I’m skeptical of purchasing a gym membership as a fitness resolution. Two weeks later, the mailman delivered a fifteen pound box. The parcel contained a battered case with a frayed leather handle. Its metal clasp required forcing. But inside this inauspicious packaging I saw immediately that I had a gem:
I let out the dogs, opened a beer, and sat down to type. I had last used a typewriter in freshman year of high school, an electric one. I’ve used computers ever since, probably ten thousand hours of watching cursors blink. I fed paper into the roller and tugged a little at the corners, eyeballing the alignment. I had forgotten about this preparatory ritual. Then I started, running through the lower- and upper-case alphabet, and the obligatory saga of the quick fox and lazy dog.
The ribbon was running dry, but otherwise the octagenarian machine felt smooth and solid. Each keystroke needs a finger-punch, some conviction of opinion, before THWACK! slapping the page. The spacebar takes just a tap, a little breather between words. I ran through some famous quotations, and suddenly the click-click-clack-click-BING! echoed in my old farmhouse. These machines have an amazing music. It’s a rattling broadcast of one’s mind, easing and hastening with the flow of thought, stumbling to halts, then clattering with confidence as words cascade to the page.
The Corona Four was first manufactured in May 1924, by the Standard Typewriter Company of Groton, New York. It was made into the 1940s, until the factory was retooled for war work. The serial number on my machine (the repairman told me) dates from the very first year of production. It’s a striking piece of industrial design: compact, sturdy, rounded, and a little bit gleaming–oddly not unlike the fundamentals in every product from Apple.
The keyboard emphasizes the unadorned: spare black letters, each encircled with gold. The special characters—ampersand, percentage sign, fractions—run atop the numerals and at the right edge. They form a margin of commotion against the staid alphabet. And tucked in the corner, there is an overly-curvaceous question mark. Look at it: tiny and unrestrained. The designers must have debated the audacity of this question mark before deciding, correctly, that it is superb.
The Corona line of typewriters was one of the most successful in history. Theodore Roosevelt took an early Corona on African safari in 1910, and Ernest Shackleton brought a Model Three on his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1914. The company advertised their machines as durable workhorses, essential for the modern businessman and fit for the globe-trotting intellectual. “Twentieth century men carry Corona,” the ads said.
It’s interesting that these typewriters still awaken the same romantic notions. In the 1920s, this was because they were an empowering new technology. Today they evoke an elemental simplicity, a liberation from encumbrances of modernity. These are fundamentally divergent paths—one looking ahead, the other peering back—yet they lead to the same dreams of intellect and artistry, the same adventuresome instinct.
For myself, as I suspected, purchasing a typewriter did not transform my literary output. The muses are not so easily coaxed. Mainly I use the Corona Four to pound out letters to friends, enjoying its clatter alongside a weekend cup of coffee. Still, this is an excellent return for my hundred dollars. It’s a beautiful old machine.