A Machine of Antiquity

Yesterday morning I had just returned from a bicycle foray into town — I’d settled into the porch swing and returned to a novel by Edith Wharton, “The Custom Of The Country”. Only a writer as virtuosic as Wharton can interest me in the social intrigues of the wealthy classes in New York City during the 1920s (or any era, for that matter!).

As I reflected upon a particularly deft passage in the novel I happened to notice a typewriter sitting on a folding chair nearby. It hadn’t been there the day before; it was as if it had fallen from the sky, perhaps discarded ballast from a passing dirigible.

I examined the machine, an IBM Selectric typewriter. It’s armor-like case had a matte-green finish and its power cord dangled into a coil upon the concrete. When was the last time I’d seen one of these machines, a relic and survivor of a pre-digital age? I remember seeing these machines in innumerable institutional and commercial offices. Selectrics were innovative machines during their brief time, as the magically-rotating typeface ball with its intaglio letters could be quickly popped loose and replaced with a ball with an entirely different font, a feature which must have seemed wondrous before the advent of word-processors and their drop-down menus of fonts.

A few hours later I asked Doug about the machine.

“Where’d that typewriter out there come from, Doug?”

“Oh, I was helping out a neighbor and he asked me if I wanted it. I thought it might be fun to see if I could get it running.”

I should mention that Doug has the Magic Touch when it comes to machinery. He has an intuitive feel for devices and their maladies. After the recent flood I watched with admiration as he revived two waterlogged push lawnmowers, using only a a pair of pliers, a screwdriver, and a crescent wrench. Doug grew up on a farm and from boyhood has worked on the numerous internal combustion engines modern agriculture relies upon.

I said “Y’know, I’ve always wondered how those Selectric typewriters worked. I’ve never seen the insides of one.”

Before long Doug and I had the relict machine upended. Doug said “I can’t figure out how the bottom of the case is attached!”

We tugged and pried, as there were no evident screws holding the case together. Patience is the crucial factor when dealing with machines, and we finally got the bottom off. We found feathers mixed with birdseed filling all of the cavities of the typewriter. We pulled out a couple of gallons of what looked like chicken feathers and at least a quart of birdseed, mainly millet and milo (a nicely alliterative phrase).

Evidently a clan of mice had made the Selectric its home. A scene from an imaginary Disneyesque cartoon briefly flitted through my mind:

A rather hungry-looking family of mice is clustered around a table made from a saucer perched upon a wooden thread-spool. The mice sit upon chairs, each chair being nothing but a styrofoam peanut. Two bold-looking mice with tiny packs upon their backs, kerchiefs tied around their heads, and staffs made of cocktail skewers enter the mice’s kitchen.

One of them exclaims “What luck we’ve had! In the shed out back we found a hollow human contrivance, a pillow full of feathers, and a bag of seeds! We’re set for the winter!” The mice all cheer…

After the mouse debris was scattered on the ground we saw an impressive sight: the innards and guts of a Selectric, an awesomely-complicated maze consisting of hundreds of mechanical and electrical components. Those IBM engineers of yore had essentially reinvented the typewriter; seeing this sight was like peering into the layered and interlocked gears and pawls of an eighteenth-century ship’s chronometer. The machine looked like it was designed to last for centuries; it’s a shame that two decades later it was completely obsolete.

I noticed a sticker affixed to the inside of the upper case. The name of a Huron, South Dakota office supply company was printed on the sticker, along with an intriguing penciled scrawl:

“Serviced June 19th, 1971”

Yep, that was during the Selectric’s heyday. But how did the typewriter get to Hannibal? An unlikely but entertaining scenario blossoms in my mind:

The Selectric was bought new and used for several years by a secretary at a thriving insurance agency in Huron. After an office equipment upgrade the machine passed through a succession of businesses, each one less prosperous than the one before. It was just chance that caused the typewriter to move farther east with each new owner. It ended up in the window of an office supply store in a small town in Minnesota, perhaps the farthest north of the numerous river towns along the Mississippi.

A young writer lived in that town. His ambition was to write novels; his head was teeming with stories. He had just received a small inheritance from an uncle, and he saw this windfall as a message from his muse. He booked passage on an excursion riverboat which would take him downriver to St. Louis. Perhaps with the green Selectric typewriter he had just purchased he could use the leisurely cruise to write his first novel!

The excursion boat docked for a few hours in Hannibal. The young writer was nearing the end of his monetary resources by this time, but he had a promising first draft of a novel all typed out, a thick sheaf of paper in a manila envelope. He wondered if perhaps there might be a pawnshop in Hannibal. Selling that Selectric would give him money enough to survive until he reached St. Louis, where surely a literary agent would gasp in wonder after reading his manuscript and post haste find him a publisher.

The typewriter ended up at the Rags To Riches pawnshop — the year was 1978; after three more owners it ended up in a shed as a winter dwelling for mice, and then under my scrutiny and Doug’s.

So what happened to the writer? He went on to become a moderately successful author of mystery and suspense novels… but wait… the man is a figment of my imagination, and I’m a benign literary deity; I’ll give him a better fate. He went on to become a revered writer of forty novels, beloved by critics and readers alike, and eventually died in his sleep during the fall of 2045.

Pardon the divagation… I got carried away!

After the feathers were cleared away Doug and I peered into the electro-mechanical maze. Doug went to get an extension cord and I noticed a most intriguing detail; there were two 45-degree-angle gears which looked remarkably like miniature versions of the gears in an automobile differential.

Doug came back and we plugged the typewriter in. Nothing happened, but Doug noticed that the small cylindrical drive motor had heated up. So it was getting current; Doug removed the cogged drive belt from the motor and it silently revved up. The motor was remarkably quiet and vibrationless. I unplugged the cord. It’s surprising that neither of us received an electrical shock.

We found some pockets of corrosion doubtless caused by mouse excreta. I doubt that the typewriter will ever run again, but it was diverting and interesting to explore its innards!




Filed under Hannibal

3 responses to “A Machine of Antiquity

  1. Joan

    To Larry and Doug:

    Rumor has it you had trouble
    Getting in our old abode.
    So we would like to inform you
    That there is no secret code.

    It was built in much more simple times
    As you can plainly see.
    To avoid much further damage
    We are bringing you the key.

    Gus and Jaque

  2. joan

    Here’s a very old ‘ball’ typewriter. Fascinating! And it was electric..I believe.

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