When I was a small child, I remember typing on my mother’s electric typewriter. When the machine was at rest, the hum of the mechanism was obvious; when in use, the noise was loud and violent: the keys clacked away harshly, the typebars hammered against the paper on the black rubber platen, firmly imprinting the words on the page. Whenever I held down the shift key, the whole typewriter seemed to lurch dangerously.
Sometimes there wasn’t paper there at all, an oversight I was nearly always indifferent to. The typing was the thing. The sensation was all I sought. There was a dull thud as the metal typebar met the cylindrical platen, leaving oily traces of ink on the rubber.
My sense of reckless experiment didn’t only extend to the typewriter: at one stage I also noted how similar in appearance the turntable of my parents’ record player was to the potters’ wheel I had seen somewhere on television. I tried to find out if it could be used as one.
I was an impulsive child: with a messy combination of plasticine and water I had soon gummed up the whole mechanism at a speed of thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute.
The record player was destroyed, but the typewriter survived. Which, it seems is what typewriters do. The good ones could take about 20 years of robust use before they needed attention.
The writer Ian Frazier had bought one in the early seventies, but by 1994 the ‘e’ key on his typewriter had stopped working. After calling up a number of repairmen in New York, he found Martin Tytell, a typewriter man who worked out of an office on 116 Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan. Mr Tytell died on September 11th 2008, aged 94.
Fulton Street runs nearly all the way across Lower Manhattan; number 116 is a couple of blocks from the west end of the street, near the World Trade Centre site. Across from Tytell’s old offices is the green and gold awning of the Blarney Stone Grill, and on the wall just above the restaurant a yellow plastic sign reads ‘American Stamp MFG Company Inc’.
The other surrounding businesses include locksmiths, a shoe repair store and a discount jeweller. Some stores lie empty, and are up for rent. The street bears witness to a time not so long ago when things were repaired, not replaced.
There’s something about typewriters, something that evokes nostalgia in those who don’t use the machines anymore, and something that stirs an obsession in those who do. For both kinds of people, Tytell’s store was a treasure trove.
Underwood No. 5
For Tytell, the store was a testament to a lifetime spent working on typewriters. When he was a high school student, he had taken an Underwood No. 5 machine apart while answering phones in the school’s office. He took it apart again and again, but was unable to reassemble it; the typewriter had to be repaired each time. The repairman who fixed it eventually showed the young Tytell how to repair the machines, and soon Tytell went into business maintaining typewriters around New York City.
Tytell worked for the US military during the Second World War, adapting typewriters for use by paratroopers in France, adjusting the keyboard and fitting new typebars so that it was suited for the French language. The military also required Tytell to set up typewriters in a variety of other languages; the typewriters would enable airmen to communicate with locals in their own language by means of typed messages.
One assignment saw Tytell converting typewriters to 21 different Asian and South Pacific languages at short notice. Under severe pressure, Tytell mistakenly installed a letter on the Burmese typewriter the wrong way up. Years later, he learned that the upside-down letter had since become standard on Burmese keyboards.
Converting standard typewriters to foreign languages became a task he would perform at short notice for the stationery department of Macy’s department store. A customer, usually in town on business, would request a typewriter in a language such as Russian or Spanish. Macy’s promised they would supply the converted typewriter before the customer left town, and Tytell would quickly get to work.
Tytell’s masterful knowledge of typewriter mechanics had other uses. He was approached by the defence team of Alger Hiss, a suspected Communist spy who had been convicted of perjury in 1950. A key part of the prosecution’s case against Hiss had depended on typewritten copies of classified State Department documents that had purportedly been made by the defendant on his family’s Woodstock typewriter.
The prosecution’s case was built on the assumption that a typewriter’s print could not be reproduced, that it was unique, like a fingerprint. Tytell was employed to build a typewriter that would disprove this assumption. Over nearly two years, he assembled a machine that flawlessly reproduced the print of Hiss’s typewriter – proving that anybody could have typed the document – but his evidence was never used, and Hiss served 44 months of his five-year sentence.
Tytell retired in 2000, handing over operations to his son Peter. Within a year, the typewriter repair business had closed. ‘The last time someone brought in a typewriter for repair was February of last year,’ Peter Tytell confessed in April 2001.
However, the family business persists, albeit in a different form. Still working from the offices on Fulton Street, Peter Tytell is now in demand as an expert witness in legal cases through his work as a document forensic researcher. He specialises in handwriting analysis, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, typewriting identification.