The Typewriter Collector
By Suzanne BuzekRichard Polt romanticizes the writing process. Being professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy, Polt’s fetish for writing is conducive to his field of study. However, it should be noted that when he spends hours staring at a computer screen without progress, when the distractions of the web or e-mail smother his creativity, or when he suffers blank Word document syndrome, he simply turns the computer off and returns to a method of writing that he has used since age 12: the classic, old-fashioned typewriter.
“My interest in typewriters goes back to the ‘70s when my dad bought me a 1930s typewriter at a garage sale,” Polt says. “This is the typewriter that got me hooked—I just thought it was so beautiful—and I used it into graduate school until I got my first computer in 1989.”
The Remington Noiseless Model 7 sits proudly in his office, among dozens—scores, actually—of other typewriters. Polt got serious about the machines 15 years ago when he found out about 19th-century typewriters from Paul Lippman’s American Typewriters: A Collector’s Encyclopedia. His oldest machine, from 1889, is a Hammond’s Number One.
“I love all of the typewriters for some reason because there’s a story behind each one of them,” says Polt.
With a collection now nearing 200, Polt has sentimental feelings for each of his typewriters, whether he buys them from the Internet because of their rarity or from the thrift store because of their ordinariness. He sees in each machine a hope of someday writing on them, even if they require a lot of work and maintenance.
“I was pretty timid about fixing them up at first, but I’ve gradually gotten bolder in seeing what I can fix,” he says. “There aren’t any written rules for an unusual typewriter, so you just have to take it apart and try to understand it. A lot of things can be fixed with a screwdriver if you just pay attention. That’s one of the nice things, that you can actually understand how typewriters work.”
Of the typewriters that cover the many shelves in his office, there are quite a few worth noting. One is gold-plated Royal similar to that on which Ian Flemming, author of the James Bond books, typed. And there are other rarities with special meanings, as well.
“I was contacted by a Holocaust survivor living in the area who wanted to give me his typewriter, and it’s a Hebrew typewriter,” Polt says. “That was a meaningful gift. This man had used it to write the newsletter for a synagogue after coming to America.
“I have one that was made in Germany but sold in Czechoslovakia, and it was labeled to look as though it was made in the United States,” Polt continues. “It’s in English and standard portable. I think the Czechs, justifiably, were friendlier towards Americans than they were to the Germans in the ‘30s. This was owned by a Czech man who had emigrated to American and brought this with him.”
Polt is also lending a German typewriter, called the Ideal, to a movie company filming a scene in German Army barracks during World War I in the movie “Suckerpunch.” The movie company, like many of Polt’s growing circle of typewriter friends, found and contacted him through his web site.
“There are hundreds of typewriter collectors around the world, but nobody else serious in Cincinnati,” he says. “So just about everything we talk about is over the Internet and every so often we get to meet each other in person.
“Another way we all keep in touch is through the magazine, ETCetera,” Polt continues. “People send in material from all around the world, and I do the layout and some editorial work. There’s more news than you might think. It seems that there’s always some new kind of typewriter to be discovered that nobody’s ever heard of.”
Ultimately, it all comes back to the writing and the magic of its process. Not only does Polt enjoy taking a break from the computer when it comes to work, but his hobby has helped his students in their writing.
“I’ve given some typewriters to students if they are having trouble writing or concentrating on the computer,” says Polt. “There’s something about the fact that you can’t always delete and rearrange on a typewriter, and writing on the typewriter makes it not so easy as opposed to writing on the computer, and a lot of people like that.”