Quiz time! What do these things have in common?
- A waffle iron
- The Brooklyn Bridge
- An excited Welsh Corgi
- That creepy pyramid with an eyeball on the back of an American dollar bill
- A startled amphibian
- The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn in Prague (Google it, it’s beautiful)
- A fruit bat wearing one of those novelty arrow-through-head joke things
If you answered “Things an Oliver #9 resembles more than it does a normal typewriter”, you win. Pour yourself a stiff drink.
In the art world there’s a school known as Outsider Art, where people have created paintings and writings and artworks completely without any training or even knowledge of the artistic norms we’ve been unconsciously absorbing our entire lives. As a result they tend to be strange, inaccessible, alien creations that follow their own set of rules which would never even occur to the rest of us.
Olivers are kind of the Outsider Art of the typewriter world. You end up with a typed page just like any “normal” typewriter, sure, but the path to get there is totally different. The two machines are similar in the way a fruit bat and a helicopter are similar, because they’re both capable of flight.
It’s quite clear that whoever designed the Oliver (that would be Reverend Thomas Oliver, by the way) had no more than the vaguest notion of typewriter technology when he built the first one. It’s full of all kinds of oddball solutions to typewriter-building problems of the day. Some are unexpectedly elegant strokes of genius, but others are baffling choices that are so objectively worse in every way than the techniques almost every other builder had adopted by then that you wonder what the hell Reverend Oliver was thinking.
Let’s start with the headscratchers. The main impression to someone actually trying to use an Oliver today is that typing on it is very slow. It’s a three-row double-shift mechanism, which is strange and inconvenient to all of us because it disappeared in favor of the much better 4-row single shift keyboards everyone uses nowadays. But even once you get used to that a fleet of less apparent but no less questionable choices soon make themselves known:
- Backspacing is done by whacking an unmarked paddle hanging off the right side.
- Setting or releasing the margins is a convoluted process which uses several randomly-placed buttons and a lever with an odd twist-and-slide movement.
- Reversing the ribbon requires bonking an unmarked nub hidden on the side of the base.
- Threading the ribbon is a hilarious process of threading the tiny wooden spools below, behind and through various openings while trying not to impale your fingers on the hooked razor sharp points of the vibrator.
- The plate above the keyboard is concave in such a way that every drop of moisture in the room will collect there and rust it into oblivion.
It’s not all bad news though! The Oliver has a few unexpected strokes of sheer genius. First and best is the carriage: It can be completely removed and replaced with no tools in a matter of seconds. There’s a nifty little clip on the drawband which grabs onto the typewriter’s frame when you pop off the carriage, and hooks itself right back into place when you slide it back on. And in the event the clip fails or gets knocked off, a little pigtail-shaped wire will trap it and prevent it from ruining your day (and your face) when the spring tension releases all at once. Plus the cord can be replaced in five minutes by tying two knots in a string and dropping it right in. The entire carriage / drawband system is elegant, clean, and perfect.
Other good stuff:
- There’s a retractable pencil holder for drawing lines on the paper.
- The keys are octagonal and pop right off with a screwdriver for easy cleaning and maintenance.
- The “Printype” font later #9s came with is pretty awesome.
- There are GIANT PHALLIC HANDLES sticking out of the sides for easy portability.
- In the early-1900s world of boring black rectangles, it stands out with its stylish green paint and voluptuously buttock-shaped rear end.
Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the towers. That singular defining element of an Oliver typewriter. Those bizarre glorious towers. Two banks of U-shaped hammers hovering high over the paper, jaunty little spool holders nestled within each. In the 1890s world of non-visible typewriters, this was a revolution. You could see what you were typing! Only like three inches at a time, but still.
So the Oliver typewriter enjoyed its brief years in the sun, until by the early 1920s everyone else had caught up and surpassed it. Visible typing wasn’t a novelty anymore, and the Oliver’s wacky tower design meant that it couldn’t easily be improved upon by adding more keys or features. They ran out of money, sold the name to a British company who slapped it on normal-looking typewriters, and that was the end of that. No typewriters using the legendary original Oliver design have been made in just about a century.
Is that a bad thing? No, not really. It’s awkward to use even by typewriter standards, let alone the computers we’re all used to. There would be absolutely no market for such a thing in the 21st century, and what desire there is can be satisfied by the few relic machines still floating around out there, enduring testaments to ignoring conventional wisdom and solving problems in your own completely unique- and sometimes baffling – ways. The world is a better place for having Oliver typewriters in it, even though they haven’t been the solution to any problems whatsoever in the past eighty years.