Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Putting the "travel" in travel typewriter

The joyous thing about a portable typewriter is that you can take it with you whilst traveling for business or leisure and enjoy the utility a typewriter affords, from places other than your home or office. A couple of weeks ago Ton has recently addressed this topic with an interesting post about the best typewriter to travel with. Dr Polt has also recently corresponded concerning his cross-continental capers with his Kolibri. Hell, I once lugged a 29.3kg suitcase with busted wheels containing (among other things) two 1920's Corona's from Colchester to Birmingham and thence on a plane back to Brisbane. But even that pales in comparison to the type of traveling a recently acquired typewriter of mine has done.......

Let me backtrack. A while ago I saw a reasonably priced typewriter on Gumtree in an accessible suburb of Brisbane. After making an enquiry, I was invited over the following morning and was shown a 1940's model Remington Portable 5 in fairly reasonable nick. This was despite it's case, which was scraped, battered and gouged. It was clear the drawband was broken, but otherwise the typewriter appeared to be not too far off working condition. Looking at the condition of the case I joked that it looked like the typewriter had travelled a few miles.

With this, the seller's eyes lit up. Yes indeed, this typewriter had travelled more than just a few miles. The seller told me this typewriter in fact had belonged to his grandfather, Ken Beckett, who used to be a Methodist minister, with a parish more than three times the size of the state of Victoria. This typewriter, he explained, back in the 1940's, had travelled with his grandfather from Melbourne, (via Perth) up to Halls Creek, Derby, Broome, Tennant Creek, Wyndham, Fitzroy Crossing and almost everywhere in between as part of his work for many years as a Patrol Padre. The map below is a guestimate only, but gives some idea of the area and the distances. Not only were the distances ridiculous, but back in the 40's the roads were pretty much all dirt and therefore in rugged if not impassable condition for much of the monsoon season and slow going at the best of times.

The job of a Patrol Patre involved driving town to town, cattle station to cattle station, hundreds of miles apart over seasonally tretcherous dirt tracks and boggy roads to do everything from conduct church services, baptise babies, offer support and companionship, repair windmills and pull teeth. Dentists in those parts in those days were more than a couple of day's drive apart.

Not only this, but the grandmother of the seller of this typewriter, (aka the Patrol Padre's wife), had written a book about these years of adventure through some of Australia's hottest, wildest, remotest and least hospitable country in the late 1940's and early 1950's. By a stroke of luck, I was able to find this book through my university library and it is a really good read.

Unfortunately the typewriter itself is not mentioned in the book, however the Pedal Wireless is. In the 40's and 50's, before mobile phones, satelite phones, GPS, internet, or even standard telephones on most of the cattle stations, the main form of communication between these incredibly remote places was by wireless radio. The Pedal Wireless was operated by someone pedaling (like a bike) in order to generate electricity to power the radio. Each day at 6am, cattle stations would tune in to listen to and broadcast news from each of the stations. A doctor would be located at the radio base- typically Wyndham- and medical calls (if there were any) would take priority each broadcast. When medical emergencies arose, the then-nascent flying doctors service would fly a small propeller plane out to properties (if a landing strip existed) to evacuate the patients hundreds of kilometers to the nearest hospital.

Beckett (1998, pp.13)

All in all the book is a fantastic historical document and an entertaining read. To think that this typewriter that I now own, accompanied Ken and Beth Beckett (who I now feel like I know quite well though this book) on their incredible travels in the 1940's and 50's, blows my mind just a little bit. I also found out that my own grandma and all her 4 brothers were delivered as babies by the very same Dr Catford, (Eaglehawk, Bendigo) who is mentioned in the book as delivering Ken Beckett as a baby. Ken in 1912 and my own grandmother in 1919. This coincidence is too good to keep to myself and I have now contacted the previous owner of the typewriter to tell him of this.

As far as the typewriter is concerned, it's really not in bad nick physically, especially considering its bruised and battered case which looks like its spent many a mile sliding around on the back of a one tonne truck in the late 40's. However if Ken looked after the typewriter the same way his wife writes about how he looked after his truck, this should be no surprise.

Repairing the drawband with fishing wire (pictured below, before I chopped the end off) wasn't much trouble, but unfortunately the mainspring keeps slipping and I can't get the tension I want. Each time I wind it up to almost a decent tension the mainspring slips. For now it types, but you have to start typing slightly slower by the end of the line. So I think a rather more dedicated fiddle and possibly a Rem 5 parts machine is in order. Otherwise it's just the feed rollers, and hopefully they'll be as easy as easy as a bit of fiddling to get them out and as a visit to the local hardware emporium or Clark Rubber store.

Once I get this beauty going again, I am most definitely going to take it with me when I go traveling. Somewhere.

And before you all start commenting on my great taste in teapots- nope, it's my girlfriend's.

Book reference: Beckett, Beth. (1998) "Lipstick Swag and Sweatrag". Published by Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton. ISBN: 1 875998 37 3


  1. A great story and a lovely old machine. And I think your girlfriend does have great taste in teapots.

  2. Really - red on top? I've got one of these in my typewriter "dungeon" awaiting reprieve via repairs, and this information, if correct, could save me from trying to fix something that ain't broke.

    1. Ah yes. That is another issue. The ribbon vibrator isn't consistently bringing it quite high enough, so it'll occasionally be a multi-colour print. But see all my spare ribbons are just black, so don't tell anyone, but I'll probably just be lazy and not fix that, because with a fully black ribbon one will never know.

  3. A great story with a great typewriter. Please let us know what Mr. Beckett replies! I guess he will be very glad that his typer gets another life with you.

  4. It's always interesting to read a typewriter back story, thanks for sharing.

    By the way, your taste in teapots is impeccable!

  5. Wow, what a great story to go along with your new typewriter. We're so often left to wonder. I wonder myself if she used that one for the book or had her own.

  6. Great backstory! I hope you have luck finding a fix for the slippy mainspring (:

  7. Oh this is that typewriter you were fixing! Brilliant! I need to have a closer look...

  8. Excellent yarn. You were destined to own this machine. Where yours says "par", mine says "self starter" . It isn't something I have seen on any other machne, sort of quirky to have a multispace indent button...

  9. You've just made me spend 20 bucks on a copy of that book.