Kentucky Typer is a high-tech guy, but his passion is old typewriters

May 3, 2015
Bryan Sherwood started his business, Kentucky Typer, two years ago. He repairs typewriters and buys, restores and resells them. Sherwood said many of his sales have been to 20-somethings who have discovered typewriters, a machine that all but disappeared from homes and offices after personal computers became popular in the 1980s. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Bryan Sherwood repairs old typewriters and buys, restores and resells them. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

By day, Bryan Sherwood is an IT specialist for a Lexington accounting firm. But he spends most evenings and weekends in his garage, working on an older type of information technology.

Sherwood runs Kentucky Typer, one of the few businesses left that repairs typewriters, those clacking machines that were ubiquitous in offices and homes for nearly a century before computers replaced them.

He said he cleans, lubricates and repairs about four typewriters a week for customers all over the country. Sherwood also buys and refurbishes typewriters and resells them through his website, Kytyper.com.

“I like the fact that they do one thing but do it really well,” he said “You can’t surf the Internet. But you can put printed words on a page.”

His mechanical mind also appreciates old typewriters’ design and craftsmanship.

“I like seeing all the different ways designers of the past approached the same problem,” he said.

150429KyTyper0010Sherwood, 43, learned typewriter repair by studying old manuals and working with Ed Reed of Ed’s Office Machines in Winchester. Sherwood thinks he and Reed might be the last two typewriter repairmen in the state.

Kentucky Typer was launched two years ago, but Sherwood has seen a surge in business lately.

Many customers are older people who have used typewriters their entire lives and don’t want to learn computers. Other typewriter users like the romance of machines on which so much great 20th-century literature and journalism was produced.

Still others are people who write a lot and enjoy a more physical, mechanical experience than they can get with a laptop computer.

“What I hear a lot is there’s a different aspect to writing with a typewriter than on a computer,” he said. “It’s because they don’t have all the distraction of Facebook, email dinging in and all those kinds of things.”

A growing number of typewriter buyers are people in their 20s who were born after the computer age began. Their generation’s interest has pushed up prices, especially for manual portables made from the 1930s to 1960s. Those now sell for two or three times what they did just a few years ago.

Ironically, the Internet has fueled interest in typewriter use and collecting. It has made it easier for typewriter fans to connect with one another, find and buy machines and get parts and information.

That is how I discovered Kentucky Typer. My trusty 1941 Remington Deluxe Remette needed adjustment, and in searching for information I found a PDF of Remington’s 1940 portable typewriter manual on Sherwood’s website.

I have always been an early adopter of technology, from the Radio Shack TRS80 I bought in 1981 to the MacBook Pro I write on now. But I also love typewriters because, well, I just do.

I learned to type on my parents’ Royal desktop. They gave me an electric Smith-Corona portable to take to college, but it was such a noisy beast I ditched it for a 1920s Royal manual portable that I bought from my landlord.

I was later given a 1920s Underwood desktop, a formidable hunk of iron. For the past 15 years or so, my typewriter of choice has been the 1941 Deluxe Remette. That rugged model was said to be a favorite of World War II correspondents.

150429KyTyper0025Sherwood’s favorite typewriter is the IBM Selectric, which used a unique type ball. They were made at IBM’s Lexington plant from 1961 until production ceased in 1986.

Selectrics still are excellent machines and fun to work on, Sherwood said. But he also has other reasons for liking them: He learned to type on one in high school, and his father worked on IBM’s Selectric assembly line.

Sherwood services all kinds of typewriters, charging $79 for basic cleaning and repair, plus $40 an hour for major work.

He restores mostly Selectrics and post-World War II portables, most of which he sells for $100 to $200. Smith-Corona, Remington and Olympia manual portables from the 1950s are especially popular.

Sherwood isn’t ready to give up his day job at Dean Dorton Allen Ford any time soon for the typewriter business. But he and his wife, Heather, enjoy it as a hobby.

“It’s fun to help people get machines working that aren’t working,” he said. “And lots of places there’s just nobody left who will do it.”

 


IBM retiree helped invent word processing in Lexington

April 21, 2014

140421WordProcessing001This IBM photo from June 1957 shows an early prototype of the MT/ST, the first word-processing machine, that Leon Cooper helped develop at IBM labs in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The project was later moved to Lexington, where the MT/ST was produced. Center, Cooper today with old office machines and the magnetic tape cartridge used by MT/ST. Photo by Tom Eblen. Below, An IMB marketing photo for MT/ST from the mid-1960s.

 

Leon Cooper was watching Jeopardy! earlier this year when an answer caught his attention: “In the 1960s, this firm introduced the first word processor, the MT/ST, based on its Selectric typewriter.”

Cooper, 86, knew the question better than anyone. It was “What is IBM?”

140403MMSecretariatCenter0014But it had been years since the Lexington man had reflected on the fact that he and several other IBM engineers invented electronic word processing, a technology now so common and pervasive that it is hard to imagine modern society without it.

Fifty years ago — June 29, 1964 — IBM launched the Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter, or MT/ST, which was developed and manufactured in Lexington.

The machine’s launch made headlines in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Cooper has those clippings neatly preserved in a binder, along with his reports, patent documents and photos of prototypes.

IBM hired a young Jim Henson to make a short movie promoting the MT/ST. That quirky 1967 film, The Paperwork Explosion, provided an early glimpse at the creative genius whose Sesame Street Muppets would later help teach generations of children to read, count and get along with others.

Cooper was a mechanical engineer for IBM in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1957 when his boss asked him to solve a big problem.

“When somebody sees a typewriter these days, they wonder, ‘How in the world did you correct anything?’ Well, the answer was you really didn’t,” Cooper said. “But the real answer was that the novice didn’t type. The only people who typed were professional typists.”

A good professional could type 90 words per minute with few errors. But if she — and virtually all typists in those days were women — needed to make multiple copies, it required several sheets of paper sandwiched with carbon paper. That slowed the process, because any mistakes had to be corrected on each copy.

Some punched-paper tape typewriters had been made since the 1930s, but they were better suited for form letters than general office use. Errors were hard to correct, and paper punch tape wasn’t reusable.

“Our mission was to capture the keystroke on a correctable medium that could produce multiple clean copies, because copying technology in those days was crude,” Cooper said.

The medium his team chose with was reusable magnetic tape with sprockets so it could be moved forward and backward. The first prototype used an input keyboard to record keystrokes on tape and store them in electrical relays. If the typist made a mistake, she simply backspaced and typed over it. The stored information could then be printed multiple times using a connected electric typewriter.

140421WordProcessing002“We didn’t know what all we could do until we got further along on the program,” Cooper said. “That we could do insertions and deletions and move things around and combine two tapes, names and addresses on one and messages on another.”

Early prototype machines used vacuum tubes until transistors became more reliable. Electronic memory was the major challenge, he said, because “storage was a big, clumsy thing in those days.”

Cooper and his project were moved to Lexington in 1958, where he worked with electrical engineers J.T. Turner and Donald Sims, among others. The IBM Selectric typewriter, introduced in 1961 with a keyboard capable of both input and output, helped make the MT/ST system commercially feasible.

“We called it power typing,” Cooper said. “We were not sophisticated enough to know what word processing was.”

In fact, IBM marketers would coin the term “word processing” when they began selling the MT/ST in 1964. The first model was the size of a small file cabinet, could store only 24,000 characters and printed 180 words per minute.

The MT/ST was expensive: $7,010 to $9,535, depending on optional features. “But I was told they sold the first year’s projection in a month,” Cooper said.

The MT/ST sold well into the 1970s, when it was replaced with typewriters using cassette tapes and then floppy disks. IBM introduced the personal computer in 1981 and the typewriter, an office fixture since the 1880s, was soon history.

Cooper retired from IBM in 1982 and started QED Medical, which makes headlamps for surgeons and other specialty lighting. His son, Ira Cooper, now runs the Lexington-based company.

“I really want to emphasize that this was a group effort,” Cooper said of IBM’s MT/ST project, which introduced the world to word processing. “But I was the first guy there.”

IBM hired a young Jim Henson to create this promotional film for the MT/ST in 1967. Henson would later create Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the other Muppets.