Foster-Child of Silence and Slow Time: 1917 Oliver 9

I have recently been thinking a lot about this three-axle End Times van my son spotted in San Mateo a couple years ago.

In these uncertain times, I daydream about a Decameron re-tread in this van. Gathering ten or so of my ole buddies, we’d roadtrip to my concrete bunker in the country to party down and tell stories while we wait out the pandemic. We’ll need several big Frito-Lay variety packs, a few cases of beer – and a troubadour too.

I want to go to there. But of course, we’re responsible and sensible and we’re staying put, peering out the curtains like the Olds we are. We have the luxuries of remote work, a paycheck, and a fridge full of food.  I check in on members of the Extended Family Universe™ via some very chaotic Zoom and FaceTime calls and group texts.  I have attended three virtual high school reunions—really!  Physically isolated, we are surprisingly more socially connected with family and friends now than when we were immersed in the hectic normality of the Before Time.

My daughter and I have formed a small-scale Ladies Aid Society with neighbors and are sewing fabric face masks, a 21st century take on bandage rolling.

I bake bread, another Instagram-friendly pandemic cliché.

Beauty, eh?

I am suffering from pandemic mush brain, having problems with focus and attention. I should be taking this time to pull an Isaac Newton and write my own Principia. I should finish that novel I started last year. I should paint a picture for that blank wall in the family room. I should start a family band. I should invent something. During the plague years of the 1980s, Edward Van Halen invented this:

I think back back to my Holiday Christmas Typewriter Open House just six months ago and the close, sweaty gathering of people at a party seems like a quaint, old-fashioned, and alarming practice, like smoking Camels during pregnancy or packing four kids into a front bench seat without seat belts.

It was at that Christmas party that Typospherian John A. brought this nonfunctional 1917 Oliver 9 with a Polish keyboard. Cosmetically in very good condition, it has all the little pieces that tend to go missing with Olivers: spool cup lids, drawstring clip, wooden spool centers, spool clips, pencil holder. It has some rust and delaminated plating, but the decals are in great condition.

These Olivers are heartbreakingly strange and cute – the Baby Yoda of typewriters. They would make Werner Herzog cry.


Polish keyboard

Probably manufactured for the immigrant community in the US, it is packed with untold stories of happiness and prosperity and hardship and survival. What can this old one tell us about the long years of the past century? What of the Spanish Flu?  The Great Depression? The Second World War?  What was in the letters and documents it produced? Was it a parade of news, the happy and sad and matter-of-fact? Business correspondence or love letters?

John’s Oliver 9 was not typing and I guessed that it was a broken mainspring—it had no zing when wound.  For some reason, Oliver mainsprings seem to be very vulnerable to snapping: this is the fourth I’ve seen with a broken mainspring.  It may be because they are so exposed on the Oliver rear end and people play with them.

John left the Oliver with me until I could take a look at it.  I took the carriage off and opened the mainspring drum. On inspection, it was a broken mainspring:

Duane at Phoenix Typewriter has a terrific video that goes through the ins and outs of repairing the mainspring on an Oliver:

I fashioned a new end for the broken spring and re-assembled.  Ta-da!  A 103 year-old typing Oliver with the very nice Printype typeface:

Very nice! The type is a little dirty and needs a good scrub.  Unlike many Olivers out there, the alignment is pretty good. I am mailing out face masks to far-flung family and friends, and a companion note written in Printype is a nice addition. Let me know if you need one.

I work on my face masks in the evenings as a meditative exercise. The gentle thwump-thwump-thwump of my 1973 Sears Kenmore 158.1703 calms and focuses me. This loyal workhorse deserves its own blog post.

Producing something concretely useful is good for tamping down the many anxious thoughts that come to me. When I was a kid and in a snit about something, my mother would say, “Now, now. In the light of all eternity…” and trail off leaving me to contemplate the comparative magnitude of eternity and the small matter at hand. She wasn’t being dismissive, just serenely pragmatic.

The problems are bigger now, but I still find great solace in thoughts of eternity and the immensity of the universe. My own comparative insignificance is of great comfort to me. If I close my eyes, I can hear the gentle hum of the spheres.  We are small, overwhelmed by the vastness of time and space.

The Voyager I and II spacecrafts are out there somewhere, spinning through the darkness and silence, chasing distant light.

Voyager I trajectory. Tomruen / CC BY-SA

Voyager I and II both carry a Golden Record with images, sounds, and documents of Earth—the way it was in 1977.   If intelligent life intercepts these probes, they may find this information useful.

NASA/JPL / Public domain

The Golden Record’s message from Jimmy Carter makes me tear up a little.  It’s so full of the ambition, yearning, and hope we need now:

15 thoughts on “Foster-Child of Silence and Slow Time: 1917 Oliver 9

  1. Yes, you seem to feel it too. As bad as things are, without discounting the pain and suffering of others, this is a unique time. Generations in the future will ask what was it like, or what were you doing then. The world is still something that deserves awe, and we have so much to do and learn. As has been said before, Keep Calm and Carry On. It still matters. Also, It’s how you get though things. Cheers.


    • Oliver mainsprings are the only mainsprings I have had to repair. Maybe their springs are made of more fragile metal than other typewriter springs. In my mind a more probable explanation is the location of the mainspring drum: exposed on the back of the machine, it begs to be played with. If wound tightly the wrong direction, the spring snaps.


      • I think they get wound in the wrong direction by people playing with them. I’ve had other brands of mainsprings break. Right now I have about 3 or 4 H3k springs to re attach to their hub. These are a pain since I no longer have access to a machine shop.


  2. OldGreyBeard says:

    Thankyou for such a thoughtful blog post.
    It is interesting how mending things is a solace in these weird times. So far I’ve mended four dining room chairs and the kitchen cupboards plus a host other things. I’ll be moving onto cleaning some typewriters soon once the higher priority jobs are done. A sort of reward job. Been in lockdown since the 20th March and haven’t been more than a mile from my house. The queues to get into each shop and the tendency to view even old friends as potential bio hazard is really quite wearing.

    On the other had I did get the last tub of chicken manure pellets at Wilkos last week. 7Kg of goodness. Happy days!

    Amazed you’ve got bread flour. Small packets of the stuff are as rare as hen’s teeth in the UK.


    • It’s very hard to find flour here as well. I am down to my last 5lb bag and getting nervous. I have been considering buying in bulk from a restaurant wholesaler that’s now selling to the public and splitting it with the neighbors. Yeast has disappeared from the shelves as well, but I bought a pound of yeast online and should be set for rest of the century. 🙂


      • OldGreyBeard says:

        I’m trying to make a sourdough starter following the technique in Sandor Katz’s book.

        Meanwhile as part of the lockdown sortout I have an Empire Aristocrat in a plastic crate that I really do need to finish cleaning and removing the rust from.


      • My mom’s sourdough starter recipe requires a lot of flour and feeding. I’m holding off until I have a reliable source of flour.

        Enjoy your time with the Empire Aristocrat. They are not common here in the States, and I have never typed on one.


  3. I find the same challenges and satisfaction restoring sewing machines, typewriters and clocks fascinate me as well! Good job and I look forward to following your posts.


    • It’s so fun, right? My dad was a clock fanatic, and I inherited his love for small, simple machines. I find a broken typewriter to be a fascinating puzzle to solve – so satisfying when I can fix it. If I see a nonfunctional typewriter, something in me calls out, “Make it work, make it work!”


  4. Nick Merritt says:

    I apparently haven’t checked back here in a long time. Another great post, humorous and humane too. I’ve been away from typewriters a bit; I’ve turned my repair urge to getting some older cameras I’ve collected back into working order. Same feeling of accomplishment, though cameras can really be bears to work on — harder to get into and often specialized tools are needed.

    I too have been working from home, safe in my little bubble. But the events stemming from George Floyd’s death make me realize staying safe is not enough.


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