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:

Been There, Done That: Oliver No. 9

My plan last week was to clean Moe’s Oliver No. 9 typewriter on Monday and Tuesday and get it back to Moe’s shop when she re-opened on Wednesday. I hated to keep the Oliver off her shelves longer than necessary, especially since it was getting so much interest even in its nonfunctional state.

Working against a deadline keeps me focused. I am not a perfectionist – not in the very least. My philosophy is “better done than perfect”, but wow, this Oliver was in rough shape.  Could I get it cleaned up and typing in two or three days?


Groundhog Day

Sizing up Moe’s battered No. 9, I experienced a palpable feeling of déjà vu. Moe’s No. 9 had the same problems as my own dear Oliver No. 9, Olive Dammit:

  1. Dirty escapement – check
  2. Rusty & corroded – check
  3. Broken mainspring – check
  4. Broken drawband – check
  5. Mashed typebars from a fall on the head – check

Dirty Escapement

I felt that this Oliver could type because the escapement was working when I pulled on the carriage gently to the left with key strikes. It worked in a gummy, dirty, erratic sort of way – and for good reason.  It looked like birds were nesting the escapement:


After removing the carriage, I blew out the insides with my DataVac Duster, doctored everything with PB B’laster and things felt a lot nicer.


Rust & Corrosion

I removed the rusty pieces I felt comfortable removing (typebar tower guards, pencil holder, bell and dinger) and threw them into an EvapoRust bath.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much chrome left on the typebar tower guards and pencil holder, so I polished as best I could.

Broken Mainspring

I could barely get the rusty mainspring case open. Yes, the spring was broken:


I carefully removed the broken piece from the case and fashioned a new end for the mainspring center spindle. Here’s a post on how I fixed the broken mainspring on my Oliver a few months ago.

Broken Drawband

The little Oliver drawband hook was missing, so I opted to tie my fishing line replacement to the end of the carriage. I worried that any hook I constructed may not be 100% reliable and I didn’t want to risk it slipping off the machine. I  cleaned and lubricated the carriage rails and put the carriage back on. Here’s a post on how I fixed the broken drawband on my Oliver a few months ago.

Bent Typebars

So now with repaired mainspring and drawband, the typewriter could type – if its typebars could move, that is. The typebar towers were mashed, especially the left side.  Look at this squashed tower guard and imagine what the typebars looked like:


It should be U-shaped, not V-shaped.

This is a back shot:


I very, very gently re-shaped the bent typebars into their distinctive U shape. This was Uri Geller-level typebar bending: I closed my eyes, visualized a perfect U shape and then gently, gently bent the typebars with my mental powers (bare hands).

After I got the typebars into a rough U shape, I started fine tuning the text alignment. I first threw a clean ribbon on the machine and cleaned the slugs with a little denatured alcohol so that I could see what was printing out.  Olivers use little wooden ribbon cores and spool clips. Winding ribbon onto these wooden spools was slow going for me.


Once I had a ribbon running, I started with the letters in the middle of the machine – they would have suffered the least of the impact when the machine was dropped on its head and would have withstood it best since they are short and stout.

They were level-ish in a very Oliver-centric sort of way:


I used this as my baseline – the rest of the kids needed to fall into line!

I worked my way up each tower, gently, gently bending the type bars with my bare hands hoping to accomplish two things: typebars that cleared each other and straight-ish text. The typebars were initially all over the place – way to high and way too low and bumping into each other, but slowly they started to assemble in an orderly fashion.


Gosh – I love Printype

The letters L, P and the period/comma are still rubbing against each each other in the tower.  If the typewriter doesn’t sell this week, I’ll bring it home while the shop is closed and try to make those final adjustments.

The Lady Gorilla

The typebar towers were dragging on the carriage as it rode past, so in a move I call the “Lady Gorilla”, I gently bent the towers up and off the carriage.  I figured that if anything broke during this maneuver, I could give Moe my functional Oliver No. 9. Fortunately, nothing broke.

Typewriter Hygiene

Last, but not least, I scrubbed down the shell with warm soapy water, being careful around the decals. Afterwards, I waxed it up.  It’s cleaner now, but I preserved as much vintage “character” as possible.

True Grit

This Oliver is no fragile green flower: it has survived 95 years and all the abuse, disuse, rust, corrosion and catastrophic falls that could happen in 95 years – and that thing STILL TYPES! Cast iron twentieth-century Chicago engineering at its best! I can’t get over how adorable these things are.  Here she is posing cutely out by the woodpile out back.

The Return of the Native

I took the Oliver back to her home at Moe’s shop on Wednesday morning.  Moe was thrilled to see her again and even more happy that the Oliver was a little cleaner and typing.  I left the typewriter with care and feeding instructions attached to a carriage knob.

Yesterday, I brought the LC Smith No. 8 to my house for a visit.  It has a broken draw strap and other problems that I will try to straighten out over the next couple days.


Straightening Bent Typebars on the Oliver No. 9

I have been experimenting with Vine typewriter videos. Vine is a short-form video sharing service similar to YouTube, but the videos are a maximum of six seconds long. It’s a great format for me since I tend to be long-winded and it compels me To. Cut. To. The. Chase.

I described my Vine clips to my son as sort of boring.  He reassured me, saying that if they are boring, then it’s only six seconds of boring. So here is a loop of six seconds of typing ala Oliver:

I can’t tell you how much pleasure I get from typing on that rattly old thing.

A couple months ago, my Oliver arrived in a damaged box that had been sealed with a kiss from the eBay seller and not much else. The typebar towers were mashed so much so that the top 3-4 typebars couldn’t move – they were all tangled together and rubbing each other especially on the right. The pencil holder was crumpled down.



So I straightened things out. The typed text in the “before” shot shows the ransom note typed peculiarity of the bent typebars:


The “After” text is not quite straight, but I like the residual wackiness. It’s a 94 year old typewriter with its own personality, dammit.

The nickel plate on the tower guards and pencil holder was in bad shape – more rust than nickel plate on the back, so I threw them into an Evapo-Rust bath.

IMG_3257 IMG_3259

They came out very clean – a lot of bare metal but better than rust:


I bent the tower guards with padded pliers and worked on the typebars themselves with my bare hands. The typebars are very soft and with very gentle force + trial and error, I was able to disentangle them and straighten out the text. I took it very slow and made small, incremental changes.  Though I live next door to the Metal Master Good Neighbor Brian, I would really kick myself if I broke any of these old typebars.

Long story short: I can now type a fairly respectable letter.

Lastly, here’s a bonus Vine video clip.  In six seconds or less, I remove the carriage from my Oliver No. 9:

At Last: Oliver No. 9

Cue the Etta James: at last, my typewriter has come along. Thanks to help from friendly typospherians, this old green gal is typing. Check out my mad hunt-n-peck skillz:

I am very glad that I am not a touch typist because this three bank keyboard would really throw me for a loop.

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve posted details: initially her carriage wasn’t advancing on typing. Thanks to a suggestion from Tyler of Words Are Winged, I tightened a hooked nut under the machine and suddenly her space bar became responsive and the carriage advanced as I hit the space bar.

The carriage still wasn’t advancing when regular keys were struck, so I posted a request for functional Oliver No. 9 photos on the Typewriter Talk forum.

I was beginning to appreciate the subtleties of the machine’s construction – the tightness of a single screw or nut can mean the difference between a functional machine and a dead one. Perhaps that sensitivity was amplified by residual rustiness or gumminess in my outwardly cleanish machine.  For the last couple weeks I have been playing whack-a-mole: making adjustments underneath and improving responsiveness of the keys but losing the space bar and vice versa – or losing responsiveness all together. It was all blind fumblings. I needed pictures.

A helpful member of the Typewriter Talk forum posted photos of his functional Oliver No. 9 and I used them as a guide for making adjustments under my machine. My typewriter began to wake up.

I found that my universal bar (area #7) wasn’t close enough to the type bar levers. My space lever nut (area #6) was too tight. I loosened my space lever nut a tiny bit, adjusted the position of the nut in loop of area #1 and adjusted the height of the spring board in area #2 (“Supplemental Spring”). At last. The key strikes began to trigger the escapement and the carriage advanced.

UPDATE: On the advice of Martin Rice (THE Martin Rice), I increased tension on the spring under the universal bar (area #4) by first loosening the wingnut and then by turning the flower nut to compress the spring. This improved reliability.


I doused everything in PB Blaster (underside guts, key levers, ribbon vibrator, escapement) and set it outside for the night. The next morning it was even better – a cleaner crisper response and more reliable escapement trip. My conclusion: my machine was out of adjustment and gummy /rusty and once those two things were corrected, it began to respond.

Gary Bothe’s restoration of an Oliver 2 is an amazing read.  Of special interest, is the section on calibration. In it, Gary Bothe describes a “delicate dance”:

“The activation of the ribbon transport and triggering of the escapement is a delicate dance involving two things, the adjustment of the “hook” connecting the universal bar to the space bar levers, and (on my machine) the setting of the two “mystery springs” arching up under the universal bar from below. These springs are evidently there to cushion the blow of the type bars as they reach the platen, and their adjustment serves as a form of “touch control.” The only time they are activated is when the universal bar contacts them at the end of a type stroke. I found that the machine feels rough and clattery when these springs are adjusted down until they are out of reach of the universal bar, but the touch gets excessively heavy and escapement becomes unreliable when they are too high and are adjusted too tightly. I ended up setting their height so that the universal bar encounters their resistance when the type slugs are about one centimeter above the platen, and then setting the tension (via the bridge screw on the bottom of the frame) to give the best feel. Of course, not having access to the wisdom of the original designers, my approach is strictly trial and error. I encourage you to play with these settings yourself and come to your own conclusions.”

– Gary Bothe, Restoration of an Oliver 2 – Calibration

I still need to make some adjustments to my Oliver. The escapement is still not 100% reliable: it will fail to trip here and there.

I have been watching Words Are Winged’s re-assembly of an Oliver with great interest. I would like to see how he calibrates his machine for best touch and reliability.

I am thinking about getting another Oliver to take apart and reassemble ala Words Are Winged.  I love how open, visible and accessible the parts of the Oliver are – perfect for a novice tinkerer like myself.

Here’s a little Etta James for your Monday:

Progress: The Oliver Advances!

Yesterday I wrote about an issue I was having with my Oliver No. 9: the carriage wasn’t advancing on typing and the ribbon vibrator seemed limited in range of motion.

An eagle-eyed reader of yesterday’s post, Tyler of Words Are Winged, watched my long-winded videos and examined the pictures and suggested that I try tightening a nut under the machine – it seemed a bit loose to him.

Underneath the machine, near the center, is a hook with a tightening nut attached that adjusts tension on the space bar. I believe this is called the “Space-Lever Nut“. I found that tightening the nut (not too much and not too little) I was able to finally get a response from my space bar. It sounded with a satisfying thump and for the first time, the ribbon vibrator moved fully forward and fully back –  all by itself.

And the carriage advanced. Hurray!

Striking the regular keys does not cause carriage advancement – yet. When I strike a key, the ribbon vibrator gives a little wiggle but does not jump forward and back the way it does when the space bar is hit.

Here is another video of the Oliver’s current state. If you see something in the video that jumps out at you, let me know in the comments.

And more pictures:


View underneath from front to back – this is the hook – I tightened the nut attached to it and the space bar began to respond






Of note: here’s a little pin in the ribbon vibrator mechanism that migrates out slowly during typing – I tap it back in when it gets too far out.