Tools of the Trade No.1 – The Underwood Portable

The $8 Laptop

We have some pretty tech-savvy editors at Armchair/Shotgun. And at production time, our sleek netbooks with their solid-state drives and whisper-quiet keyboards make it such that the ubiquitous Macintosh boot-up sound is just about the only thing drowning out John’s smug comments about his Kindle. But, true to our print-ward leanings, we have a deep and abiding love for the tactile aspect of our art. That’s why, when it’s time to play, we usually pull something out from the Armchair/Shotgun typewriter collection.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll share the collection with you. Because we know you’re all geeks too. Enjoy.

The Four-Bank Underwood Portable.

The $8 Laptop

Model: Underwood Portable (4-bank)

Year Built: late 1920’s

Price Paid: $8.00

The Underwood portable was the IBM Thinkpad of its day. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Underwood was known for their robust, fairly elegant, durable business machines (there are multiple functional Underwoods in the A/S collection). These black-enamled beauties had a multitude of typographical features and solid, reliable mechanisms. They were also remarkably heavy.

Looking for a way into the market, competitor Corona simultaneously formed and cornered the domestic typewriter game by creating the foldable Corona 3. Slim and sexy, the 3 let you type from the comfort of the rumble-seat on your Model T. It was marketed to folks who had little reason to own a bulky, full featured machine like the Underwoods, and was stripped down to three banks of keys, utilizing a double-shift mechanism akin to today’s “fn” key on netbooks.

Well, Underwood wanted a piece of the action, and decided to do consumers one better: in 1919, it releases a three-bank, relatively light portable, that takes up as little space as the Corona 3, but requires no folding. This is a pretty significant feat in an age of steel linkages and ball-joints, but Underwood effs up the buy on one key point — anyone who’s used an Underwood before has never learned to use a three-bank double-shift keyboard. And anyone who did know how to work such a keyboard already owned the machine that taught them, the Corona 3. To make matters worse, in 1920 the folks over at Remington, another business-machine shop, drop the 4-bank, single-shift Remington Portable. Underwood is locked out of the fight for the domestic user for six years until in 1926 they make this little guy, the Underwood 4-bank Portable.

The 4-bank shares the reliability of all Underwood machines, at a fraction of the heft. Perhaps as a way to show they were letting their hair down, Underwood released the 4-bank in a bunch of colors, including the faux-woodgrain shown above. Without the historic significance or the svelte looks of the Corona 3, these portables can be had for pennies nowadays, and they function with the same keyboard layout that all computer users are accustomed to.

This particular example is well worn, and was purchased for $8 at an Upstate New York flea market, complete with case. A new ribbon and a healthy dose of oil on all moving parts revealed a functional tool with a crisp action for a typewriter of its vintage. A fair amount of surface rust on the plated parts will keep this from being a show-piece, but the typebars are straight and the springs are still strong, so it suits us just fine.

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