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Volume 47, Number 4July/August 1996

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Mr. Typewriter

Written by Susan Lunder-Gliebe
Photographed by T. L. Litt

Martin Tytell stands amid shelves sagging with the weight of hundreds of typewriters. "These machines keep me alive," he says fondly—and he isn't just talking about his income. Following a recent heart operation, the 82-year-old maestro of the manuals found a suitable thank-you gift for his Iranian-American surgeon on one of those shelves: a lightweight, reverse-carriage Olivetti with Farsi script, once—he was told—the property of the Shah of Iran.

Dressed in his signature white lab coat and his proper bow tie, grandfatherly Martin Tytell has been, since 1930, the quiet king of the international manual typewriter. His workshop in lower Manhattan is a dim and cluttered shrine to the pre-microchip age. Nearly 500 mostly whole machines—now including a dozen reconditioned Arabic Underwoods surplussed by the us State Department—sit amid bins of rods, feed rollers, return-carriage bells, key caps, springs, screws and scraps of machinery related to any typewriter that ever existed anywhere.

"These machines speak to me," he says, "and sometimes I talk back."

But now Tytell is speaking figuratively, because when his typewriters talk, he can't always understand the language. With an inventory above two million individual pieces, the Tytell Typewriter Company is also the repository of the world's most linguistically diverse collection of type. There are special letters or whole alphabets for writing Malayalam, Farsi, Turkish, Ottoman, Syriac, Urdu, Bengali and no fewer than 137 other languages and dialects—most living, some not—as well as five different Arabic typefaces. With his cornucopia of parts and his engraving machine ready to customize and fill gaps in obscure collections, Tytell handles requests from all over the world, including many from the Middle East and from Arabic-speakers in North America.

His Arabic connection, Tytell says, began more than 50 years ago. "My great discovery was to put an idle gear—which I had picked up on Canal Street for 45 cents—into an American typewriter to make it go from right to left," he says. "I became a specialist overnight."

Now, Tytell knows of only two companies—one in India, the other in Mexico—that still make reverse-carriage, manual typewriters in Arabic.

"There are 21 [Arab] countries with more than 183 million people who all use Arabic, and there's almost nobody around to serve this market," he observes. As a result, Tytell's clients have been, over the past five decades, a virtual Who's Who, from corporations, universities and governments to antique dealers, film studios and individuals, many of them from the Arab world.

Tytell's craftsmanship is time-consuming, and the machines are priced accordingly. Looking for a new, correcting electric typewriter adapted to Farsi? That will be $2400. Or a portable in Ottoman? That's $450. Need to rent a simple Arabic manual machine? That will cost you $350, monthly.

Not everyone treats his machines with the respect Tytell accords them. When a group of filmmakers needed an antique typewriter for a scene not long ago, he sold them a 1915 Oliver. And how did they use it?

"They threw it off a cliff!" says Tytell. Then his tone rises as he adds, "And then they called me back to say the scene hadn't worked out right, so they needed to buy another for a retake!" Mr. Typewriter refused to sell them one.

Free-lancer Susan Ludmer-Gliebe lives in New York and southern France.

Photojournalist T.L. Litt is photo editor of American Lawyer.

This article appeared on pages 8-9 of the July/August 1996 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1996 images.