Tom Robbins’ Remington SL3 Typewriter from “Still Life With Woodpecker”

… was as far as I can tell, a work of fiction. It doesn’t exist and never has.

This was surprising to me, as it seems commonly reported as fact that Tom Robbins used a Remington SL3 to write “Still Life With Woodpecker“.

Wikipedia proclaims this and even Richard Polt’s “Writers and their Typewriters” page reports it as so. However, a search for “Remington SL3″  on Google returns many quotes from the book and pleas from budding writers searching desperately in vain for this magical machine, but no actual machines.

With lines like this singing its’ praises, how could you not want one?

I sense that novel of my dreams is in the Remington SL3 — although it writes much faster than I can spell.

This baby (the Remington SL3 typewriter) speaks electric Shakespeare at the slightest provocation and will rap out a page and a half if you just look at it hard.

These lines from the book where Robbins drops into first-person and describes the writing of the story wax poetically on the virtues of the machine he’s using, and made me curious about why, as Archivist of the Typewriter Database, I had never encountered one or even seen one mentioned as being a part of anyone’s collection. I’d have thought a machine with such high literary cred would be fairly sought out and popular with collectors – maybe not Hermes 3000 or Lettera 32 level popular, but still, *someone* ought to have one.

But nobody does, and a perusal of my reference documents uncovers no mention that such a model ever existed.

So, if Robbins made up the Remington SL3, what did he actually use or what machine was he thinking of when he describes the SL3? If it truly was a Remington, then there are only a few possibilities available as a new machine in 1978-1980, when Robbins wrote the book with his new machine:

1) A Remington-branded Brother portable, most likely the electric typebar JP-2 based “Remington 611″


2) The Remington-Rand Electronic Model 1500, a slow daisywheel typewriter so unpopular that I can’t find a photo of it anywhere.

3) or, most likely, the much maligned Remington SR-101, a clone of the IBM Selectric II.

Remington SR-101, the final nail in the coffin of Remington-Rand
Remington SR-101, the final nail in the coffin of Remington-Rand

Of these possibilities, I like the SR-101 best as the model for the SL3, although only Tom Robbins can tell us for certain. However, don’t run out and get one thinking that there’s some magic in there – it’s widely rumored that IBM, having been ordered by the court to share the specs of the Selectric with Remington, sought revenge by providing inferior materials specifications to their rival, which led to the SR-101 being a problematic machine prone to breakage and easily going out of adjustment. It probably won’t be a happy experience for you.

So, if you’re a budding writer wanting to experience the magic of the Remington SL3, I’d actually suggest looking at the easily-obtained, built-like-a-tank IBM Selectric II. Happy writing! (:

Addendum: I found an interview with Tom Robbins here where he describes writing “Still Life” on his electric typewriter, and how it was an ugly grey (he repaints it) and how it basically fell apart during the process of writing the novel. Sure sounds like an SR-101 to me :D

Nothing good is ever easy: Timelines and TWDB Part 2

Well, after 3 tries at finding a visualization library capable of timeline display that is both simple and flexible, it ended up being kind of a Goldilocks situation – Google’s libraries were too dependent on off-site resources and couldn’t do point data display (like a single date such as “company formed” or “merged with so-and-so”), and my second try was using the boated, outdated and super-buggy MIT visualization libraries (broken, broken, broken abandonware from ’09, which you wouldn’t know unless you started diving into the bug reports), I finally settled on vis.js, which is lightweight, flexible, resizes well, does point data and runs from the local server. Vis.js was “just right”.

Vis.js looks good, resizes well for mobile and is dead-simple to populate with data.
Vis.js looks good, resizes well for mobile and is dead-simple to populate with data.

That much done, I moved onto finishing a semi-functional mockup of what the TWDB Delta “brand” pages might look like. The above screenshot is the first bit. Then of course comes the list of models, and that’s where I ran into the first of the half-million little *gotchas* I’ll prolly run into while doing this.

The problem is, for LC Smith in particular, and certainly other manufacturers, the fact that the LC Smith brand label continued to be applied to machines that were absolutely “Smith-Coronas”, long after LC Smith was merged with Corona. This means there are a few models labelled “LC Smith” that aren’t LC Smiths at all and don’t follow LC Smith’s serial numbering.

Here’s what I mean. When it came down to building queries to pull out the LC Smith model names from the Galleries, I found all those “LC Smith Portables” and “LC Smith Super-Speeds” that aren’t actually LC Smiths. For the Super-Speeds, I *could* just re-file them as Smith-Coronas so they link to the right serial number page (Smith-Corona Super-Speed), but the Portables? Take a look:

lcsmithport1I started re-filing the “LC Smith Portables” as “Smith-Coronas” and quickly realized that wasn’t going to do any good. In the screenie above, note that there are two “LC Smith Portables”, and neither one is either an LC Smith, nor (in terms of model naming normalizations) a “portable”. Instead, you have a “Smith-Corona Silent” and a “Smith-Corona Standard”, both labeled as “LC Smith Portable”.

Thus, in order to set these guys up so they link to the proper serial numbers and are fit into the proper place in the manufacturer’s history, I’d basically have to file them as something completely different than what the labeling says. So, I’m having a bit of a problem figuring out what to do. I suppose I could create specific model designations and serial number pages for these fringe cases, but I’m not entirely sure that’s the best way to handle it. Fringe cases are always bad when you’re talking about relational data handling, and things could get very fragmented and hypercomplex very quickly (and I’m trying hard not to think too much about what a hellspawn that “Brother” will be to shoehorn into this data format).

I’m sort of feeling that the nature of the data, with all of the blending of brands, outsourcing after 1950, and just plain goofy labeling and incestuous relationships between companies might just make the idea of truly rendering the TWDB data in a relational, tightly structured format just plain impossible, and that’s frustrating because it’s for stupid reasons.

In the end, if I do end up doing timelines, they’ll probably be hand-built and riddled with special case provisos, just like the serial number pages themselves (yeah, they’re still flat text/html files just like in Alpha, and when I make changes, I open the file up in a text editor and edit the HTML tables by hand, just like it was 1994). I doubt there’s gonna be any way to auto-generate them with any accuracy that matches up with the serial numbers and labeling on the machines themselves. *sigh*

and I’d gotten so far with the visualizations too…


First Look: TWDB World eBay Typewriter Hunting widget

I’ve been at a loss lately how to get the eBay listing widget that is set up on various places on the desktop version of the TWDB to work on the mobile version. Part of the problem was that getting Javascript to run properly in the DOM-lunacy that is the jQuery Mobile framework is at best, a work of chance – and the output is positionally critical for it to work at all, and the other problem is that none of eBay’s pre-built widgets will gracefully resize in a responsive mobile site.

The solution was essentially “make yer own damn widget”, of course, and so this weekend I signed up as an eBay developer and started parsing through the opaque and version-uncontrolled world of eBay’s programming API. The goal was simple; basically replicate the functions of the basic eBay listing widget in a responsive way that would work with the layout of TWDB Mobile – feed the widget a keyphrase relevant to the page the widget is on (say “Royal Quiet De Luxe typewriter -ribbon”) and get back a nice list with thumbnails and current prices of the listings fitting that query. Easy peasy!

Having done that, I pondered what else I could do with the API. I’ve been working on a rebuild of the whole TWDB (dubbed “TWDB Delta”) using Bootstrap, a framework I recently used on the update, and I wondered if I could format the eBay search results into a nice, attractive slideshow.  I also got curious about how I might be able to parley the API functionality into a really useful tool for hunting typewriters (or whatever) on the various eBays around the world.

After a few hours, the result is this:

twdb-ebaysrc-1Not all that complex yet – it’s just a simple “title” search that builds a nifty slideshow of up to 50 results from any of the 21 regional eBays around the world. Listings are current, and prices are not marked with the currency because eBay’s API doesn’t return the currency symbol, but the price is in whatever currency is standard for that region’s eBay, whatever the heck they use for money there. The links are, like the ebay widgets on the rest of the TWDB, encoded with our affiliate ID, so if you click the result link over to the listing and buy something, the TWDB gets a slice of the fee charged by eBay to the seller, so a couple nickles in the kitty!

Simple as it is, it is a pretty neat way to search every regional eBay for a particular thing all in one place. As a Typewriter Hunting app, it could be made useful with more detailed searching options, and maybe a more informative display than a slideshow, plus maybe a simple search history. I have some more ideas, and I’ll be fiddling with it some more.  Give it a try and let me know if it seems useful enough to flesh it out some more..

also, it’s embeddable! :D

Breakfast At Tiffany’s: Paul Varjak’s Typewriter

"Breakfast at Tiifany's" - 1961. Smith Corona Galaxie, 1960.
“Breakfast at Tiifany’s” – 1961. Smith Corona Galaxie, 1960.

2015-07-19a breakfasttype006 2015-07-19b breakfasttype007 2015-07-19c breakfasttype008 2015-07-19d breakfasttype009 2015-07-19e breakfasttype010 2015-07-19f breakfasttype004

Standard Pica 10CPI typeface.
Standard Pica 10CPI typeface.

2015-07-19gUPDATE: Brian asks below in the comments why I call this machine “red”. The simple answer is “it looks red to me”, but it’s an important question that deserves further examination. He owns a machine of this vintage which he describes as “dark orange”, so the question would be twofold:

1) is the color shown in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” the same color as Brian’s 1959 example? Are the observed differences just an artifact of a color-shifted film print?

2) if they are the same color, and all reddish-orange Galaxies of this vintage as well, what was the name of the color? The 1964 Service Manual doesn’t list any reds or oranges as color options, but does list “Apache Tan”.  If that was not the name, what was?

Here’s Brian’s machine, for comparison.

I also went and dug up some ads of the period. Interestingly, there’s a red Galaxie on almost every one I saw. The color was advertised heavily, but apparently was not popular, judging from the number of surviving examples.


Another sorta related interesting item: The color option list shows a switch at serial number 6T363650, a number that falls right inbetween these two machines in the TWDB:

6t363xxx-1You know what else I noticed? The “Smith-Corona” label was removed from the ribbon cover and added to the front faceplate on that serial number.

Update: here’s a machine that Richard Polt has which is post-1964, and therefore its color is “Sierra Tan”.

FINAL UPDATE: The color is “Hunter Red”. Here’s a close-up I found in a May 1960 issue of “Boy’s Life” magazine. The ad is printed in black & white, but it’s the same as one of the larger color ones above, and we see the color of the main machine shown is called “Hunter Red”:


Final Verdict: Paul Varjak’s typewriter in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a 1960 Smith-Corona Galaxie with 10″ Carriage, 10CPI Pica typeface, in “Hunter Red” and carried in a deluxe blue Holiday Case.

.. and one final thought: the plot of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” could be thought of as Holly’s journey to master her “Mean Reds” so that she can finally commit to love with Paul and Cat. In thinking of plot reasons why Paul’s typewriter had to be red, one line of reasoning I followed was that perhaps the typewriter was representative of Paul’s “Mean Reds”, which prevented him from commitment. Holly solving his “mean reds” with the gift of a typewriter ribbon gave Paul control of his writing life again. Opinions on that?

A man of the cloth and the steel he wields