By Gordon Hopkins
For those not in the know, Wilber, Nebraska, is the “Czech Capital of the U.S.A.” That is not hyperbole and it is not merely a marketing gimmick. It is an official designation, made so by no less then President Ronald Reagan, who signed a proclamation saying as much back in 1987.
This weekend, the annual Czech Festival is going on. This celebration of Czechiness makes now an opportune time for me to tell you the story of a typewriter.
Just go with me on this.
Sitting in the news room right now is a typewriter. In this digital age, a typewriter in a newsroom is a rare sight. Even in the days before computers, when newspaper offices were filled with the clackety-clack sounds of a dozen typewriters all churning out news copy at once, a typewriter like this was a still rare sight.
It was built sometime in the 1930s. The exact date eludes me. It was manufactured by a company called Zbrojovka Brno, headquartered in Brno, Czechoslovakia.
The company was founded as a state-owned factory that primarily manufactured arms, although it produced a number of other products, including tools and tractors and, yes, typewriters. A gun maker building typewriters might sound strange to some but it certainly was not unheard of. Here in the U.S., one of the best-known typewriter brands was Remington, after all.
This particular machine was made for, and used by, the Czech army. It is a dark gray machine and patches of the crinkled paint have worn off, revealing the metal beneath. Despite its age, the chrome that separates the ribbon cover from the rest of the body is still quite shiny. The number 230 is stenciled on the side in a pale, yellow paint, presumably added by the army. It is clearly not part of the machine’s original livery, as it doesn’t match the faded gold of the manufacturer’s decals. The significance of the number is unknown to me. I imagine it identified what department it belonged to.
In 1938, Nazi Germany was on the march across Europe and began the process of occupying Czechoslovakia. At some point, like Czechoslovakia, the German army took possession of the machine and declared it their own. During World War II, the typewriter was used by the administration of the occupation Protektorat Böhmen und Mähren (German for “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia”).
Both the typewriter and Czechoslovakia were liberated in 1945 when Germany surrendered.
As for the typewriter’s post-war life, I have no information. The fellow who sold it to me said he knew nothing more about its history than what I have already related above. That’s enough for me.
Alas, I am not typing this story on that machine. There is something wrong with the carriage that I have not quite figured out yet, though I remain hopeful.
Instead, in keeping with the military theme, I opted to type this column on another army typewriter. I recently bought a Swedish military surplus typewriter, an Olympia Carina 2. It works pretty well. More importantly, being European, it has some characters I needed to write this column that my American typewriters don’t have: the ö and ä with the umlaut (the little dots).
If you are interested, here is what the military surplus catalog had to say about this typewriter, “An EMP (electromagnetic pulse) won’t knock this tool out of commission. Just think, this typewriter could have been used to type top secret communiques for the Swedish Armed Forces during the Cold War.”
Okay, I realize it is far more likely this typewriter was used to fill out acquisition forms for things like blankets and canteens and toilet paper. That’s okay by me. They also serve who only fill out paperwork.
As for my Czech typer, a lot of typewriter collectors work hard to refurbish their machines, repairing dings and scratches and giving them new paint jobs, making them look brand new, as if they just rolled off the assembly line. Not this one. I still hope to get it working but I intend to keep this machine’s battle scars visible. I think it has earned them and should be proud of them.