The Sheep of Liechtenstein

Jonathan Gourlay confronts the romantic appeal of typewriters and the resonance of obsolescence.


In the last century, my father used a 1954 IBM Model B Executive typewriter that smelled of metal and ink and looked like the insectoid spawn of a Buick and a scarab beetle. Its dark green surface was rough and unfinished, as if it had escaped from the factory before it was fully formed. When I clicked it on, it babbled and buzzed and shook. The green beast waited impatiently to release the pent-up thwack of a letter onto a page helplessly pinned to the platen by a metal arm.

In my memory, the typewriter is enormous because I am tiny. It rattles and ticks atop an old sewing table as I crawl onto a black vinyl swivel chair and sit and stare down the serious silver letters IBM. Hitting the space bar is as pleasing as firing a gun. At first, I just randomly punch keys to see what happens. Now I’m hooked on the thing. I love the noise of the shifting letter racks when I hit Caps Lock. I punch three keys at once to try and trip it up.

Who’s in charge now?

The type bars tangle halfway between the key-lever and the page, unable to reach their destination until I untie them. If I want words I can’t just go monkey on the thing. I must tame the beast to sentences — a difficult task for a ten year old that includes overuse of white corrective tape and fingertips blackened from wayward letters. I finally get it to say what I want:

Dear Liechtenstein:

I am doing a 5th grade country report please send me information on your country thank. you.

Liechtenstein is, in my mind, a magical made-up place like Narnia. So it was surprising, three-weeks later, to receive a package of books from such a distant place. A thick, picture-less economic report counted every sheep and coin in the Principality. The book devoted pages to one of the main sources of income for the country: selling plates of stamps to collectors. Other books contained information, historical, geographical, and economical, on every inch of Liechtenstein, from Bangshof to Balzers. A Liechtensteiner clerk wished me well on my report.

Although I wouldn’t have called them such, the empty pages that I rolled onto the beast were search windows into the obscure world beyond the suburbs. A query. Three weeks later, a ping. Today the sheep of Liechtenstein appear on my screen almost as soon as I have thought of them.

It’s easy to romanticize typewriters because they are obsolete. Dead technology is melancholy; we see our own future in its rusting carcass. Yesterday’s ubiquitous machines are tomorrow’s specialist fetishes. I don’t know if writing has become better or worse since the death of the typewriter or if our lives were simpler and more fulfilling before we lived under the unblinking eye of an infinite search bar. Was it somehow more authentic, better, more “real” to wait for three weeks to discover the number of sheep in Liechtenstein? Was the information itself more precious? Perhaps a typewriter, because it contained no information but what the user could supply, reflected the writer’s essence more clearly.

A typewriter wasn’t connected to anything but your own mind and, if electric, the wall socket. It is no wonder that writers became attached to them as they would a lover or a limb. It’s no wonder a blank page could drive them mad. For a brief period in the 20th century, writers had to face a metallic mind-mirror that mocked and cajoled them while it waited for their fingers to bring it to life. Yes, you would need to drink something strong just to approach the thing.

In graduate school the poet Donald Revell instructed us to sit down to write and “type until your fingers bleed.”

This advice was impossible to implement on my Macintosh. The Macintosh was not adversarial like a typewriter. The Macintosh said, “Ting! Happy Face!” It had the goony grin and sweet nature of the lobotomized. And it was wimpy, too. One careless spill of fruit punch and your precious device was fried.

I don’t know if the typewriter made him a drunk, but the two items Pete required to be a successful college professor were a mini-fridge of cheap beer and an Olympia SM9 Manual Portable Typewriter. (Three items if we throw the general category of “tits” into the mix.) I spent eight years with my back to Pete in various faculty offices on a small island in Micronesia. When Pete and I moved offices, we always chose the same set-up with our backs to each other. Our office was as comfortable as a marriage bed, though to say as much would excite Pete’s comically overstated homophobia (which was oddly fixated on Johnny Mathis).

Pete was a Korean War veteran with an ex-smoker’s cough and his own name spelled incorrectly in tattoo just above his crotch, a souvenir of shore-leave in San Diego and a boozy trip to Painless Nell’s. Pete was as attached to his Olympia as he was to his tattoo. He never used a computer — something he was quite proud of. Each time we upgraded our technology, he would watch me unbox the latest CPU and say, “Is that thing going to make you a better teacher?” When the power went out, which was often, he liked to pound on the Olympia just to make a point. He was working while the rest of us pouted in the lounge, waiting for our machines to come back on. Pete wrote several books about the island using the Olympia, though in his later years he had a secretary type them into Word while invariably saying that her muumuu made her look like a candy cane, good enough to eat.

Eight years. Eight years and then he died and I can still hear the smack of Pete’s Olympia behind me. The click-whirr of the carriage return. The coughing jags followed by the gassy shoooooof of his inhaler. The tap-tap-bang of the Olympia. His sneeze that sounded like he was yelling “horseshit!” which I suppose he was.

At Pete’s memorial we placed the Olympia front and center. Then we displayed it in a glass case in the library. It is still there next to another bit of obsolete tech: his card catalog filing system arranged in Dewey decimal and stained with years of Australian beer. Some objects reflect the minds that used them and so become totems of that mind. In my more romantic moods, I think that the typewriter reflects the soul of the writer. Why else would tourists want to see Hemingway’s Royal Quiet DeLuxe and not just any old Royal Quiet DeLuxe? Why bother to revere a typewriter at all unless the user’s life is somehow caught up in the keys?

My laptop reflects nothing but rather radiates information. The sheep of Liechtenstein graze upon the 35% of Liechtenstein that is alpine pasture. The original UN charter was typed on an IBM. Olympias were made in West Germany. A photo of Pete’s Olympia, forever mute in a glass case in Micronesia, appears in my email. An archeological relic of the last century, stubbornly holding on to its ghost.

Photo by Dana Lee Ling

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.