Spy vs Spy

In Germany, Surveillance Angst Sparks Retro Return of an Old Friend, the Typewriter

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Security concerns in Germany has sparked a revival in typewriters, retailers in Berlin say.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The German legislative committee that has been created to investigate the National Security Agency spying in Germany is considering using only typewriters in the future. In Berlin, it is still easy to find a suitable model.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Concern about U.S. surveillance has prompted some German lawmakers to consider using typewriters for security reasons.
    • There is an active market in typewriter hardware, and many models could be retrofitted for modern use.
    • The East Germans were adept at developing the forensics of old typewriters in espionage cases.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

He rushes to the display window and takes out his “absolute favorite,” sets it onto the sales counter and turns effusive. It is the one with rounded forms and a massive metal case, jet black and brightly polished.

A portable typewriter from the early 1950s. “Rheinmetall, Borsig AG” is written in golden letters on its felt-lined carrying case.

“That was still excellent work, with a soft cylinder, flowing strokes, great quality,” says Mario Maschetzke (51) in the office-machine store “Zielinski” at Guerickestraße 14 in the Berlin district of Charlottenburg.

Mr. Maschetzke is certain that the “Rheinmetall” won’t be a shelf warmer. These last few years have brought a “Renaissance for typewriters.”

As reported, the NSA investigatory committee in the Bundestag, Germany’s lower legislative chamber, has emerged as a trendsetter. Its members have recently been flirting with the idea of using classical mechanical typewriters. The thinking is that they would provide protection against further American espionage.

“But of course! A typewriter doesn’t crash, can’t be hacked or wiretapped. Besides, it is resistant to viruses, is independent and unassailable—in short, extremely dependable,” says Bernd Moser, whose shop at Gneisenaustraße 91 in the Kreuzberg district is likewise one of the few places in Berlin where a good old “typer,” (or Tippe ) as the 71-year-old calls the typewriter, can still be purchased or repaired. And where accessories are available—above all, silk or nylon ribbons.

 

The NSA investigatory committee in the Bundestag, Germany's lower legislative chamber, has emerged as a trendsetter. Its members have recently been flirting with the idea of returning to classical mechanical typewriters. The thinking is that the old, non-Internet-linked machines would provide more protection against U.S. espionage.

But with Mr. Zielinski in Charlottenburg, Bernd Moser in Kreuzberg or “Voigtländer Bürotechnik” at Florastraße 19 in the Steglitz district, number three among typewriter shops in Berlin, it is seldom the fresh-from-the-factory machines that are sold.

There are still two manufacturers, the classic firms in the trade, namely “Triumph Adler” and “Olympia.” But when asked, the experts caution against buying a new model. “Badly made, often requiring repair,” they say.

They recommend instead models from the 1950s to early 1990s which, although used, have been refurbished in their stores and restored to tip-top condition. They have been completely taken apart and washed in cleaning solvent; hardened cylinders have been replaced, every screw examined, the keys polished.

“Once more they are smooth to the touch,” rejoices Bernd Moser in his store “Arndt Büromaschinen.”

 

U.S. spying operations are the butt of many jokes.
U.S. spying operations are the butt of many jokes.
U.S. spying operations are the butt of many jokes.

 

He began his apprenticeship there 56 years ago, took over the business in 1992 and has remained true to traditional technology. “But of course,” he says, “because today there is almost no one left who can do it.”

Over the decades, he has gathered a gigantic collection of spare parts, a veritable treasure-trove for repairs. From time to time, in the early morning he finds an old, broken machine in front of the door to his shop.

Someone left it there to be stripped of its parts.

For Mr. Moser, the typewriters represent “extra income.” He mainly sells modern printers or copiers, just like the other aforementioned stores. In contrast, the rebuilt machines on the shelves and in the display windows come from another era.

There is the “Erika” from East German production alongside its West German counterpart, the “Monika” from “Olympia.” There is the “Continental” portable typewriter with its polished chrome vertical-spacing lever, or the legendary “Olivetti Lettera 22,” awarded prizes for its design.

Also the later electric typewriters, all the way to the final generation with electronic display from the 1990s. What do these machines cost? From €120 to €2000.

“In 1994/95 things suddenly went downhill with the typewriter,” recalls Mario Maschetzke in Charlottenburg. It was pushed aside by the computer. But since around 2004, the “typer” (or the Tippe) has made its return. Who once again writes with it occasionally or even constantly?

Mr. Maschetzke names three groups. First of all, elderly nostalgists.

“They once typed their college thesis, and now they long for the good old ‘Adler’ they used back then,” he said.

 

What would be the best model for the NSA investigatory committee? Mr. Maschetzke muses only briefly. “Probably the heavy machines. 'Adler Universal' or 'Triumph Matura.' Personal secretaries could type ten carbon copies at once with them.”

Also young persons with a love for old machines, he added: “Portable typewriter wedged beneath the arm, off they go into the park to write a letter.”

And quite a few senior citizens come to him. They are suspicious of PCs. Also officials from the Registry Office. Right up to today, entries in family registers are most often made with typewriters.

What would be the best model for the NSA investigatory committee? Mr. Maschetzke muses only briefly. “Probably the heavy machines. ‘Adler Universal’ or ‘Triumph Matura.’ Personal secretaries could type 10 carbon copies at once with them.”

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