A few years ago the Atlantic ran this piece by Ian Frazier on Martin Tytell, king of the typewriter repairmen (now retired, I’m afraid, if anybody reading this has a beloved machine that needs looking after, but here‘s a list of typewriter repair shops worldwide). It’s wonderfully written, but I’m citing it here for the material on foreign languages, something of a specialty of Tytell’s.
We sidled through right angles into a dark and cramped part of the shop where we had to proceed by flashlight. “In these cabinets reposes the largest collection of foreign type in the world—a hundred and forty-five languages, over two million separate pieces of type,” he said, sweeping the beam over banks of minutely labeled metal drawers. Sixty years of converting typewriters to different alphabets has amassed this inventory; Mr. Tytell can list man’s written languages better perhaps than any nontenured person in the world. “Over there are some languages of India—Hindi, Sindhi, Marathi, Punjabi, and Sanskrit—and next to that is Coptic, a church language of the Middle East; it’s a beautiful-looking thing. Then there’s Hausa, a language nobody here has ever heard of, spoken by twenty million people in northern Nigeria. Over there’s Korean, and the Siamese I took off those Remingtons during the war, which I’ve relabeled Thai, and Aramaic script, and Hebrew, and Yiddish …” He pointed out with the flashlight drawers of Malay and Armenian and Amharic, and boxes of special symbols for pharmacists and mathematicians. One drawer seemed to be mostly umlauts. He opened it and took out a small orange cardboard box and shone the light on the dozens of mint-bright rectangles of steel inside, each with its two tiny raised dots. “Nobody else in the world would even bother with this stuff,” he said.
My favorite bit is this anecdote from his World War II years (his machines were a vital part of the war effort; armies “took typewriters with them into battle and typed with them in the field on little tripod stands”):
He spent much of his time assigned to the Army’s Morale Services Division, at 165 Broadway, which dealt in information and propaganda. There he received his hardest job of the war—a rush request to convert typewriters to twenty-one different languages of Asia and the South Pacific. Many of the languages he had never heard of before…. Morale Services found native speakers and scholars to help with the languages. Martin obtained the type and did the soldering and the keyboards. The implications of the work and its difficulty brought him to near collapse, but he completed it with only one mistake: on the Burmese typewriter he put a letter on upside down. Years later, after he had discovered his error, he told the language professor he had worked with that he would fix that letter on the professor’s Burmese typewriter. The professor said not to bother; in the intervening years, as a result of typewriters copied from Martin’s original, that upside-down letter had been accepted in Burma as proper typewriter style.
(Link courtesy of the ogre.)