Some years ago I posted about Ian Frazier’s Atlantic piece on Martin Tytell, king of the typewriter repairmen; now I regretfully report that he has passed on, via The Economist‘s lyrical obituary (“Martin Tytell, a man who loved typewriters, died on September 11th, aged 94”):

Everything about a manual was sensual and tactile, from the careful placing of paper round the platen (which might be plump and soft or hard and dry, and was, Mr Tytell said, a typewriter’s heart) to the clicking whirr of the winding knob, the slight high conferred by a new, wet, Mylar ribbon and the feeding of it, with inkier and inkier fingers, through the twin black guides by the spool. Typewriters asked for effort and energy. They repaid it, on a good day, with the triumphant repeated ping! of the carriage return and the blithe sweep of the lever that inched the paper upwards.

Typewriters knew things. Long before the word-processor actually stored information, many writers felt that their Remingtons, or Smith-Coronas, or Adlers contained the sum of their knowledge of eastern Europe, or the plot of their novel. A typewriter was a friend and collaborator whose sickness was catastrophe. To Mr Tytell, their last and most famous doctor and psychiatrist, typewriters also confessed their own histories. A notice on his door offered “Psychoanalysis for your typewriter, whether it’s frustrated, inhibited, schizoid, or what have you,” and he was as good as his word. He could draw from them, after a brief while of blue-eyed peering with screwdriver in hand, when they had left the factory, how they had been treated and with exactly what pressure their owner had hit the keys. He talked to them; and as, in his white coat, he visited the patients that lay in various states of dismemberment on the benches of his chock-full upstairs shop on Fulton Street, in Lower Manhattan, he was sure they chattered back…

Thanks for the link, Paul!


  1. I like that Burmese anecdote, too. What better legasy could anyone hope for?
    Of course, that reminds me that we’ve still never had a solution to the mystery of the Burmese indiscretion at Harward (or wherehaveyou) on the Log.

  2. I still have one of those typewriters on my desk–now it’s an artifact displayed to remind people of what used to be.

  3. we’ve still never had a solution to the mystery of the Burmese indiscretion at Harward (or wherehaveyou) on the Log.
    Yes, I hope someone comes up with the answer. I don’t want to go to my grave still wondering about it.

  4. with the triumphant repeated ping! of the carriage return
    We had one that would ping when you got within 5 characters of where you had set the right margin. It was always fun to play around with those settings–in the back there was a tab thingy you could slide back and forth on a bar to change the margins. There was something comforting about the smell and the feel of those machines. Unlike teletypes, which were a nightmare to maintain.
    What is this Burmese Indiscretion of which you speak?

  5. A.J.P. Crown says

    I heard Alan Bennett say recently that he still uses a typewriter for his work. Habit, I suppose. He said he has no difficulty procuring ribbons.

  6. I had the pleasure of visiting Mr. Tytell’s office many years ago in hopes of repairing a beautiful German typewriter I had found at a junk shop or a yard sale somewhere. I was young and poor, and he treated me with honor and respect, talking with me about my machine, its history, and the German recluse in New Jersey who might be convinced to assist him in its proper repair. He encouraged me that if I loved the machine and would use it I should keep it until I could afford to have it repaired, and if not I should sell it to a collector. As I recall, I did neither, but I knew I was in the presence of a legend and a true friend to typewriters of all sorts, a real kindred spirit of these very special machines. It was an experience I will never forget. May he rest in peace.

  7. A.J.P. Crown says

    In the Burma story, isn’t a NY ‘super’ a building superintendent? I know a lot of people say building supervisor, so I guess it’s moot.

  8. Charles Perry says

    Oh, come on. The manual typewriter deserved to die. It punished you for every spelling or typing mistake you made. I estimate I had to retype the entire text of my first book twice just for typing errors, because the publisher understandably demanded clean copy. (And I couldn’t afford to pay a professional typist to retype the text, which was SOP in those days.)
    I keep a couple of typewriters around in case of power failure, but only because my handwriting is illegible. (It also punishes me constantly.)

  9. marie-lucie says

    I for one don’t mourn the passage of the typewriter, for me an instrument of frustration. Typewriters were good for people whose writing flows easily, not for those who keep changing their mind in mid-sentence and rewriting the same paragraph several times. I could never compose a text on a typewriter, I had to write everything by hand, ending up with lots of crumpled paper in the wastebasket, and even when I thought I had an acceptable text I would want to make some changes when typing it. The computer has revolutionized my life, not to mention saving a lot of trees.

  10. A.J.P. Crown says

    I thought it was only those who started their serious writing in the days of the computer who changed things around the whole time (i.e. people like me). I do know that some people can write well without changing anything: Christopher Hitchens is apparently like this, to take a contemporary example. And whatever you think of his now very whacky politics, his writing isn’t bad.

  11. John Emerson says

    OK, what is a bibdool type dog? Maybe a dhole? And what did the other Burmese do even more embarassing than being a numbers racketeer?

  12. I’ve got a lead on the Burmese Indiscretion — will report when I’ve got more info.
    (No idea bout the bibdool, tho.)

  13. I’ve got a lead on the Burmese Indiscretion — will report when I’ve got more info.
    I am on tenterhooks!

  14. John Emerson says

    He’s just teasing us for some nefarious purpose.

  15. The advantage of typewriters, in a news service situation, was that after tearing out the paper and re-typing a few times, people just got on with the story – especially features. When we moved to computers, they were able to fiddle endlessly with the text, to the frustration of the news editor (me) who wanted them to finish and get on with something else.
    It usually took repeated admonitions that “it will be wrapping fish in two days’ time” to end the perfectionism and get the piece on the wire.
    Long live typewriters ! And buggy whips !
    Anyone got anything on “the large bibdool-type dog” ? Google hasn’t ….

  16. A.J.P. Crown says

    Bibdool, does that have serifs?

  17. Sorry AJP, don’t get it.

  18. A.J.P. Crown says

    bibdool-type ->typeface ->bibdool sounds like a typeface name
    You didn’t get it is because it was so pitiful.

  19. Bibdool Type, an italic, or even a bold type dog.
    Or maybe it’s a typo for drool.

  20. I thought it was hilarious. But that’s just me. I have heard it said the pun is the lowest form of humor, but wasn’t Shakespeare rather fond of the pun?

  21. I’ve got a lead on the Burmese Indiscretion — will report when I’ve got more info.

    And my apologies for mixing up Harvard and Yale. I guess I’d best not visit Boston – ever.

  22. John Cowan says

    FOURTEEN YEARS, Mr. Zimmer! Fourteen years, and still nothing?!

  23. I have e-mailed him to request a followup.

  24. Well, this is quite a blast from the past! While I did have some leads, I never established what the “Burmese indiscretion” actually was. Here’s what I’ve pieced together from my notes back in 2008.

    In his contribution to the 1987 volume Leonard Bloomfield: Essays on his Life and Work, J Milton Cowan (no relation to John Cowan?) reproduced some correspondence with Bloomfield from their time at Yale in the ’40s, and there’s a Nov. 5, 1943 letter (pp. 26-7) that casts some light on the situation. The letter is from Bloomfield to Col. Herman Beukema, director of the Army Specialized Training Program, which sent soldiers to Yale to learn Burmese among other languages.

    The first Burmese language consultant at Yale was Thain Tin (aka Thein Tin), but according to the letter, he was “taken away” by the Office of War Information to make broadcasts to Burma. The next consultant was U Po Thoung Allamon (aka Tung Alamon), whose hiring was described in Cowan’s “American Linguistics in Peace and at War” (quoted by Mark Liberman on Language Log). As Bloomfield’s letter says, “For some time we got along with a much less suitable informant whom Mr. Cowan found in New York. Then, quite by accident, we discovered our present informant, Mr. Shwe Waing, who was on Ellis Island.”

    The hiring of Shwe Waing (with Burmese honorifics, U Shwe Waing or Maung Shwe Waing) got a lot of press attention, first in an Aug. 31, 1943 profile in the Yale News Digest (a wartime publication), “One of Three Native Burmans in U.S. Is Informant in Yale FAS School.” The same day, there was an article about Shwe Waing in the Hartford Courant (“Burman Helps Army Men At Yale Learn Burmese”).

    Shwe Waing’s story then got picked up by Time (“New Road to Mandalay,” Oct. 18, 1943) and was also featured the following year in Fortune (“Science Comes to Languages,” Aug. 1944). (Perhaps not coincidentally, Time and Fortune were founded by Yale alum Henry Luce.) The photo accompanying the Fortune article can be found on the website of Yale University’s Council on Southeast Studies here. (“Color print of soldiers learning how to speak Burmese with Dr. William S. Cornyn, a Yale linguistic scientist, shown in the dark suit, and Maung Shwe-Waing demonstrating how he uses his vocal cords. The students in the photo are officers from OSS Detachment 101.”) The photo also currently appears on Cornyn’s Wikipedia entry.

    In his letter to Col. Beukema, Bloomfield found all of this publicity unwelcome, as it brought Shwe Waing to the attention of the Office of War Information. After the Time article was published, Yale received requests from the OWI for Shwe Waing to make broadcasts as Thain Tin had done previously. Bloomfield asked Beukema to put a stop to this, since they didn’t want to lose another language consultant, and he ended the letter on a conspiratorial note: “While it is most likely that this persistent interference with our work is due to the nearsighted enthusiasm or ambition of some worker in the OWI, or perhaps to mere idiocy, there remains a possibility which, slight as it may be, should not be ignored; namely, that some influence outside of our government is trying to prevent instruction in Burmese for American soldiers.”

    Cornyn praised Shwe Waing in his “Outline of Burmese Grammar,” pubished as a supplement to the journal Language (Oct.-Dec. 1944): “The following study is an analysis of the speech of one speaker, Maung Shwe Waing (máun šwéi wâin) of Taw Wi village (tó wì ywá) in Lower Burma some one hundred miles north of Rangoon. Mr. Shwe Waing was born August 15, 1902 (gôzá θagayiɁ tatháun hnayà chausshè ŋâgù hniɁ, wágáun làzân shè tayeɁ, tanînlá nèi nyà shè tanáyí Ɂachéin ‘in the year 1265, eleventh day of the waxing moon, Monday at eleven o’clock in the evening’). For seven years, from his seventh to his fourteenth year, he attended the local monastery school. At the age of eighteen he left Taw Wi for Rangoon. In 1921 he shipped aboard a steamer as fireman. The next twenty years he spent aboard ship, until he came to the United States in 1940. From June 1943 to the present he has served as tutor for Burmese in the Army Specialized Training Program at Yale University… Mr. Shwe Waing is an excellent informant. His knowledge of English is limited and his dislike of speaking it is marked. He has no tendency toward philosophizing about language in either Burmese or English, and his ability to explain in Burmese the meaning of a Burmese locution is phenomenal. His patience and co-operation are unlimited.”

    What happened to Shwe Waing after this, I cannot say. I can find no evidence of the embarrassing incident that Cowan mentions. I’m assuming Cowan is talking about Shwe Waing when he alludes to “Alamon’s successor, the other Burmese-sounding name on the Roster,” although there’s a chance this refers to the even more mysterious “U Hpu of Mogok,” who Cornyn says in the introduction to his “Outline of Burmese Grammar” was a Burmese informant at Yale “for a few hours.” (Martin and others had fun with this in the comments to Language Hat’s 2007 post, “An Embarrassment of Linguists.”)

    In my notes from 2008, I see I got in touch with Harold Conklin at Yale to ask him about this, since if anyone would know it would be him. Hal first came to Yale as a graduate student in anthropology (1950-1955) and then returned as a faculty member in 1962. I got to know him as an undergrad at Yale when I was his research assistant, and he helped inspire my own graduate work in Southeast Asian linguistic anthropology. Despite his voluminous memory, he wasn’t able to tell me what happened with Shwe Waing (or U Hpu), so I gave up my investigations at that point. (Hal passed away in 2016.) My apologies for not following up here until now!

  25. Well, I guess that’s the best we’re going to do, and it will have to remain a Mystery. Thanks very much for taking the trouble!

  26. January First-of-May says

    For some time we got along with a much less suitable informant whom Mr. Cowan found in New York.

    …it took me a while to figure out that this was referring to Tung Alamon, and consequently probably was not a candidate for whoever made an embarrassment of Yale linguists.

    And yeah, I agree that “U Hpu of Mogok” is an absolutely awesome-sounding name!

    (Google still doesn’t have anything on bibdool type dogs. Indeed the only Google results for “bibdool” are copies of that article, references to that article [including this post], a few scannos, one or two apparent forum nicknames, and this PDF about Australian biodiversity that gives “bibdool” as the Noongar term for a kind of gecko.
    …I wonder if it could be a Burmese word.)

  27. John Cowan says

    J Milton Cowan (no relation to John Cowan?)

    If so, only very remotely so. Cowan is an aphetic form of Mac Eoghain, and there is no reason to suppose a relationship exists between two people with the same frozen patronymic.

    By the same token, William S. Cornyn seems to be no close relation to John Cornyn, the Senator from Texas, either. Here the underlying family name is Ó Curnín, also anglicized (O’)Curneen and in various other ways.

  28. January First-of-May says

    Shot in the dark on “bibdool”: considering the NYC context of the story, I wonder if it could be from the same Neapolitan-via-NYC dialect that gave us “gabagool” (and “pasta fazool”). Maybe someone here could try to finagle out a plausible-looking Italian protoform?

  29. There’s a word pipitola that could conceivably give that with sufficient deformation, but unfortunately it means ‘patologia delle galline.’

  30. English “the pip.”

  31. J.W. Brewer says

    “Bibdool” being an ad hoc romanization of a Burmese word that is now standardly romanized with a different spelling seems the least implausible explanation to me. Although someone with more time and/or expertise than this would need to test this by working out what spellings in a now-standard romanization system might represent an underlying word that could have been rendered ad hoc back in the ’40’s with that spelling and then googling to see if any plausible hits are found.

  32. “Bibdool” being an ad hoc romanization of a Burmese word that is now standardly romanized with a different spelling seems the least implausible explanation to me.

    It seems very implausible to me. Why would Cowan use a Burmese word that would be incomprehensible to his audience? And what would a Burmese or Burmese-type dog be doing in a NYC apartment? I can only suspect some disastrous combination of authorial typo (or perhaps bad handwriting) and sloppy editing. But that’s another mystery that will likely go unsolved.

  33. “Burmese dog” is one of the things hardest to convince Google to search for in my experience. It very stubbornly insists I’m looking for Bernese Mountain dogs, or, grudgingly, for Burmese cats.

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    It wouldn’t necessarily be a Burmese-origin dog, it would likely be a normal American dog that its owner called the Burmese equivalent of “Spot” or “Fido” or whatnot.

  35. January First-of-May says

    “Burmese dog” is one of the things hardest to convince Google to search for in my experience. It very stubbornly insists I’m looking for Bernese Mountain dogs

    Apparently part of it is because there used to be an actual hoax (…OK, two of them) trying to make people believe that Burmese Mountain Dogs [sic] are an actual breed from Burma.

  36. Mark Liberman has posted on Language Log about my update on the Burmese story. There are some incisive comments there, and I’m coming around to the idea of U Hpu, not Shwe Waing, being the “other Burmese-sounding name on the Roster” mentioned by Cowan. As I wrote in the comments there, “I do like the theory that U Hpu was hired strictly on the basis of having a ‘Burmese-sounding name’ and was relieved of his duties when it was discovered he wasn’t a native Burmese speaker. That would absolve Shwe Waing of causing any embarrassment, assuming he was hired immediately thereafter. (I don’t think the pedagogical techniques of Cornyn and Shwe Waing as described in Time and Fortune were the source of embarrassment, as Chris B suggests. Bloomfield’s letter to Col. Beukema has nothing but praise for Shwe Waing’s work in the classroom, and they were desperate to keep him on.)”

  37. January First-of-May says

    and I’m coming around to the idea of U Hpu, not Shwe Waing, being the “other Burmese-sounding name on the Roster” mentioned by Cowan

    J.W. Brewer’s argument sounds convincing; there were only two Burmese-sounding names, and one of them was Tung Alamon, so only one of U Hpu and Shwe Waing could have been the other. Shwe Waing was discovered “quite by accident” and “on Ellis Island”, which almost certainly puts him among the “some sailors who jumped ship in New York” (as effectively confirmed by David Steinberg). So it was presumably U Hpu who produced the embarrassment.

    I do like the theory that U Hpu was actually a native speaker of (e.g.) Shan, and that his L2 (or L3) Burmese was very bad (but it took several hours for the Yale linguists to realize that).

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