Typewriter Tech: Changeable Type

Smith-Corona Changeable Type

It’s easy in today’s computer-centric world to take for granted the flexibility and creative power the average person has when preparing written documents. Aside from the apparently endless selection of typeface options that are somewhat erroneously referred to as fonts, there’s also a large number of special characters that can be easily accessed and printed. Contemporary writers are spoiled for choice – ironically, that’s something that can easily turn out to be a detriment – and those too young to remember the typewriter as the mainstay of mass communication often find it amusing that previous generations were hamstrung by such lowly machines.

It’s true that type writers (the people, not the machines) were limited to what had been fitted to their typewriter by its manufacturer; in other words, they only had a single typeface and a very limited number of special characters to work with. By today’s standards it may seem to be an obvious constraint, but despite this limitation typewriters produced good-looking, highly legible documents, and those using them managed just fine with the tools at hand.

In terms of typeface and character choice, the typewriter century wasn’t entirely a doom and gloom story. Those who designed the machines did dream of greater flexibility, and a few models appeared (and disappeared) that offered interchangeable typefaces. Some machines, for example, used a drum instead of typebars. This allowed typists to quickly change a typeface, but those models were never produced in significant numbers and the vast majority of typewriters featured permanently fixed type slugs, something that couldn’t be easily replaced. It wasn’t until electro-mechanical and electronic typewriters became the norm that true typeface freedom became a reality for the majority of typewriter buyers.

Smith-Corona Changeable Type

Around 1959 Smith-Corona began to retail its new 6-series portable models, and a few years later, once the new model line had been firmly established, the company introduced what it called Changeable Type. The new feature gave typewriter buyers during the ’60s the opportunity to change, quickly and easily, a few of the special characters that their machines could type.

The idea behind Changeable Type was not to swap a typeface, but to provide access to a large library of special characters. It may not have been a revolutionary concept, but it was something not offered at the time by any of the other manufacturers, and for the writers of the hyperbole contained in Smith-Corona ads, Changeable Type was a plausible selling feature. It’s worth mentioning that IBM was already selling its first Selectric model at the time, the game-changing typewriter that used a golf ball element to allow for rapid typeface changes, but Smith-Corona’s Changeable Type machines were marketed toward a different buyer, one who was looking for a portable, and more affordable typewriter than the business-oriented IBM.

In practice Changeable Type was easy to use: The type slug was removed by pressing it against the typebar and simultaneously pulling it off. Equally simple was the swapping of its corresponding type key legends that were a part of each specially ordered Changeable Type kit which were sold in single units by Smith-Corona.

The Changeable Type library consisted of 91 different ‘snap on’ characters that were sorted into five groups that included: Language Accents and Symbols; Math, Engineering, and Greek Symbols; Medical and Druggist Symbols; Library and Legal Symbols; and Miscellaneous Symbols. It was the Miscellaneous group that contained some of the more unusual and entertaining characters such as unit #73, a type slug that had a sad face (uppercase) and a smiley face (lowercase) emoticon. Changeable Type Unit #69 (don’t laugh) featured gender symbols – “male over female” in Smith-Corona parlance – that are based on the astrological symbols for Mars and Venus (and also used in alchemy for iron and copper).

Smith-Corona Changeable Type

The corresponding key legend cap design was changed a few years after the introduction of Changeable Type which meant there were two different caps available and was important that you ordered the correct one for your particular typewriter. The red caps (left) are the earlier ones, and the black version the updated version. Although most Smith-Corona portables that featured Changeable Type came with two typebars that could accept the special slugs, some models only had one. In either case, the optional characters were designed to be used with any of the typefaces that were sold with a Changeable Type equipped model, the exception being they would not work with a script typeface.Students and professionals who needed to use a number of special characters in their written documents would have been the obvious buyers of Changeable Type kits and they were the targets of Smith-Corona ads at the time. However, in the absence of actual sales figures one can only speculate as to how many owners of Smith-Corona portables actually took advantage of the feature. Given that they were reasonably priced ($2 USD including shipping in the early ‘70s, the equivalent of $11 USD today) you would think that the kits would have sold reasonably well, but based on the many dozens of these machines that I’ve examined, most had the standard character set (typically the 1/! and +/= slugs) and it would seem that relatively few kits were sold.

One thing is certain: It’s very uncommon fifty years after the introduction of Changeable Type to find these kits being sold individually. It’s also somewhat unusual to find a machine that has any of the optional characters installed, so special characters are something collectors should keep their eyes open for. All of this leads one to wonder if Smith-Corona’s Changeable Type was a success or a failure. Was Changeable Type an experiment to test the feature for expansion to other model lines? My own theory is that it had arrived too late, and with all the dramatic changes taking place within the typewriter industry during the late ’60s and ’70s, Smith-Corona probably already saw the writing on the wall: just being able to swap a few characters was simply a feature that was too little, and too late.

1965 Smith-Corona Changeable Type SM

A 1965 Smith-Corona space-age ad for Changeable Type. Apparently Smith-Corona believed its customers would be over the moon with the feature.

Changeable Type Order Form SM

Mail-in order form for Changeable Type; that’s right kids, a billion years ago snail-mail was actually used to buy things – it worked too.


Apothecary Changeable Type

Smith-Corona Changeable Type

3 = dram (teaspoon) and Double 3 = ounce (tablespoon)

Smith-Corona Changeable Type

M = minim (drop) and Rx = prescription (recipe)



Picture Perfect [2]

Remington Portable Rodeo Ad

Remington Rodeo

As absurd as the concept is for a rodeo rider to use a portable typewriter on the back of a bucking bronco, imagine how foreign it must have all seemed for Swiss typewriter buyers who faced the localized version of Remington’s American ad.

Selling typewriters internationally no doubt posed many challenges for manufacturers, and it’s easy to imagine how many of the ads created using culturally skewed themes ended up being lost in translation. Was it a cost-saving measure for Remington to re-use the same artwork the world over, or just simple ignorance to global diversity?

This example of the artwork used to promote the Remington Portable by a typewriter retailer in Lausanne, Switzerland, (it’s now the site of a chocolate store), loudly praises the ultra-portable model, and lists its virtues as robustness, speed, compactness, and it being well-featured. Of course it would have to be all these things – and more – to be effective on the back of a wild animal, not to mention to be able to survive such a stunt.



1956 Everest K2 Typewrier - Wachtendorf Collection

August 2016: 1956 Everest K2

The Everest K2 is one of those love/hate models that polarizes opinion and slots owners into one of two opposing camps, and any machine that can stir up such debate is a perfect machine for TYPEWRITER of the MONTH.

The majority of K2 detractors grumble about lacklustre performance, claiming the typing experience is more similar to trudging through valleys than soaring above peaks. My own experience with the typewriter has proven the opposite: Not only does the Everest portable type well enough to satisfy the most pedantic requirements, it also provides a taught and concise feel that turns the keyboard exercise into an enjoyable interaction.

K2 is the second highest mountain in the world after Mount Everest, which might lead you to think that the typewriter physically towers over the competition, but a measuring tape proves that it’s actually an average size for a portable. A more likely explanation for the mountain-inspired name would be that its form, much like the snow-capped peak of K2, is simply something beautiful to look at. How typical of Italian industrial design that you can find yourself appreciating the view even more than the performance.

Article: Bargain Basement



      It may not be the stuff of collectors’ dreams, or enough to even garner more than a passing glance from a would-be buyer, but in the practical world bargain basement typewriters can be as valuable as the most prized machines owned by collectors and aficionados.


Pity the undesired typewriter, lowly machines that fail to meet the standards of collectors who are only interested in unmolested thoroughbreds, not broken-down plough horses – even if those seemingly lame specimens are still perfectly capable of performing the job they were designed for. Fortunately there are those who celebrate the workhorse, buyers who aren’t as fussed with display pieces; after all, once you remove fastidious filters such as branding, colour, aesthetics, and perceived rarity, you still have typewriters that are equally efficient at putting words on paper.


Rust, flaking paint, and broken and missing parts are details that cause some collectors to recoil in disgust, but for typewriter buyers who actually value performance above all else, battle scars and hard-earned patina are the qualities that make castoff models so alluring. A fussy collector’s loss is the gain of buyers who appreciate blue collar machines, because banged-up typewriters found on the shelves of charity stores and in yard sales tease their imagination, cause them to speculate about the machine’s history, and make them wonder who they served and in what capacity they were used.


Unloved by many, perhaps, but still full of life, these are the machines that deserve to be returned to the ranks of working typewriters. And if there was ever a sign of a well-built typewriter, it’s one that still performs in an exemplary manner despite having obviously been subjected to physical abuse. 

Bargain Basement Typewriter
Smith-Corona Classic 12


This Smith-Corona Classic 12 is a perfect example of the typical reject: Its storage case long lost and the carriage a victim of blunt force trauma, there’s no question that it’s had a hard life, and yet everything works as it should and the machine still types like the day it was first used. The Classic 12 is a well-respected model, its popularity proven by a lengthy production run of some twenty years, and given how many are still available today, it deserves to be regarded as a venerable typewriter; and as its apt name suggests, it’s a classic, a possible candidate for the acme of Smith-Corona’s portable model production history.


The model’s history aside, it’s the outwardly poor condition of this particular Classic 12 that sparks curiosity and makes it a worthy purchase. It’s impossible to know whether the machine’s many flaws are the result of one cataclysmic event or the subject of numerous smaller careless actions, but what is more certain is why it was fitted with apothecary Changeable Type characters: an inventory sticker on the side of the typewriter indicates that it had once been the property of a children’s hospital. Also noteworthy, the original protective shipping tape is still affixed to the case; why it had never occurred to the first (or any subsequent) owner to remove it is a matter of speculation, but it adds to the unique character of this survivor.


Thirteen dollars doesn’t buy you a lot, certainly very few items that will last for any length of time, but remarkably it’s enough money to buy a fully functional typewriter. It may look like it was put through the wringer, and it might be in need of a few small repairs (and a lot of cleaning), but for many typewriter enthusiasts such work is typically viewed as being a rewarding experience. When placed in perspective, thirteen dollars is an obscenely modest amount of money for such a practical and powerful tool, one that arguably is better representative of the typewriter century than any of the pristine and sterile dust collecting exhibits cherished by so many connoisseurs.

Smith-Corona Classic 12


Not just missing a platen knob, the entire end of the shaft was somehow snapped off the carriage. 

Smith-Corona Classic 12


Top Left: The bad side. To be honest, there isn’t a good side, but it works well and that’s all that really matters. 

Top Right:  Protective shipping tape still attached, after been on there for all these years I don’t have the heart to pull it off. 

Smith-Corona Classic 12 - the bad side
Smith-Corona Classic 12
Smith-Corona Classic 12
Smith-Corona Classic 12
1970s Smith-Corona Classic 12 - Type Sample - Wachtendorf Colle



Battered and beaten: It has bent levers and a number of keys that are out of place, but there’s nothing there’s nothing wrong with the alignment on the page. 



 1955 Underwood Universal

July 2016: 1955 Underwood Universal

From the mid to late ‘50s Underwood displayed what appeared to be a scattered, if not manic approach to the design of its portable typewriter cases. Four different designs existed over the five year span, and even the Underwood logo that badged each machine seemed to be the subject of a constant evolutionary flux. In hindsight, when you factor in the company’s close association with (and eventual takeover by) Olivetti at the end of this period, it’s easy to view this chapter in Underwood’s history as the death throes of the company’s identity.

The ranging designs from this era included everything from curvy, deco-inspired shapes, to pragmatic and stoic enclosures. Occupying the middle ground of these design extremes is this ’55 Universal with its white enamel front cover that makes the typewriter look it belongs alongside the stoves and fridges found in American kitchens during the nifty fifties. It was daring for Underwood to present the typewriter as an appliance, and the distinctive design earns this Universal Typewriter of the Month honours.



June 2016: 1957 Smith-Corona Super

This top model of the ubiquitous Super-5 series arguably represents the zenith of Smith-Corona’s portable designs, and yet it is often overlooked by today’s typewriter buyers. Despite its remarkable performance characteristics, and a proven record of robustness, most contemporary buyers only see a machine’s aesthetics, which is perhaps the only fault to be found with the Super-5 typewriters.

In isolation the Super-5 design is wonderfully organic and streamlined, but much of its nuanced details are lost in the drab colour palettes that Smith-Corona used for the majority of Super-5 models it produced. The bland brown-grey-green paint covering most Super-5 models effectively turns what is a sexy typewriter into a stodgy-looking machine, but not so with this ’57 model, which is one example of the less frequently seen colour variants. Literally rocking the Super design, this lava black finish with light grey accents and ivory-coloured plastic is transformative, and it makes this machine worthy candidate for Typewriter of the Month.


 ClackAttack - 1946 Smith-Corona Sterling - TOM

May 2016: 1946 Smith-Corona Sterling

It’s only fitting that the very first Typewriter of the Month should be the first typewriter I ever bought. Every time I pull this machine off the shelf I pause to reflect on the role it played in kick-starting my fascination with typewriters, and how things could have turned out very differently: Had this Smith-Corona Sterling not been such a gem to use, it’s very possible that my current obsession would have been stillborn, and that I would have never followed up this typewriter with another machine.