Friday, May 18, 2012

“The Royal KMM, Remembered”

c. 2012 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Growing up in a family of writers meant that I viewed this craft differently from others. It was something that nearly everyone did in the Ice continuum. So as I decided to set up a home office at the age of ten, my decision came without much forethought.

It was simply the sort of thing one was expected to do in our family.

Years later, after a television apprenticeship through Cornell University, I began to ponder the craft more seriously. A friend who was the editor of a local newspaper became my mentor. She helped focus this desire for wordsmithing accomplishment into a real plan of action.

Most important in those yonder days was the choice of a reliable writing machine. But I had little money to invest. A friend at church provided the solution – from his stash of discarded college equipment. The unit he offered was a Royal KMM typewriter from the 1940’s.

I bought it for ten dollars.

“The (1939) KMM introduced Royal's famous and patented Magic Margin system, whereby holding down the right or left margin lever and sliding the carriage to the desired location ‘magically’ set the margin.” –

The Royal was a behemoth. It seemed to have been constructed for wartime office duty. Though fully manual (non-electric) in design, it worked so efficiently that I soon forgot about its age. Friends and cohorts liked to poke fun at the thought of using such a paper-shredding relic. But I ignored their comments.

“By the late 1930s, Royal had overtaken the Underwood to become the world's No. 1 Typewriter manufacturer… (The KMM) offers many sophisticated features that are unavailable to portable machines, such as automatic tab setting and clear as well as keyboard tension adjustment. Because of its heavy duty construction, Royal desk models were preferred by business professionals, journalists and schools at the time.” -

Typing on the unit was a deliberate and noisy affair, not dissimilar to riding a Harley-Davidson. Because it needed no electricity to function, I could take it anywhere. Though admittedly, the device was not ‘portable’ by any stretch of the imagination.

After moving to Chardon, I bought new ink ribbons at Conley’s and re-wound them onto the old Royal spools. Poems, motorcycle stories and newsletters flowed freely as I developed more wordsmithing courage. The antique typewriter was my creative springboard.

“The basic typing mechanisms are the same as with the earlier Royal Model 10… but you can see the trend to fully enclose the working mechanisms… The KMM gets high marks from typewriter aficionados. Machines of Loving Grace states: ‘These are great machines. Get one if you find one.’ Mr. states it is ‘sturdy and built to last.’ Will Davis states: ‘These are rugged and reliable machines which are so common today because they sold so well at the time. They are truly first-class typewriters in every sense of the word.’ The poet John Ashbery used a Royal KMM… as does the author Joan Didion.” -

Eventually, my wife purchased a modern typewriter at Fisher’s Big Wheel. It had a built-in correction ribbon, and lots of modern amenities. The Royal went into a cardboard box under our basement steps.

My ten-dollar adventure had come to an end.

The new typewriter was not so ageless or enduring. Though much more sophisticated than the Royal, it soon surrendered to a Brother word processor. And that unit gave way to an actual computer, with Microsoft Word 97.

Eventually, the passage of time had me looking backward. Thoughts of the packed-away KMM resurfaced during research about notable writers and their own machines.

“Among other things, the L.A. civic leader Steve Soboroff is a noted collector of typewriters. He has the writing machines used by Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, George Bernard Shaw, Jim Murray, John Lennon and others. After… news about ‘Fahrenheit 451’ becoming an e-book despite the earlier anti-technology rants of author Ray Bradbury, Soboroff shared (a) photo of his treasured Bradbury typewriter. A 1947 Royal KMM #3756210.” -

When I assembled the ‘Thoughts At Large’ book, a few years ago, it seemed proper to use the old Royal in a cover photo. But my erstwhile wordsmithing appliance was literally under a mountain of old books, magazines, and records, in storage. So I employed a vintage Smith-Corona ‘Super Speed’ device, instead.

The retro vibe worked perfectly.

Meanwhile, my hunt for information continued. I uncovered more about Royal products, and their value to collectors.

“The Royals to look for are the #1, #5, and Standard. These are office machines with an unusual, low profile and a keyboard that looks like it's emerging from a staircase (collectors call these the "flatbed" models). They are worth around $50-$200 depending on condition (usually they are in poor shape). Many older Royal office typewriters are model 10 (usually not marked as such); the earlier ones have glass windows on the sides (pretty although useless). Value depends on condition -- anywhere from zero to $100. Royal portables are fun, but not worth much (about $10-$200 depending on condition and luck, with an average value around $40). The exception is the gold-plated version of the '50s Royal Quiet Deluxe portable, which is worth several hundred dollars. Finally, if your machine says "Royal Grand," you have found a very rare item that's the most valuable model of this make.” -

Even in this era of real-time connectivity, and sophisticated networking, the KMM remains a focal point for my efforts as a creative writer. Not only for its functionality as a wordsmithing tool, but because it was where the journey began.

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