No user serviceable parts: the death of being able to do.

It wasn’t typewriters that had me thinking about this topic, it was sewing.

A co-worker was lamenting today’s fashions while nostalgically thinking about their own past. They talked about life back in the 80’s when girls would go to their school formal (something akin to what American’s call ‘The Prom’ in a dress made by their mother, who slaved for hours over a whirring sewing machine after spending equally as long with their daughter selecting fabrics from the Lincraft or Spotlight fabric stores.

Go into Spotlight these days and while there’s still fabric, it is tucked far to the back, where you have to walk past cheap glue-and forget ‘craft’ supplies, and ready made cushions, sheets and towels at a discount prices. Kinda like K-Mart, but with slower moving, and lesser quality stock. Heck, I even remember Kmart having fabric, timber and even steel so you could build your own stuff.

I feel like banging my head against the table every time I hear someone tell me about how real cars had carburettors, not ‘all this electronics and wiring sh*t’. “I can’t work on that stuff” They exclaim again and again.

Really? Really, really? I utterly reject that. I think that we have become too consumer oriented, and too anti-nostalgic about the hard work of our past. We expect the effortlessness of ready-made things to come from shops that will magically transform our lives, make us cool or just… fix things we think are broken. Our limit of understand seems to be that ‘magic just shoots through things now. Have you ever strayed into a debate between people using Android or Apple phones? It basically breaks down to ‘The magic in mine is betterer than the magic in yours. And the next model will be magicerer still’!

Every time I dig into a typewriter to repair, I see it is a challenge. It helps my mind stay active and hone my problem solving skills. I look forward to every typewriter I buy on ebay for its inevitable problems because I expect them, and I don’t look to simply buy something that I can hold up and say “Look how cool I am. I bought this cool thing”! Every typewriter on my bench is a reminder of skills that are quickly fading. How many times have I had to answer “Why are you stuffing around with that old crap”? Why indeed. Because the magic doesn’t come from inside the thing, I’ll tell you that much.

A case in point.

The 160 in one kit from Tandy (radioshack)

The 160 in one kit from Tandy (radioshack)

Above is a kit similar to one i was given on my birthday when I was 6. It allowed me to produce electronic circuits and experiment with electronics without the need for the skill of soldering that required hand-eye co-ordination that I didn’t have at that stage. And I absolutely LOVED this thing. Later I would get a bread-board and electronics components I could assemble myself. Skills I learned off this allowed me to build a solar power supply for my walkman when I was 15, that I stuck to bus windows so I could listen to music while travelling long distances here in Australia. Magic!

Hover boards?

Hover boards?

This Christmas the biggest gift was a pre-packaged toy with no or minimal assembly required, that promptly started to catch fire and burn black marks into concrete patios, and occasionally burn down people’s houses, because they were cheaply made crap. Hover boards they called them. I’ve talked to many people who have bought these, and they don’t understand why cheaply made things like this keep catching fire. Surely they use just the same magic in them as the originals? We shouldn’t pay for more for the same magic. I suggested to one person that they take it to an electrician to get checked out. “Is there an electrician in Australia the specialises in these things”?

Nope. But they teach all kinds of magic at Hogwarts, right?

Tandy (radio shack) where i used to get my components faded into the background years ago. Another company here in Australia – Dick Smith whose quarterly catalogues of components I used to await eagerly appearing in my letterbox, stopped selling electronics components, and instead became a shadow of that former business by hocking home-brand knock off electronics and crappy accessories and an excessive price. Another consumer product retailer in an ocean of consumer product retailers, trading on the name they had when they sold parts for people to build their own radios. Two weeks ago they went into receivership. Tried going into an ‘auto parts’ place lately? Cleaning products, and often gardening supplies. No one expects you to build your own anymore. Just buy and hope your house doesn’t catch on fire.

Heck, even 50% of the junk mail that is filtered from this blog is of some dodgy writer telling me he can write for me ‘desirable click-attracticting content for my blog’. Why do all that hard work myself! Well, because it’s a typewriter blog FFS. I write my own stuff the hard way.

Got a screw loose?



We don’t pass down skills like we used to. There’s an attitude that keeping kids from raw components that could do them harm is a crucial thing for parenting. I remember washing my father’s car as a kid once with a friend of mine. We popped open the bonnet (hood) , and looked at the engine and wondering if it needed to be cleaned. The engine, like most car engines, was covered in grease and slime from years of operating and leaks. “I don’t think you should clean it” he said. “That stuff may need to be there”.

In October 1998, myself and a friend broke down in 40 kilometres from the nearest town in central Australia. The car had been a bit on and off as we had drove through the night, but this time it was dead and not coming back to life. The mechanic fiddled with it for 3 days and started telling us stuff that seemed deeply suspicious. We took the car back and devised our own ignorant plan. When that failed, We bolted it all back together. With a half hearted ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if it just started’ statement, and a turn of the key the engine roared to life. All we had done was dislodge some dirt out of the fuel injectors. With a few filter and some injector cleaner, we drove 1,600 k’s back home, having achieved more than an ‘experienced’ mechanic achieved in two days replacing or fiddling with the wrong parts.

I chose not to remain ignorant of the things that I use in my life from then onwards. I skilled up on auto skills and my understanding of how cars work. The next year my dad gave me that car, and I promptly unbolted the failing engine and put in a new one (which I cleaned) and learned a heap of skills along the way.

There’s skills that you learn working on a typewriter that will directly transition back to spinning a wrench on your car. A key is an understanding of using the right part or tool for the job. It was with horror that I saw a well known typospherian posting on their blog of replacing missing screws from their typewriter with wood screws that they had bought cheaply down at the local hardware store. Cheap, galvanised wood-screws, shoved into a delicately engineered piece of hardware. Screws a lot like the ones displayed above this text. But they didn’t even know they were wood screws. They never asked the people at the hardware store, or asked people online. It was a tragic example of Dunning-Krueger syndrome. I couldn’t even tell them what damage they were doing to their typewriter. It is like fixing an engine by hammering a nail into it. Its blunt force and bloody-mindedness. A sign that we have often so little skills these days outside of what we see may be our vocation, or wanted vocation, and there’s no culture to encourage it.

There’s a science to picking the right screw, and and using it. It seems like such a simple thing, but you get to understand that while repairing these machines.

The tragedy of the now.

Sadly however, the other side of the equation is often missing – the willingness to teach others your skills. And sometimes, as was the case with the wood-screws in the typewriter, there’s people who don’t have a willingness to listen. I’ve had many hours of help from John Lavery, but there’s plenty of experienced typewriter mechanics out there still – who are reluctant to pass skills on.

I get an email every couple of days about typewriters I have repaired, and I’m always willing to share the fairly limited knowledge that I have. I’ve consistently found that the community of the typosphere are willing to share their experiences. Although sometimes some don’t listen very well.

But I really lament the fact that we live in a world that – at least in our community – spends more time expecting magic to be handed to us, and flying off the handle when things aren’t quite as magical as they expected. I’m not expecting everyone to be survivalists, but I feel that the lack of actual ability to build things in our communities is rapidly restricting our ability to create. And if we can’t be creative, we can’t be innovative. We need to stop rewarding people for simply acquiring the coolest – and instead encourage and nurture people wanting to gain knowledge, and try to make things – no matter how simple or basic they seem to be. They ‘magic’ is in the doing, not the owning.

So pick up a typewriter and fix the f**king thing.

12 thoughts on “No user serviceable parts: the death of being able to do.

  1. I think I inherited my make do and mend approach from parents who grew up during the material (and nutritional) privations of the second world war. Not sure if I’ve succeeded in passing it on but you can only try by example.


    • It think it is getting harder and harder to do. Our schools don’t teach as many technical subjects as they used to, so there seems to be little focus on keeping the hands capable in our society.


  2. Very well put. Complete self-reliance would mean survivalist madness or a very low standard of living, but it is also a mistake to rely completely on others to make and fix our things. That is a recipe for unfreedom and ignorance. I enjoy the growing ability to fix typewriters. Now I just wish I understood electricity—I should take the time to study it.


    • Electricity is a lot like pluming. Or so my electrical instructor once started out. Everything from there is about bigger pipes, faster currents and gates that stop and start the flow.


  3. I know I could not have stated what you said any better. My wife laments everytime we visit a big box store like Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Michael’s and many others at the lack of sewing supplies.

    I remember the old Tandy electronics labs. Our sons all had one, but they had more fun at my workbench. Like me they liked higher voltages and such better. More arcs and bangs when something went wrong. Ohm the sound of a 500 volt electrolytic faulting and blowing to bits.

    If it were not for a few fellows putting up with a snot-nosed kid hanging around them I would never learned electronics, mechanics, and many other things to lead me into adult life. If only I could pass it on. Young people though only want to stare at text messages on their phone or play computer games.

    Now to get back to some more ‘cannot be repaired’ items and repair them.


    • I feel too often we shove ourselves into these screens as a distraction. We look for the easy ‘hard thing’ to do.

      I out-grew my little set as well. I just wish my family weren’t so eager to keep me safe from high voltage. Not that they really stopped me. I had had my first two 240 volt shocks before I was 13.


  4. I remember those Tandy kits. But I’m still no good at electronics😉

    Too much is thrown out that could be repaired; built-in obsolescence is our norm. Broadly the know-how and skills and tools are being lost; but in the funky specifics we’ve got hobbyists and recycled art makers and sew-your owns coming back. As well as maker culture and tinkering, Arduino etc.

    Curiosity is the big spark, the will to want to make/elaborate/fix. Get hands-on.

    If you go into Spotlight and see how expensive fabric is now (says my wife), of course you’d buy cheap clothes from China; you can’t compete.

    You can’t repair illusions, but you can fix & maintain a motorbike. [he says, Zen-like]


  5. Great post – so well put. A broken and dirty typewriter is a lot more interesting to me than a pristine collector’s piece. Every time I dig into a typewriter, I learn something new – something about typewriters and something about myself.


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