Every Saturday at 8am, a certain ritual takes place. All my snoozed book-related emails resurface that time, my inbox lighting up with dozens of reminders. I respond to a few that need responding, poke a few people I haven’t heard from in months, archive emails that feel complete, and snooze the rest once more so that they reappear in a week.
I learned to love this part of the process, that flywheel of sorts that gives the book some momentum. Some of the emails are eBay purchases in transit, some requests for imagery, some reminders to myself (always, for some reason, in all caps), and some messages to experts and proofreaders. But the group that has always been the trickiest and that lingered the longest is emails to people I wanted to talk to.
There is the art of interviewing, and there is the art of knowing whom to interview. Although I have learned a lot since the first chat I had with Rick Dickinson in 2017, I am still too nervous, too inexperienced, too deferential. I admire other interviewers who can listen to an answer while thinking ahead to the next question, who can fluently steer a conversation, who can coax people to admit to new things or connect old things in new ways, and who can assemble a “B roll” of good quotes while taking care of the main threads.
I only occasionally can accomplish just one of these things at a time, but I can see how enough practice could get me there. Knowing whom to interview, though? That skill feels wholly impossible. The inventors of the world-shattering machines – the Remington, the Selectric, even IBM’s Model M – are long gone. There aren’t very many historians of keyboards. And the celebrities (Tom Hanks, Steve Wozniak) are but a few and I have various reservations about even approaching them.
I have a feeling chasing people isn’t the right take, anyway. You have to chase stories. But stories don’t announce themselves as such. Many are hiding inside people’s heads, feeling like nothing very exciting. It haunts me that somewhere within the readership of this very newsletter, there are great stories that will never see the light of day; even if I had time to talk to everyone, and you had the willingness to engage me, well… I’m not a great interviewer.
I’ve had some luck with chasing stories on Twitter, and I’ll write about that some other day. And I was pretty lucky with finding some wonderful people who surrendered great stories too: fans of mechanical keyboards, people who typed on the oldest of computers, ergonomics specialists, inventors. To the extent I could determine it, I thought I was already done with interviews about a year ago.
And yet, despite that, the most unusual interview I‘ve done happened only last month.
Have you ever heard of Martin Tytell? If there’s one typewriter person who’s worth reading about, it might be him.
His Manhattan typewriter store on Fulton Street, a ribbon’s throw from the Typewriter Row, was the stuff of legends. It was visited by writers, artists, celebrities, filled to the brim with typewriters and their parts, and frequented by letters addressed simply to “Mr. Typewriter, NYC.”
Martin’s wife Pearl – they met by a typewriter, of course – ran the store with him. She focused on forensics, he busied himself with repairs. But once in a while, he also got to play Victor Frankenstein, modifying typewriters to do things they were not intended to do: make them type in another alphabet, support amputees better, reverse their mechanism and write in a right-to-left language.
Martin Tytell was thrust into the limelight during the famous Hiss/Chambers espionage trial of 1950. One of the pieces of evidence incriminating Alger Hiss was a particular Woodstock typewriter, and Hiss’s defense asked him to do something thought impossible: to create a carbon copy of a typewriter – proving that if he could do it, then perhaps a state agency could do as well. (He did, although the results were inconclusive.)
Martin Tytell had two kids, and one of them followed in his father’s footsteps. Although Peter Tytell would sometimes identify himself as “Martin Tytell’s son,” he didn’t have to. He took a small chunk of his father’s and mother’s interest – typewriter and document identification – and made it his own, becoming an expert in the part of forensics known as questioned document examination.
He was once called a “famous typewriter detective” by Andy Rooney. “Peter might have a look at one character in a typewritten doc and he’d know which machine it was made by,” mentioned one of his peers. Just three years ago, a society of examiners awarded him with their highest honour, noting that “[Peter] is the last word in document examination for any cases involving typewriters or typewritten documents. He has always given his time and expertise to anyone who asks. He has maintained reference collections that are second to none.”
He testified in a few fascinating cases – the Paul Ceglia Facebook controversy, the Qatar dispute over a possession of a few crucial islands. The one that propelled him to national fame was the 2004 debacle known as Memogate – a series of documents from 1973 that alleged George W. Bush’s bad behaviour during his service in Texas Air National Guard, and a subsequent cover-up. CBS aired the documents to great fanfare on 60 Minutes, with Dan Rather himself presenting the case.
Long story short, the memos were fake. Just from watching the initial broadcast on a low-resolution TV, Peter Tytell immediately knew something was up. This wasn’t an old Olympia, this was Times New Roman. The documents were typed contemporaneously in Microsoft Word, rather than on a 1973 typewriter.
Within days from airing, the scandal blew up in CBS’s face. A panel was convened to investigate, with Peter Tytell invited to weigh in. As Michael Bierut wrote recently, “for one thrilling moment the entire nation was talking about proportional letter spacing and the typographic nuances of a superscript th.”
The snafu cost Dan Rather his reputation and career. And the icing on a cake? CBS considered consulting Peter Tytell before airing, but didn’t follow through.
Both of these stories, and both Martin Tytell and Peter Tytell are in my book, in the chapter about keyboard crimes – somewhere right next to Murder Creek, a vintage Soviet keylogger, and the case of the poisoned typewriter. Both Martin Tytell and Peter Tytell seemed like great people to interview, and people with fantastic stories.
Alas, Martin Tytell died in 2008, seven years after the closure of his famous Manhattan shop.
But Peter Tytell? As I discovered one random evening, he was on the same Yahoo typewriter mailing list I subscribed to.
I was never this close to a bona fide typewriter celebrity. And so I grabbed his address from the list, and cold emailed him, daring not to ask for a conversation, but for small help with some visual materials for the book. He responded quickly with “do you have a phone number that I could call?” But he never did.
I didn’t make too much out of it – this is 2020, after all, and people have more important things on their minds. Every Saturday morning, I would snooze his email once more, waiting for a kinder time to follow up.
Months later, in June, he wrote a message to the same mailing list: “My father (Martin Tytell) worked with Dvorak after WWII on one handed keyboard (for people with only a left hand or only right hand). (…) Some old instructional and promotional material is in a box downtown, safely isolated during this lockdown. There might also be a copy or two of the Dvorak book on the topic. I have never put anything on eBay and I don’t really want to start now. Some of the contributors to this string might be interested, so try and contact me off-list.”
I did just that. I mentioned my book again, and wrote to him saying that I would gladly take care of all of the Dvorak materials – and not just for myself, but for others. I mentioned how important that was to me, and pointed to a little corner of the Internet Archive people there set up for me to share my scans of “many offbeat brochures, books and pamphlets related to the experience and culture of type.”
When’s the best time to call? he asked, and I responded “right now or any time tomorrow (I have a day off work)”. But that today and its tomorrow came and went. I snoozed his email until a subsequent Saturday, and put it all out of my mind.
And so it caught me by surprise that a few days later, in the middle of a working Thursday, I received a call from an unknown number.
“Hi, it’s Peter Tytell,” said the voice on the other side.
I jumped up from my chair, quickly shoving AirPods into my ears. We exchanged introductions. But then, Peter Tytell said something I did not expect at all.
“I have cancer. It’s pretty bad. I can send you some stuff, but you will get it after I’m gone.”
I’ve been there once before. That first interview I mentioned, with Rick Dickinson – a British industrial designer responsible for the legendary ZX81, ZX Spectrum, and Sinclair QL computer – had an unexpected coda. After a delightful conversation ended with “we’ll talk again,” I was hoping to one day send him a finished chapter, or ask for some visuals, or simply chat once more over my finished book.
None of this came to pass. Some months later, the internet informed me of Rick’s passing. His obituaries mentioned a multi-year battle with cancer, and that knowledge put our chat in a new light. (I wrote about this experience a few years ago.)
But at the moment, I didn’t know this was to be our last conversation. This time was different.
How do you respond when a relative stranger tells you about their impeding death? I quickly realized that there was nothing I could say. Instead I promised myself: I will stay on the phone with Peter for as long as he wants to talk. Not just for me. Also for him. I slacked my boss: “I might be late for 4pm – will explain – on a call – sorry.” I didn’t want to interrupt to set up recording, so I just opened an empty text file to take notes in.
And then I listened.
I was, once more, a horrible interviewer. But this time it didn’t matter. Peter shared one story after another anyway – enough for me to indeed miss my 4pm meeting and fill my file with as many words as this lengthy newsletter. He told me about his father’s work with August Dvorak, building typewriters for World War II amputees. We talked about typewriters in East Europe; he knew more about the Polish typewriter factory Łucznik than I did, and possessed what seemed like encyclopedic knowledge of every military company that pivoted to typewriters after WWII.
He also told me a story about Dvorak that blew my mind (no worries, it’ll be in the book), and hinted at a few tintillating artifacts in his collection: a typewriter with a George Bernard Shaw alphabet, a vinyl record with Dvorak voice, a Smith-Corona keyboard layout book.
But in the background, his first words were still ringing in my ears. I’ve never cried during an interview before, but I did here, multiple times. I did so when Peter mentioned that he would’ve loved to go downtown and help find some materials for me, but he was no longer strong enough to do so. I did so when I realized I don’t know what to do with his apparent calmness about death that I recognized from a few other people I later mourned (and hoped that one day, when the time comes, that calmness will appear in my own life). I did so afterwards, when I realized that I was part of “getting your affairs in order,” and that I had no idea what exactly was my responsibility in preserving Peter’s legacy.
And I had tears in my eyes when – close to the end of the conversation – he mentioned “I’m sorry that I didn’t find out about you before. I would have loaded you with stuff.”
Peter Tytell died on August 11, less than two months after we talked.
Just like with his father, New York Times celebrated his life. Both obituaries end on a similar note. Martin: “I hope they do survive — manual typewriters are where my heart is. They’re what keep me alive.” Peter: “He displayed vintage typewriters in his small residence and tucked the ugly ones in closets. «I’ve such nice affection for them», he stated.”
In a strange twist of fate, the wheels of the internet spun the right way, and the same Internet Archive people that set up my little scanning corner contacted me about Peter Tytell’s collection, not even knowing I talked to him. It turns out they were arranging to take care of all his stuff, and they could use a “typewriter guy.”
I’m a typewriter guy now myself. In all fairness, I don’t know if I’m helping that much. But just as the experience of talking to Peter in such unusual circumstances is something I will treasure, it brings me a bit of pride that I’m part of this process, trying to preserve the collection that was once deemed “second to none.”
Photos by Jason Scott
There was another moment in our conversation that I’ll be thinking of for a long time. At the very end, Peter Tytell said something I didn’t expect him to say: “I’m sorry I won’t get to see your book.”
But that was one thing I could do something about. That very Thursday night I assembled the 90% complete copy, and send it to him as a PDF. A few people – editors, proofreaders, experts – read my book or its pieces before, but this was slightly different. I don’t know if Peter ever opened that email. If he did, he was my book’s first reader.
I’m writing this on a Saturday. At 8am, as they do every week, a few dozens of emails reappear in my Gmail: the eBay purchases, the requests for imagery, the all-caps reminders, the messages to experts. One of them says “Thank you for talking today!” That’s the one with my book inside, the one with Peter Tytell’s name on it. There is no response, and there will never be one.
But I refuse to archive it. I press the B key instead, and send it one week into the future. And I know that the next Saturday morning I’ll do the same thing again.