Thursday, March 23, 2017

Typewriter review: Royal Epoch

Should you buy a Royal Epoch?

Short answer: No.

Medium answer: The Epoch is a recently manufactured manual portable typewriter that you can currently (March 2017) find for sale, new, from around $150 to $250. That is viewed as an expensive price by most buyers, yet assembly of a manual typewriter is a complex and labor-intensive process, so the profit margin for the manufacturer is necessarily small. The Chinese factory must be trying hard, too hard, to maximize that margin, because quality control is just not there. If you are lucky and get an Epoch that is basically in good shape, and if you are mechanically handy in case something needs fixing, then this model is not a bad choice if newness is important to you. It has a lot of features, and it will type, but it isn't very precise or durable. If you don't care about getting a new machine and just want quality, a well-preserved typewriter made in the 1950s or 1960s is likely to be better. I offer many suggestions in my book The Typewriter Revolution.

Long answer:  OK, let's give the Epoch its due: it is a good-looking typewriter. Some thought went into its styling, which is more or less contemporary and has some subtle lines. It's only when you look more closely that you see rough edges in the plastic and slipshod manufacturing practices. ...
The angled "wedge" shape is reminiscent of some electronic typewriters, while the black color is more typical of classic prewar machines. The back panel of the carriage is metal, by the way, but all other parts of the shell are plastic.

Yes, it's a good piece of industrial design, visually speaking.
This typewriter has previously been sold under the names Olympia and Rover. The same mechanical design was introduced in 2016 as the W R Memory Keepers Typecast Typewriter, currently for sale by Michaels for $199.99. You can read Nick T's review of that machine here. (Spoiler alert: he returned the typewriter.)

These machines are made by Shanghai Weilv Mechanism Co., which may be the last manual typewriter factory in the world. According to Will Davis, the original design was developed by the Italian company IMC

Shanghai Weilv has also produced typewriters with different mechanisms, such as the Royal Scrittore II, which I review here. The Scrittore is a smaller, carriage-shifted machine. 

Given my disappointing experience with Chinese-made typewriters in the past, I was not about to pay $200 for the Epoch. I found one for a tenth of that on eBay, advertised as having a defective "E" typebar. I hoped that I would just need to bend the typebar into position, but instead the type slug itself was not soldered on properly, so the lowercase e would not print at all. A correctly soldered typebar is shown on the left, the "E" on the right:

I pulled off the slug, but I have not learned how to resolder slugs properly. So for now, this tool can imprint words from books of Gadsby's ilk only—a limitation making composition difficult and grammar awkward.

The typewriter has many features, including keyboard-set tabulator with tabulator brake, tension adjuster, automatic spacer, basket shift, paper rest, variable spacer, line finder, and 44-key keyboard (in a slightly unconventional version of QWERTY). I can report that the space bar, automatic spacer, and tabulator all work very smoothly and feel good.

But there are some disadvantages to the design. There is a carriage release button only on the right, the high tension on the mainspring makes for a stiff carriage return, and the short levers on the top row of keys create an awkward motion.

Everything possible is made of plastic, such as most of the ribbon mechanism. Even the slotted segment for the typebars is plastic.

Now for more quality-control issues on my machine:

The left platen knob was loose, and I had to attach it more tightly to the shaft by using pliers to turn this odd little screwlike fastener. (The actual screws on the machine are all Phillips screws.)

The margin release mechanism was disconnected and had to be squeezed back into place.

The piece that sets and clears tab stops cleared them very effectively, but barely was able to set them. I had to form it to make it work better. (That's typewriter-repair speak for bending.)

A set of tab stops on the left were missing, and one was inserted wrong.

The margin release would not clear the left margin stop, which also had to be formed.

The left paper guide was misaligned and had to be adjusted (it is shown readjusted below). By the way, the platen on this machine does not feel rubbery; it is almost as hard as the plastic body, and I have no idea of its chemical composition.

Finally, this set of springs for the tab stops was found rattling around loose inside the typewriter.

This shoddy manufacturing is frustrating. As I said above, it takes many hours of labor to create a manual typewriter. Evidently the factory is trying to produce them as quickly and cheaply as possible in order to make the most money, but wouldn't it be more prudent to invest a little more in better materials and quality control? The machine should never have left the factory with problems like this.

One seller of the Epoch warns buyers that it is "simple, basic" and "not in any way" like an electric or electronic typewriter. This vendor suggests that it can be used for filling out forms, labels, and envelopes, amusing children, or sitting on a shelf as a conversation piece. No refunds!

The twenty-first century deserves better. If the Epoch were built with more quality and care—and, no doubt, sold at a higher price—it could be an impressive machine. When will someone take the plunge and create an excellent manual typewriter for our age?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Thinking machine

They say they can make machines that can think.

I'd rather have a machine to think with.