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Rescuing typewriters from the wild Add to ...

Down the stairs and past the children's toys in his cozy home off the bluffs in Toronto, Martin Howard's ancient typewriters sit quietly in an elegant, illuminated custom cabinet.

Some of the machines look like cheese slicers, others like shoe-fitting devices. A few resemble the insect-like contraption in David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch.

Mr. Howard, 49, puts on white gloves to handle them. Dating from the 1880s and 1890s, they are the world's first typewriters, and part of the largest collection of such in Canada. This month, 45 of Mr. Howard's 80 typewriters are on display at the Malton Airport Gallery inside Pearson International Airport's Terminal 1.

The collector got the bug from his father, who amassed butter churns, farm implements, cranial bores and taffy machines in the family home. As a boy, Mr. Howard collected coins, cigar tins and wine labels.

Decades later, he still hordes. His wife Susan tells him he's obsessed.

"I remember feeling chuffed and slightly offended by that," Mr. Howard says in his basement, surrounded by the ancient machines.

"I was trying to argue that I wasn't obsessed, but of course I am, and have been and continue to be."

Typewriter collectors haunt thrift shops and estate sales, stalking the prize find. Nostalgic for the machines' precise metallic clang and sumptuous aesthetics, many collectors have one childhood memory that sparked their fascination.

For Alan Seaver, a 37-year-old servers administrator for the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, it was his grandfather's 1926 Underwood No. 5.

"It was kept down in the basement and that's where we kids had to sleep. I'd play on that and after he died they were going to auction off the belongings of the house and I said, 'I want that typewriter.' I turned out lots of awful fiction on it when I was a teenager."

After collecting for 15 years, Mr. Seaver has 135 machines, a century's worth of American designs. Like other collectors, Mr. Seaver has his favourite: a 1940 Corona Sterling.

"I'm not sure a prettier typewriter was ever made. It also happens to be a dream to type on, with a satisfying whack that's not too sharp or too dull."

Mr. Howard made his first acquisition in 1989, when he walked into an Aurora, Ont., junk shop owned by a man named Red.

"There were piles of stuff, like a mountain range, going up to six or seven feet. On top of one of these peaks was an early typewriter. I was captivated by it."

He paid $100 for the machine, a Caligraph typewriter from the 1880s.

Although the chances of finding treasure in a junk shop are slim, hope always remains for collectors. "I sort of refer to that as finding a diamond in the rough, or finding a typewriter in the wild. And they're out there," Mr. Howard said.

More often, private collectors buy and sell machines from and to each other. The largest contingent is in Germany, but serious collectors can also be found in Italy, France and Switzerland. Another 100 live in the United States.

They also hunt on eBay, where 19th-century models go for between $200 and $500.

John Payton, 62, is one of these online collectors. The retired Vietnam vet from Taylor, Tex., has 94 typewriters - a testament to his obsession, since he has been collecting for just two years.

"I come to this genetically," Mr. Payton says.

His grandmother Mamie Payton was a renowned glass antique dealer and his aunt and father are "garage sale junkies." Mr. Payton collected model cars as a boy and has been restoring Model A Fords since 1964. He fell in love with typewriters during the Vietnam War, when he worked as a translator, transcribing words off the radio to paper.

"I love the way the words appear on the page and I love the sound of the machine," he says.

His oldest typewriter is a Remington Standard 2, circa 1878, and his newest machine is a Royal from the 1960s. All reside in his converted two-car garage - "my little museum," as Mr. Payton calls it.

But just where will the typewriters go once their owners go the way of correction tape?

Mr. Seaver hopes his 14-month-old son Nick - who is "just old enough to know that it's fun to hit the keys" - will take the collection. Mr. Payton is hoping to bequeath his to University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas where his wife studied. And Mr. Howard will pick a "special one" for his 13-year-old daughter Katie and likely sell the rest to private collectors.

He also has a vague hope that the Royal Ontario Museum will buy his machines. The museum exhibited 20 of his typewriters in 2007, when chief executive William Thorsell visited Mr. Howard's basement to personally inspect the collection.

Says Mr. Howard: "Not just for typewriters, but for many things, collectors [are the means by which]many objects of our cultural heritage are protected. Museums can't afford to do it."

Typewriters are museum-worthy, Mr. Howard says, because they are technological marvels: Today's computer keyboards still function on a QWERTY keyboard layout, which hasn't changed since 1874.

"The means of getting information out from the brain to the hand and to the world hasn't changed. Us, a human machine, we're the same as we were in the 1880s. In a very profound sense the keyboard is one of the most important tools of communication in the world today and it's so ubiquitous, we don't really think about it."

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