15 June 2023

Meet Canberra's only typewriter repairer - who once owned nearly 1000 of them

| Lizzie Waymouth
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man fixing typewriter

Robert Messenger makes sure Canberra’s typewriters are working smoothly, including the 20 or so in Old Parliament House. Photo: Lizzie Waymouth.

Some of us might have an old typewriter gathering dust in the attic, or know a relative who has one. But Robert Messenger is probably one of a kind in having nearly 1000 typewriters in his possession at one point.

Though he’s since slimmed down his collection considerably, Robert still keeps a few select favourites. After working with typewriters throughout his career as a journalist, he taught himself how to repair them about 25 years ago. He’s now one of just seven qualified typewriter repairers in Australia and the only one in Canberra.

“The odd thing is that having used the typewriter for 25 or 30 years as a journalist travelling all over the world, I never had to fix a typewriter once,” he laughs.

“And you never really thought about how they worked or who made them or who designed them. You just used them to write your story. And so, 20 years after I’d stopped using them as a professional, I then started to think, ‘Well, how do they work?’

“It was only after I retired [that I got into typewriters]. It started with one and it grew to three, and then it grew to 975.

“And so what I did was a self-funded apprenticeship of, you know, just taking typewriters apart to work out how they work.

“That was a journey of discovery because I really had no idea when I started, but now I can fix any typewriter, which is just quite amazing.”

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The number of typewriters still in use is decreasing by the day, but Robert says there has “absolutely” been a growth in interest in recent years – something that he is “quite astonished” to discover. This has been helped by social media allowing collectors to connect with each other.

“When I go on to Instagram, for example, the numbers are just incredible,” he said. “Typewriters have a way of connecting people in all sorts of fun ways all over the world.”

They also have some unlikely names among their fans, including Tom Hanks, who “is fascinated by typewriters” and has a collection in the hundreds. He also now owns one of Robert’s typewriters, which was previously owned by actor Richard Harris.

Closer to home, Robert says there is still plenty of interest in his services around the capital region, and he is surprised at how word gets around.

“I’m quite amazed because, you know, I’ll get phone calls, ‘Are you the typewriter guy?’ … But I never find out quite how they know because it’s not in the Yellow Pages or anything like that. It’s word of mouth. And given that it is word of mouth, it is a really steady amount of work. And I get some very interesting jobs.”

This includes removing two wasps nests found underneath the carriage, with the trademark of the typewriter imprinted into the nest as it was built around it.

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While some of the calls Robert receives come from people wanting to repair or restore a typewriter for their own use, it’s often the younger generation who have sparked an interest.

“The most common thing is somebody says, ‘My granddaughter wants to write, she wants to use a typewriter. We found my old typewriter in the cupboard, and we just want it serviced.'”

Robert also recounted the story of the parents of a 13-year-old boy who contacted him to say they would be travelling through Canberra and wanted to visit his workshop in Hughes. The boy was “in seventh heaven” after going home with four or five new models and a manual on how to fix them.

Robert’s typewriters are also on show for visitors of all ages to use at the ‘Yours Faithfully’ exhibit at Old Parliament House, which invites people to rekindle the lost art of letter writing.

It opened in 2019 with around eight typewriters and was expected to run for six months. The exhibition is still running today and now has as many as 20 typewriters, which Robert says “all have their quirks”. The lasting success of the exhibit to him is proof that there is still a fascination with typewriters, even among younger people who may not have used one before.

“Yours Faithfully is incredible because it illustrates how interested young people are in that mechanism. They’re all used to using iPads and iPhones and so on, but to be able to produce a written word on a piece of paper in front of their eyes with their own manual effort just absolutely fascinates them,” he said.

More information on Robert’s typewriters and how to get in touch with him can be found on his blog.

Yours Faithfully is free to visit at the Museum of Australian Democracy, Old Parliament House.

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