THE BLOG
10/25/2011 02:18 pm ET | Updated Dec 21, 2011

Ode To The First Laptop, The Corona 3

It was the first writing gadget that everyone coveted.

It was sleekly engineered, came in cool colors, and folded up into a compact square that you could hold with one hand. You could use it on a train or a plane, or in a café in Paris to tap out a novel. The first Mac laptop? No, it was the Corona 3 Portable Typewriter invented in 1912. Ernest Hemingway loved his, so did Teddy Roosevelt. It was the most popular model of typewriter ever made--selling over 700,000 in 30 years.

The Corona Typewriter Company of Groton, New York marketed the Corona III as "the personal writing machine." Before that, typewriters were viewed solely as a complicated cast iron fixture on a secretary's desk. But the Corona was an entirely new breed of typewriter. It folded in half, came in a leather carrying case and weighed a mere six and a half pounds (the weight of a MacBook). At $50, it was affordable to an individual consumer--much like a portable gramophone.

Corona ran ads in popular magazines such as National Geographic and The Saturday Evening Post marketing the portable typewriter as a necessity rather than an extravagance, a business machine required by everyone to stay competitive in a fast-changing world.

Doctors and businessman could type up records and receipts on the road. Parents owed their children a typewriter so they could get better grades and "keep up." Ads warned that even a woman from "a very nice family" might have to "earn her own living" and needed to learn a marketable skill. Corona developed its own school of touch-typing called "Coronawriting" which could be mastered in 6 easy lessons.

Above all, the ads made Corona users look adventurous and sexy. One featured a screenwriter tapping out his latest script in the wilderness, his typewriter jauntily perched on a tree stump. Another ad showed a man using a Corona in the open cockpit of a pre-Spirit-of-St. Louis bi-plane.

In 1922, the company started making the "Corona Special" in colored DuPont DUCO enamel, the same paint used on luxury automobiles, which cost, which cost $10 more than the standard black model. In the Corona Special ads, a flapper swoons over all the divine shades that would match her wardrobe or wallpaper--gold, maroon, peacock blue and mauve.

Hadley Richardson gave her fiancé, Ernest Hemingway, a Corona #3 for his 22nd birthday on July 21, 1921. He took it with him when he sailed to France in December of 1921 and wrote the Nick Adams stories on it. He sent a poem about his beloved typewriter to Harriet Monroe at Poetry Magazine in 1922.

The mills of the gods grind slowly;
But this mill
Chatters in mechanical staccato,
Ugly short infantry of the mind,
Advancing over difficult terrain,
Make this Corona
Their mitrailleuse.

He later said that the only psychiatrist he had ever submitted to was his "Corona 3."

For all it's style and panache, the Corona 3 was difficult to use. It only had a three row, 28 key keyboard, which meant typists had to master a complicated double shift method to type numbers and punctuation. The tiny size and the folding mechanism made it prone to breaking.

In 1924, Corona came out with the sleek #4 model, with a standard 4-row and 42 full keys which matched office machines. At 9 pounds, it had the sturdiness and key action of a full-sized machine, and quickly supplanted the quaint #3. By the time the Corona company joined up with Smith Brothers Typewriter in 1926, the Corona 3 was the first of many has-beens in the junk heap of flashy writing gadgets (the IBM Selectric, the Apple II....).

A recent article in the New York Times described the growing popularity of vintage manuals with the under-40 crowd who never experienced the frustration of typos and Whiteout. They are charmed by the thwack of metal keys and dings of the carriage return; the visceral satisfaction of rolling in a fresh sheet of onion skin. Some enthusiasts even gather with their manuals at local cafes for "type-ins." . ("Click, Clack, Ding! Sigh...")

My own interest in the Corona 3 started when I was working on my fourth novel, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, which is in the form of a vintage 1920s scrapbook, and I needed a vintage manual typewriter to type captions.

I bought a 1918 #3 on eBay for $87 that didn't look too rusty, had all of its key and a battered case, and was described as "works well." The machine arrived with a broken space bar and sticky keys that jammed.

I realized I needed the help of a pro and took it to Ted Wood who has been repairing typewriters at Charlottesville Office Machine since 1956. Back then the store occupied a corner spot on bustling West Main Street, and sold typewriters to every business and student in town.

In the 1980s, the new fangled "word processor," followed by the personal computer, slowly killed off the typewriter business and venerable Smith Corona declared bankruptcy in 1995. Charlottesville Office Machine moved to an out-of-way office park a few years ago. Now Wood, a courtly southern gentleman well past retirement age, caters mostly to unlucky eBay and flea market collectors like me who want their rescued manuals made ship-shape.

Wood cleaned, oil and tuned my Corona 3, fixed the spacebar and replaced the worn rubber platen for $100. I ruefully notice the dozens of restored portable typewriters Wood has for sale that were far snazzier and lower-priced than my salvaged eBay find. After struggling to master the Corona 3's double shift, I treated myself to one of his restored Corona 4's for $135. My Corona 3 is now displayed on a shelf next to another stylish vintage writing machine, a 2003 Mac Powerbook.

If you covet a piece of typewriting history, a Corona #3 is fairly easy to come by. They are one of the most common models to turn up in flea markets and vintage typewriter stores. At any given time, there are at least 20 Corona 3's for sale on eBay with prices ranging from $25 to 200. But Wood warns that almost any typewriter bought online will need to be cleaned and tuned to be made fully functional. And if any of those hundreds of levers, springs, and screws are missing, the price can quickly soar upward. Wood recommends buying a restored typewriter that can be inspected and tested with a few run-throughs of thequickbrownfoxjumpedoverthelazydog.

Caroline Preston's new novel, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: a Novel in Pictures, was typed on a Corona 3 typewriter, and is published by Ecco/ Harper Collins on October 25.

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