While looking up for some information about my dad’s old typewriter, lying inside a dusty cupboard for 14 years, I stumbled upon some pretty cool trivia. He probably bought this nifty Empire Aristocrat portable typewriter made in England (as inscribed on the front side of the machine’s base) from one British sahib working at a tea estate in northern Bengal.
The Empire Aristocrat was made by the British Typewriter Company of Queen Street, West Bromwich (outside Birmingham) England, under a 1935 license from E. Paillard and Company of Switzerland. You could well call it the MacBook Air of typewriters of those times owing to its compact design and light weight. No wonder, it was the favorite of roving reporters and foreign correspondents who needed to travel far and wide, and often report from war fronts and hostile outdoors.
One of its most famous owners of this lineage of typewriters was London Daily Express air correspondent Victor Ricketts, who created a world record while traveling with an Empire. I found a picture from the Australian Typewriter Museum, Canberra, in which Ricketts is seen with the machine on his lap, testing out elbow room for typing in the cockpit of the DH88 Comet in which he and New Zealand-born pilot, Air Commodore Arthur Clouston broke 11 world records on round-the-world flights in 1938.
Another photo from the same source shows Geoffrey Lee-Martin, chief-of-staff for Auckland’s New Zealand Herald daily in extremely harsh weather typing a story on an Empire Aristocrat portable typewriter at Cape Royds, Ross Island, close to Antarctica, in 1956, while covering Sir Edmund Hillary’s Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Ricketts, who wrote for the Express under the byline of “Cygnus”, had approached Clouston with a deal: If he could raise the money for the world record attempts, would Clouston fly the plane and take him along with him as a typewriter-wielding second pilot? Clouston agreed.
Indeed, Ricketts and Clouston flew from Kent, England, to Sydney, Australia, and on to New Zealand, and returned to London, a total distance of over 42,500 km in 10 days. To mark Australia’s 150th anniversary of European settlement, their Comet was rechristened “Australian Anniversary” for the record-breaking occasion. The Comet, a classic of the Golden Age of long distance air racing in the 1930s, and only three Comets were ever made, each selling for £5000.
Ricketts was killed in action at the age of 29 — failing to return from his photographic sortie to France. He was born in England on January 27, 1913 — exactly 100 years from now.
My dad’s typewriter came into my possession on the same date at the turn of the century. I am now trying to keep the machine in good shape and in working condition, I guess. For it brings back memories of him typing away at frenzied pace even as I watched him with much awe and admiration. He never learned or mastered QWERTY typing, a technique which was designed to prevent jams while typing quickly, but developed his own style of typing with speed and accuracy — much like many of us do on our laptops today.