In the nearly two weeks since Royal Marie arrived at the house I’ve been able to get to know her pretty well. Whether it was poring over every inch of her solid, metal frame to find her hidden secrets and assess her condition, or just typing on her. There have been several “This is a test” pages, along with about 4,000 words of fiction and a thank you note to Marie-Eve. So I thought it might be time to post my review of this machine.
But first, a bit of background on the KMM: Introduced in 1939, the KMM was the first to have the innovative “Magic Margin” feature. This allowed the typist to quickly set margins by pulling a knob, positioning the carriage and pushing the knob back in. This doesn’t seem revolutionary from a 21st century perspective but it was a game changer in 1939 and set Royal apart from its competitors, who later copied the idea.
Royal halted almost all typewriter production two years later when the U.S. entered World War II. Aside from a few machines made primarily for the US Navy, Royal factories were re-tooled to produce much-needed war materiel. Think of all the metal that goes into a typewriter and you’ll get an idea of why this was a prudent move. When production resumed following the end of the war, Royal faced a deep backlog of orders for new machines and set up to work ‘round the clock to fulfill them. That’s why the listing of serial numbers for each year takes a huge jump immediately following WWII.
Royal Marie was built by the Royal factory in Montreal, Quebec, and came off the line in 1947. She was built with a French-language typeset, sacrificing a few standards such as the “@” and “#” in favour of accented characters. I’m sure this was very handy for the staff at the Canadian Department of External Affairs, where Royal Marie began her service life, but it mandates some slight adaptations for the 21st century writer, whose contact information includes an e-mail address and for whom standard manuscript format requires a “#” to denote breaks in scene!
So, what is it like to work on the 70 year-old Royal Marie? Being someone who’s spent the last 25 years working and writing on computers, I expected it to be a steep re-learning curve to go back to a manual typewriter. It wasn’t that tough, and for that I can thank the fact that I learned to type and started writing on my Dad’s old machine. It would be different for people like my daughters, who’ve only known computers.
Let’s be clear: The KMM is a big piece of machinery and it feels big when you work with it. The size is such that you will never consider taking this with you as a portable writing instrument. It’s just too big and heavy for that. Royal Marie was built to sit on a desk and stay there. With all that size and weight comes a real sense of power when you hit the keys. There’s a solid kathunk when pressing the space bar and a satisfying fwap as the strikers make their mark upon the page. The keys are comfortable, demanding more pressure than a computer keyboard but less than you’d expect when looking at them. The KMM even comes with a touch control adjustment wheel to set the feel the way you like it.
The speed of a typewriter is not based solely upon the typing skill of its operator. A lot of it has to do with the mechanism itself and some machines are prone to being slower than others, increasing the odds of jamming keys together. The Royal Marie seems to be well-built in this regard, though I feel like some cleaning and oiling would make her even better. Make no mistake; typing on a typewriter will almost invariably be slower than on a computer keyboard. Remember that this is a mechanical contraption with a zillion little metal bars, springs and assorted doo-dads that all connect and move together to make your thoughts appear as words on the page. I figure I’ve dropped from a peak typing speed of 120 WPM to about 90 while using the KMM.
And that’s not a complaint. Where the machine slows you down in mechanical process, it speeds you up in writing process, but that will be the subject of a future post. Overall, I have to say I am very satisfied with the speed of typing on the Royal KMM.
Look up functionality on Google and you’ll find two definitions. The second relates specifically to computers and has actually tainted the way we look at the word. I prefer the first definition and I apply it as the basis for reviewing a typewriter:
The quality of being suited to serve a purpose well; practicality.
So this isn’t about the features of the Royal KMM but about how well it works when you, well, work with it. On this basis, Royal Marie scores very high with only a couple, small points detracting from her functionality score.
- Key placement: Everything is where it should be and your fingers find their place very easily. You’re not thinking about where to move your fingers next, which helps keep typing speed up. One exception to this would be that the Backspace and Tab keys are inverted, at least according to my 21st century mindset, which states that the Backspace should be on the right-hand side, not the left.
- Paper Loading: Nothing worse than a page of text that is typed on an angle. That’s very easy to do on a typewriter but is not an issue (so far) on the KMM. Even with a rock-solid platen, Royal Marie grips the paper and loads it straight without much effort at all. The platen knobs are well placed so you find them without looking when you need to re-position the paper. Like when centering text on the page, for example.
- Return Lever: I’ve read other typewriter reviews that deal specifically with this. A lot of complaints for some machines about levers that are too short, for example. Some would say it’s not the size of the lever but how you use it, but that’s another subject. In truth, the lever does matter since it’s with this that you descend to the next line of the page and crank the carriage over to the far left margin. On the KMM, it’s well placed and very functional. I don’t even think about it anymore. I hear the ding! and decide whether to crank over now or type a couple more characters. One niggle on Royal Marie is that her lever is a little too low, resulting in a slight scrape against the cover. I’ll fix that.
- Margin Setting and Tab Stops: They don’t call it the Magic Margin for nothing. Actually, I’ve barely used that feature, but I can see it works well. In truth, setting the right and left margins to one inch on either side was quick and easy. Tab stops are equally simple. Just move the carriage and hit the button to set the stop. One of the first things I did was set a stop for 5 spaces in, for paragraph indents, and one for the horizontal center of the page.
Can you imagine sitting in an office full of these things? All that clacking and ratcheting makes me wonder how Advil wasn’t invented earlier. The Royal KMM is a big machine and she makes a big sound. In short: She’s loud. Some of this relates to the rock-hard platen and I’ve dulled some of the sound by placing a foam pad underneath, but Royal Marie still makes a lot of noise. I don’t notice it because I’m the one doing the writing on her, but others around me definitely hear her!
Just like size shouldn’t matter, we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but let’s be real: If your machine is loud with a small lever it should at least look good. Fortunately, even though she’s loud, Royal Marie has a big lever and is damned good looking. The KMM is just a beautiful machine, as you can see from the pictures. There’s a mature, elegant look to these typewriters, with their glass-topped keys, black crinkle-paint finish and plated nickel accents. The effect is that I find the machine beckons. It calls to me, enticing me to sit down and write on it.
I’ve read other reviews of the Royal KMM that sum up in the same manner: If you can find one of these machines you should get it. I agree wholeheartedly with that assessment. The KMM is a machine that just about any writer would enjoy working with and thanks to their popularity back when they were new, they’re not even that hard to find. I was incredibly fortunate that Royal Marie came to me in such terrific condition. There really isn’t much cleaning up to do with her to make her look like new again, and there are no repairs needed. New ribbon and away you go. I probably won’t be so lucky with future machines.
If you are looking to do your writing on a manual typewriter and you are OK with a one that is by no means portable, this machine should get very serious consideration. You can almost imagine authors like Hemingway pounding out their next literary classics on a machine like this and it’s easy to allow yourself to be taken in by the romanticism of it.
(Author’s note: Hemingway actually used a Royal Quiet Deluxe and he preferred to write while standing up)
No matter how many machines join my collection (more on that in a future article) the Royal KMM will always hold a special place. Not only because she was a very thoughtful gift but also because she is a very effective writing instrument and just a joy to use.