“Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.” —Sholem Asch

A Robotron Story, or, What’s YOUR Excuse?

I recently came across a reference to a “Robotron” manual typewriter, and at first I thought it was concocted term out of Steampunk fiction. Why else would a writing machine (not even an electric one, mind you) bear such a high-tech moniker?
File:VEB Robotron.svg
Robotrons are real.

The VEB Kombinat Robotron was a manufacturing combine formed in Communist East Germany in 1969, headquartered in Dresden. They made computers–mainframes, minicomputers and, toward the end of their existence (they were liquidated during German Reunification), some personal computers as well. But given that the market for cutting edge technology was somewhat limited behind the Iron Curtain, they diversified into other, more prosaic products: radios, televisions and typewriters. Here’s a sample of their latter wares, rolling off an assembly line in 1987:
File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1987-0125-004, VEB Robotron Elektronik Dresden, Endmontage.jpg
Yeah, not too exciting a piece of engineering. It’s described as “a typical Soviet Bloc tool: crude, heavy and indestructible.” Seems to owe at least a few stylistic cues to Olivetti, although some models seem more physically reminiscent of Olympias. Take a look at this one and see if it doesn’t remind you of an SM-9.

My East German Robotron wonder.

This beat-up model has a particularly interesting story behind it. It belongs to Yordanka Caridad, a Cuban author and photojournalist. As she explains in a Havana Times reminiscence,

“I borrowed it (when I was 20) from a relative who had stolen it from some office, where he said they didn’t use it. I still haven’t returned it to him. At the time it was part of my dream come true…Its keys, a bit obstinate, helped me to become stricken with numerous bouts of tendonitis, but also with more than 10 books. “

Yup, she’s written (more than) ten books on this beast. As she points out, she has no alternative: “Until a year ago, it was generally not allowed to bring computers into the country. Now they’re sold in foreign currency stores, but with my impressive salary I can’t even think of buying such a device.”
My hat is already off to Ms. Caridad. But what’s fascinating is that she wrote her latest novel on it in fifteen days. Without a typewriter ribbon.
In fifteen days. Without a typewriter ribbon.
Since ribbons–like almost everything–are hard to come by in embargo-era Cuba, she wrote it with a supply of carbon paper.

“It’s relatively easy to write without a ribbon, using a white sheet of paper with carbon paper on top. Though all you can see is the black sheet as you write, at least you have the security that the final copy won’t fade so easily.

From time to time you have to remember what was written at the top of the page; that’s easy, you remove the carbon paper, read it, and then slide the sheets back into place, trying to situate them where you left your last half-completed sentence.”

Caridad pronounces this semi-blind typing “a good technique, especially since it permitted me to finish so soon.” The novel, Lia el sexo oscuro (Leah: The Dark Sex) found a publisher and will hit the bookshelves in a few months.
So…let’s take stock. This is a published novel, written in half the time allotted for NaNoWriMo, on a battered, marginally-functional typewriter missing a ribbon cover and a ribbon.
I don’t know about you, but I’m speechless. And, I suppose, fresh out of excuses.
(a shoutout to Clickthing for his link to Caridad’s essay.)

07.01.09 Comments Off on A Robotron Story, or, What’s YOUR Excuse?

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