Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Reveal: Rheinmetall Portable Ergonomic

One of the Holy Grails of typewriter design just fell into my lap by sheer, dumb luck. I happened to visit Etsy late on Labor Day evening and found a listing for this amazing bit of German engineering. The Rheinmetall ergonomic typewriter is rare enough that hardly any photos turn up in a Google search. I'm about to remedy that situation with typewriter porn overkill!

The seller listed a number of his father's possessions in a brand new Etsy store. Reportedly, it was used frequently. The general wear on the keys and drifts of eraser shavings inside bear that out. How it came to America is a mystery; however, most of the items for sale were from Germany in the early 1900s.

While well loved, it could have done with a tuneup at some point in its nearly 80 years of existence. The degraded feet had been semi-repaired with washers, but the machine still sat low which contributed to the ribbon feed not advancing. The reversing buttons on the sides were held in a neutral position by some tenacious, ancient tape. A loose spring kept the ribbon vibrator from working correctly and also contributed to the delinquency of the ribbon advance mechanism. It is amazing what difference one tiny spring can make!

And yes, the keyboard is as strange to work as you might imagine. It is also awesome with the thumbs doing the heavy lifting on the center button to lift the carriage. That is when I remember to use a thumb instead of hitting the "Y" with my pinky finger. As is typical with German machines, the "Y" and "Z" are reversed. It is a tricky beast, but worth the effort for the novelty factor and the neutral wrist position. That is, of course, the whole point of an ergonomic layout.

As for typing, it is light and snappy in that German way. It isn't as manic as an Olympia SM-3 or a Torpedo, but it is very pleasant now that the segment and mechanical systems are cleaned and lubed. I need to check under the hood again to see if the spring tensions vary to balance out the key lever arm lengths. Onwards to a type sample...

There are bits and pieces of information about Rheinmetall typewriters floating around the Internet. Robert Messenger recently posted one of the few photos I could find of the ergonomic at As with the Olivetti ICO, this machine looks particularly stunning in red. Be sure to check out the brief description of the machine and keyboard. Unfortunately I, despite my last name and pre- Ellis Island heritage, cannot read German.

Robert also blessed the Typosphere with his signature approach to journalistic treatment of all things typewriter. Read everything you ever wanted to know about Rheinmetall-Borsig at This wonderful ad comes from that post. The typewriter, an elegant and civilized device.

Here is a good general history of the Rheinmetall portable typewriter courtesy of Mr. Sommeregger. 

Unfortunately, the Rheinmetall page on the Machines of Loving Grace Portable Typewriter site delivered the dread 404 error message just now.

The machine uses many stock parts with the front end greatly customized. The shift and lock button are in the middle. The space bar is split with pads on either side. Mine has odd damage to the right pad. I can't imagine that it is wear. It appears intentional. The mask at the top and around the ribbon spools is plastic. The apron housing the Tab key is painted steel.

Another view of the keyboard:

The machine bears two serial numbers in multiple locations. The larger number appears to place manufacturing around 1935. I assume the smaller number, repeated on the chassis and carriage, is specific to the model.

The machine was loaded with eraser shavings and coated with the stubborn film so common with black typewriters of a certain age. Goop was highly effective in cleaning the paint. A quick pass over the decals did no harm.

Again, little information is available on this specific machine. As a limited production item, it must have been an expensive experiment. Market research in 1935 would not have been on par with today's big data driven approach. On the other hand, we've seen plenty of experiments come and go in modern capitalism as well. I picked up a fire sale Microsoft Surface RT and it is so far the most disappointing bit of tech I've owned since Windows Vista.

Of course, we at the House Full of Nerds are prone to our own tin-foil hat conspiracy theories. We've also been watching a lot of modern Doctor Who. I personally think our Toy Transformer went back in time and forcibly modified innocent portables to reflect its mutant image.

Well, that is one theory, anyway. Maybe it was the early heavy water experiments that tainted the factories. Or maybe, just maybe, it wasn't made in Germany after all. It was found on the Moon by the crew of Apollo 17. No wonder we've never gone back.

Thanks for reading and putting up with my flights of fancy! Stick around long enough and interesting things come out.

Blah, blah, blah... not another Copyright notice! Oh, yeah. Here we go again: the content on this blog is Copyright DwayneF of Vintage Technology Obsessions unless otherwise specified. Please use the nice Google+ like and share features at the top of the page or contribute to the sharing economy of the web on the platform of your choice. Commercial use is strictly prohibited. You see that guy in black and silver up there? After traveling through time to 1935 and back, finding the other end of the Internet from here is a trivial exercise. Please, don't tempt him.


  1. Now that's a beautiful and interesting machine! you must take it out in public frequently and show it off (:

  2. Unbelievable! Man, the stars really aligned for you, I mean, what are the chances you'd find an Rheinmetall ergonomic just like that?? Congratulations, that machine deserves a special glass display shelf.

  3. Whoops, meant to say what a beauty to This post, not the last one. But yes, very cool. I've never seen a machine like that one before!

  4. Yes!! Congratulations, that truly is a holy grail, and it looks so neat.

    By the way, you wrote "Richard" when you meant Robert.

  5. Ted: I agree. But it would have to be in controlled settings. If it didn't mean missing everything else at Maker Faire KC, I would set up a typewriter display with lots of machines to play with.

    Ton: I didn't believe the deal was real until it arrived ensconced in miles of bubble wrap as requested. This more than makes up for the otherwise perfect Erika M that arrived damaged due to poor packaging and an Optima that is finally shipping after two weeks and a protracted debate over appropriate shipping prices.

    Kate: Thanks! Nice to see a new face. Welcome to Vintage Tech Obsessions!

    Richard: Name corrected. Thanks for the heads up. Even my wifely editor didn't catch that one. I know you have been wanting one of these. May a red ergonomic randomly find a way into your office lair.

  6. Beautiful machine, and it types very nicely, I must say. Congrats on a rare typewriter, Dwayne. A fitting companion to Remington 8,000,000!

  7. Oh, oh! This is way too cool. Such a beautiful machine! Congratulations. This was well worth the wait.

  8. Holy Mackerel! What a beauty it is is. (I am beginning to think there is a NerdHaus II located somewhere, acting as a KS Typospherian Museum.

  9. Simply wonderful - congratulations! Ernst Martin mentions this model in his book (Die Schreibmaschine), according to him it came on the market in 1934. In the collectors' community, this model went by the name of "Herold" for a long time. Also this name probably comes from Martin (1949 edition, p. 297). However, in his editorial of Historische Bürowelt, April 2011 issue, L.K. Friedrich reports that in a letter of 20th November 1948, Rheinmetall Borsig AG states that this model was never officially called "Herold". This name had been considered, but it was never officially adopted. Production had been slow but also slowly increasing in the years leading up to WW II. Due to the war, production had to be halted, and after the war, production of the thumb shift model was resumed. This is the reported content of the 1948 letter.

  10. PS: Julius Kupfahl of Leipzig was the inventor of the ergonomic keyboard design, German patent 577708 of 3 June 1933 (source: Ernst Martin 1949, K. Richter in Historische Bürowelt, June 2008 issue; for a detailed account of the development of this keyboard, see A. Waize in HBW aktuell, February 2001 issue).

  11. I think I need to come over and rob you now. LOL j/k, awesome acquisition!

  12. I tried typing something to convey how far my jaw has dropped from it's hinges and I'm epic-ly failing so I'll just keep it simple while I just oogle at the beautiful machine:

  13. Teeritz: Yeah, it's pretty much goes to '11'. There are much rarer typewriters out there, but I'm happy with ones I've got.

    Scott: The waiting was the hardest part!

    Judith: Your secret identity has been unmasked! I do have some common machines, but the rest are like the charismatic mega-fauna at a zoo. Or three-ring-circus if you count Svetlana Optima and her new allies.

    shordzi: Thanks for the additional information! Do you have any idea of how many were made? I assume they are less rare in Europe than in the U.S.

    notagain: I deserve that for as many times as I have menaced Richard's proportional Olivetti!

    natslaps: I humbly accept your dropped jaw. Also, I'm sorry that Blogger comment land is confusing. I saw that you posted twice. I have moderation turned on. Rest assured the comments come my way for review as soon as you hit the publish button!

  14. What a beautiful machine. You definitely found a lucky find. Thanks for sharing all the drool worthy photos!

  15. Thanks for sharing all the drool-worthy photos of your new machine. I vote for "shadowfax" as the new name. :)

  16. indigogarden: No problem. The web was created to house content. Drool is a bonus. Sorry your comment got stuck in my ignored inbox.

    nowastedink: Ah, another soul who prefers to take things too far! Sure, Shadowfax was a white horse and this is a black machine, but there are always alternate universes and such. Thanks for commenting. Sorry yours was lost for awhile.

  17. congratulations!! I love happy stories! :)


Dang. My blog was hit by Spam comments. Comment moderation has been turned on for some time yet to be determined.