Doctor of Dinosaurs

As long as there are typewriters, an Ashland man vows to keep them working
Bill Skillman uses a magnifying lamp to work on a vintage typewriter at his home in Ashland. Mail Tribune / Jamie LuschJamie Lusch

ASHLAND — Bill Skillman peered through a large, illuminated magnifying lamp attached to an extension arm as he studied the inert patient.

"Because they are getting aged, the esters in the oils and grease evaporate," he explained. "These are additives that help keep the oil and grease fluid. Over a period of time the fluidity evaporates and leaves goo."

With that, he picks up what appears to be a long needle with a hook and begins freeing up the movable parts. His patient is an IBM Selectric II typewriter, one of many produced for nearly a decade beginning in 1970.

"We would be sunk without spring hooks," he observed as he worked. "They are my finger extenders is what they are. It allows me to reach way into the internals of the machine."

Skillman, 77, who jokingly refers to himself as the "doctor of dinosaurs," repairs and restores typewriters sent to him from the world over. Known simply as Bill Skillman's Typewriter Service, his unique niche business is located in a small shop in his Ashland garage.

Beginning in 1959, Skillman worked for IBM for nearly 40 years, focusing mainly on typewriters that produced the written word for more than a century before they were eclipsed by computerized word processors.

Yet Skillman has no problem negotiating his way through cyberspace. He even has a website: Selectric.com.

"I've worked in both worlds but I got no job satisfaction out of working with computers," he said. "I was a hardware guy. A well-trained chimpanzee can do the hardware aspects of a computer. It is not mentally challenging at all."

But give him a typewriter to repair, particularly an IBM Selectric, and he is a happy camper.

"People ask me how it works, and I tell them I need a chalkboard and about an hour to give them the basic theory lesson on how the Selectric twirls that typehead around and tilts it to the various character bands," he said.

While most wordsmiths have switched to computers, Skillman said plenty still prefer typewriters, particularly an old manual.

"Writers, I'll modify that a bit to say authors, seem to prefer manual, portable typewriters," he said. "They are not interested in electric typewriters. With a portable manual, you can put it in the trunk of your car. Should you be sitting by Walden's Pond, who knows what will happen?"

Authors whose manual typewriters he has repaired say the attraction is more than being off the grid, he said.

"They say it is a more natural extension of the brain, that the words just flow," he said. "They don't even think about the fact they are typing."

Before he began working on typewriters, he was an automobile mechanic, then an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force.

After he retired from IBM in 1992, he started his typewriter business. By then, IBM was no longer interested in typewriters, he said.

"Anything that moves, I'll repair it, or at least try to," he said. "Now I get them from pretty much around the world, electric and manual."

He has been sent typewriters from nearly every state, including Alaska and Hawaii.

"I've never received one from the Dakotas," he said. "I have no explanation for that."

Others have come from as far away as Greenland, Ireland and the Philippines, he said.

Skillman began working for IBM early in 1959 in San Jose, Calif.

"I had worked for them maybe nine months when my boss's boss called me into his office and asked if I'd like to go to Lexington, Ky.," he recalled, adding that he had no clue what he would be working on because it was "top secret" in the firm.

He knew only that he was headed to the company's development laboratory in Lexington. It was November 1959.

"That's when I was introduced to the feasibility models of the Selectric typewriters — this was a year and nine months before the machines were introduced to the public," he said. "This was cutting-edge technology at the time."

He would become part of the development team that produced IBM's popular Selectric typewriter, which came out on Sept. 1, 1961.

"Up there in the corner, I have one that is a feasibility model, not one built in production," he said, pointing to a select Selectric on a shelf in his garage.

"Selectrics are bulletproof workhorses," he said. "Set one up properly and it will go for eight or 10 years."

Manual typewriters offer their own challenges.

"Sometimes when I get an old typewriter that is quite old the parts are missing," he said. "When that happens, I end up fabricating the parts."

The oldest typewriter he has ever worked on was a machine from the late 1800s built by the Blickensderfer Manufacturing Company of Connecticut, he said.

"Several years ago, I had two 1908 Olivers sent to me within a month of each other to be restored," he said. "They both came from Missouri."

Turns out the owners of the old manual typewriters didn't know each other, he said.

"It was just one of the coincidences that I think is entirely too coincidental to be a coincidence," he concluded.

This fall, a customer gave him a manual 1916 Corona portable still in its original case.

"You will notice there are only three rows of key buttons," he said when he opened the case. "The rest of the characters are there. They are just scattered around the keyboard."

He carefully rolled in a sheet of typing paper and typed, "The quick red fox jumped over the lazy brown dog." The keys solidly struck the fabric ribbon, leaving crisp black words on the paper.

"I like to think typewriters will be around a little longer," he said. "I still enjoy working on them."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.



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