Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Research on the Olympia EC 2

First thing's first: Courtney has a blog of her own!

Did you hate English class? Do you owe your grades to Spark Notes? Did you crave a good adventure story when your teacher was forcing you to grapple with concepts like racial prejudice and Hemingway's iceberg theory?

And yet, through all that, you still love to read?

I've got the perfect blog for you! Check out Regular Reader Reviews!

While pecking around on my new Olympia Electronic Compact 2, I noticed some odd quirks about the machine. Namely, the omission of a right-handed platen knob, no power space, and, worst of all, it does not remember tab settings when turned off. This was a mild disappointment to me, since I like being able to indent paragraphs with a single button instead of the press-the-space-bar-five-times approach.

There are no instruction manuals for this typewriter online, but I did find an interesting article by Will Fastie on the first Electronic Compact back in 1983. It appeared in Volume 9 of Creative Computing, which you can read in its entirety here.

The first Electronic Compact, made in Germany.
The article is a review of the first EC, which Fastie labels as "The Olympia Electronic Compact Printer." His opening paragraph sets the context for the evaluation:

"Every day, great strides are made in dot-matrix printer technology.
The capabilities of such machines are constantly on the rise, while the quality of their printing gets ever better. Nonetheless, the print quality of fully formed impact printers is still superior to the majority of dot-matrix machines. The boom in small computer sales has created a new market for low-cost, letter-quality printers. The Olympia Electronic Compact is one such product. This 'combination' printer must be examined in both its roles to understand its capabilities and limitations."

Fastie then goes on to describe the keyboard and other features in great detail. I played around with the pitch settings, but could not see any difference at 10, 12, and 15 (then again, I'm probably not doing it right).

In the next section, he makes a very interesting comment:

"It is hard to decide whether or not the Electronic Compact is a satisfactory typewriter. The test machine was used extensively for this purpose by a variety of typists. While all preferred it to a manual typewriter, none preferred it to an IBM Selectric or other standard office machine." 

The EC 2, made in Japan.
The only differences are a few minute changes in the keyboard and, of course, the label on the right.

Then, at last, I found the answer to my question:

"There are two major irritations with the typewriter that all typists were quick to spot and complain about. First, it does not remember the margin and tab settings when it is turned off.* ....One of the secretaries who tried the machine to do a complicated table was infuriated when she innocently turned the machine off over lunch, only to lose 21 tab settings."

*This is the only functional difference I can spot between the EC and EC 2. My machine does remember margins, but not tabs. Not a big deal, since I'm not a secretary doing ledger sheets in a corporate office. Yet, I can't help but wonder why it wasn't included? Tabulators were a standard on just about every other typing machine by the 1980s!

Fastie goes on to say:

"The second problem is more psychological. Every one of the typists who tried the machine felt that it lagged behind their keystrokes.* There is a noticeable delay (most of us felt it was a half-step) between the striking of a key and the impression of the character. The result is strike-print-strike-print-strike in a steady rhythm. The effect is to create the illusion that you are typing too fast, and the tendency is to slow a bit. None of us could get over this problem and none of us reached our normal typing speeds on the machine. We were also interviewing secretarial applicants and giving typing tests; after comparing the same applicant's results on both the Olympia and a Selectric, we were forced to make a speed allowance for the former."

*I'm rather gentle with the Olympia right now. If I try to type too fast, my fingers will hit the wrong keys and then BAM: fugeaholeaboutit. Some of you may recall a post I did featuring my grandmother's Brother WP-700D. I'm not sure about the Olympia yet, but I can outrun the Brother.

Fastie goes on to describe how the Olympia rates as a computer accessory (Ted, weren't you asking about this?). He concludes by saying he wouldn't recommend it as a typewriter or a printer, but the machine would work for someone on a budget.

So, what does this mean? Did I waste my $1.50 on the initial purchase and the $15 I've spent ordering a new ribbon and Prestige Elite daisy-wheel?

Heck no!

I can't compare this to an IBM Selectric in terms of performance. I don't own one (though I'd happily accept a donation...for, you know, research). What I do know is that the Selectric is considered the absolute best electric typewriter ever built. Refurbished ones are going for hundreds of dollars on eBay. I interned at a government office that uses one to fill out forms. Vern at Jones' Typewriter said that the Selectric is his all-time favorite machine. The design was so successful that other companies built their own knock-off models using the iconic golf-ball type element.

I'm not a secretary. I'm not a student. I don't necessarily need the fastest machine out there. I write fiction, letters, and rambling typecasts for your enjoyment. The Olympia does all three of these things. Plus, daisy-wheel machines are not difficult to keep supplied with ink (thanks to wonderful businesses like Baco Ribbon Supply).

I may sell one or two of my manuals to fund a Selectric purchase in the future (unless I happily receive a donation). But for now, I'm quite pleased with my find. It's possible I could change my mind the more I use it, though, I'm not looking for a reason to dump it so soon. As Richard Polt said, it was practically free! Might as well use it to do the thing I love: putting words to paper.

Power to the pen.


  1. I'm glad you enjoy it. Those defects sure are ... defective, though!

  2. I actually have a service manual for this machine somewhere. I picked it up on ebay when I was pondering getting one with a Centronics port. I'm kind of curious if they'll do Diablo emulation or if they function as simple line printers with no protocol for control codes..

    1. I have no idea. Since the daisy-wheel mechanism was invented for the Diablo company in 1972 by David S Lee, I'd like to think it could. Me no computer expert. If you have a lot of trouble finding one of these for your own project, write me a note and we'll talk about borrowing it. The idea's pretty neat to me.

    2. Would really like to make this gem work as a printer on a windows xp machine. Any suggestions on how to make that happen?

    3. That's a great question, but I have no idea. I sold this machine a long time ago. Sorry!

  3. I JUST bought this exact machine at a garage sale for $5. I was all set to haggle and I almost swallowed my uvula when she said, "$5." My initial tests indicated that I did, indeed, outrun it. But I still think it's pretty cool.

    1. Great buy! Fastie conveniently omits the typing speed of his testers. I'm not very quick on a manual or electric. I think the EC 2 is a snappy, responsive machine. I can only outrun it if I really try. It's strange, since the daisy-wheel was designed to compete with the Selectric and could get 30 characters per second. Hope you enjoy using yours! Don't forget to get extra ribbons and some cool fonts.

  4. Can you tell something about the noise level of the EC2? Is it noisier than a normal typewriter or more silent? I would like to use it in a silent environment without disturbing my neighbours in other rooms/flats.

  5. Just about in every way, this machine will be much quieter than your average manual typewriter. The sound of the print element striking the paper might make a sharp tapping sound, but if you are in a different room it should not bother anyone.