Reframing and simplifying the idea of how to keep a Zettelkasten

Given many of the misconceptions I see online of how to keep a zettelkasten, particularly given the focus on the arcane addressing system used by Niklas Luhmann, perhaps it may be helpful to dramatically reframe the question of how to keep a zettelkasten? One page blog posts from people who’ve only recently seen the idea and are synopsizing it without a year or more practice themselves are highly confusing at best. Can I write something we don’t see enough of in spaces relating to zettelkasten? Perhaps we should briefly consider the intellectual predecessor of the slip box?

(Editor’s note: I’m using content within my own “slip box” to write this.)

Start out by forgetting zettelkasten exist. Instead read about what a commonplace book is and how that (simpler) form of note taking works. This short article outlined as a class assignment is a fascinating way to start and has some illustrative examples: https://www.academia.edu/35101285/Creating_a_Commonplace_Book_CPB_. If you’re a writer, researcher, or journalist, perhaps Steven Johnson’s perspective may be interesting to you instead: https://stevenberlinjohnson.com/the-glass-box-and-the-commonplace-book-639b16c4f3bb

The general idea is to collect interesting passages, quotes, and ideas as you read. Keep them in a notebook and call it your commonplace book. If you like call these your “fleeting notes” as some do.

As you do this, start building an index of subject headings for your ideas, perhaps using John Locke’s method (see this for some history and a synopsis: https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/john-lockes-method-for-common-place-books-1685).

Once you’ve got this, you’ve really mastered the majority of what a zettelkasten is and have a powerful tool at your disposal. If you feel it’s useful to you, you can add a few more tools and variations to your set up.

Next instead of keeping the ideas in a notebook, put them on index cards so that they’re easier to sort through, move around, and re-arrange. This particularly useful if you want to use them to create an outline of your ideas for writing something with them. Once you’ve got index cards (slips) with ideas on them in a box, you now literally meet the minimum requirements of a zettelkasten (German for “slip box”, though in practice many will have their ideas in a metaphorical slip box using a digital note taking tool.

Next, maybe keep some index cards that have the references and bibliographies from which your excerpting and note taking comes from. Link these bibliographical cards to the cards with your content.

As you go through your notes, ideas, and excerpts, maybe you want to further refine them? Write them out in your own words. Improve their clarity, so that when you go to re-use them, you can simply “excerpt” material you’ve already written for yourself and you’re not plagiarizing others. You can call these improved notes, as some do either “permanent notes” or “evergreen notes”.

Perhaps you’re looking for more creativity, serendipity, and organic surprise in your system? Next you can link individual notes together. In a paper system you can do this by following one note with another or writing addresses on each card and using that addressing system to link them, but in a digital environment you can link one note to many multiple others that are related. If you’re not sure where to start here, look back to your subject headings and pull out cards related to broad categories. Some things will obviously fit more closely than others, so be more selective and only link ideas that are more intimately connected than just the subject heading you’ve used.

Now when you want to write or create something new on a particular topic, ask your slip box a question and attempt to answer it by consulting your index. Find cards related to the topic, pull out those and place them in a useful order to create an outline perhaps using the cross links that already exist. (You’ve done that linking work as you went, so why not use it to make things easier now?) Copy the contents into a document and begin editing.

Beyond the first few steps, you’re really just creating additional complexity to a system to increase the combinatorial complexity of juxtaposed ideas that you could potentially pull back out of your system for writing more interesting text and generating new ideas. Some people may neither want nor need this sort of complexity in their working lives. If you don’t need it, then just keep a simple commonplace book (or commonplace card file) to remind you of the interesting ideas and inspirations you’ve seen and could potentially reuse throughout your life.

The benefit of this method is that beyond creating your index, you’ll always have something useful even if you abandon things later on and quit refining it. If you do go all the way, concentrate on writing out just two short solid ideas every day (Luhmann averaged about 6 per day and Roland Barthes averaged 1 and change). Do it until you have between 500 and 1000 cards (based on some surveys and anecdotal evidence), and you should begin seeing some serendipitous and intriguing results as you use your system for your writing.

We should acknowledge that that (visual) artists and musicians might also keep commonplaces and zettelkasten. As an example, Eminem keeps a zettelkasten, though he calls his “stacking ammo”, but it is so minimal that it is literally just a box and slips of paper with no apparent organization beyond this. If this fits your style and you don’t get any value out of having cards with locators like 3a4b/65m1, then don’t do that (for you) useless make-work. Make sure your system is working for you and you’re not working for your system.

Sadly, it’s generally difficult to find a single blog post that can accurately define what a zettelkasten is, how it’s structured, how it works, and why one would want one much less what one should expect from it. Sönke Ahrens does a reasonably good job, but his explanation is an entire book. Hopefully this distillation will get you moving in a positive direction for having a useful daily practice, but without an excessive amount of work and perhaps a bit less cognitive dissonance. Once you’ve been at it a while, then start looking at Ahrens and others to refine things for your personal preferences and creative needs.

Differentiating online variations of the Commonplace Book: Digital Gardens, Wikis, Zettlekasten, Waste Books, Florilegia, and Second Brains

A fluorescence of note taking tools

Over the past three or so years there has been a fluorescence of digital note taking tools and platforms.

Some of these include:

Open source projects like Org Mode, Logseq, Foam, Jupyter, Trilium, Databyss, Athens, Dendron, Anagora, and Hypothes.is.

Closed sourced projects like: Roam Research, Notion, Knovigator, Amplenote, RemNote, Memex, Nototo, nvUltra, and Are.na.

Some are based on earlier incarnations of note taking and writing tools like OneNote, Evernote, Simple Note, TiddlyWiki, DEVONthink, Scrivener, etc.

This brief list doesn’t take into account a sea of other mobile apps and platforms in addition to a broad array of social media platforms that people use for similar note taking or annotations.

My particular interest in some of this note taking field comes in the growing number of people who are working in public and sharing their notes in online settings with others. This has been happening organically since the rise of the internet and has happened on blogs within the blogosphere and on personal and communal wikis.

As was highlighted (pun intended) at the recent I Annotate 2021 conference, the note taking space seems to have been coming to a new boil. With the expansion of the ideas of keeping a zettelkasten or a digital garden, these versions of notebooks seem to be a significant part of this new note taking craze.

One thing I have noticed, however, is a dramatic lack of continuity in the history of note taking within the longue durée of Western civilization. (Other cultures including oral cultures have similar traditions, but for our purposes here, I won’t go into them except to say that they’re highly valuable, spectacularly rich, and something of which we should all be aware.)

Many of these products are selling themselves based on ideas or philosophies which sound and even feel solid, but they’re completely ignoring their predecessors to the tune of feeling like they’re trying to reinvent the wheel. As a result, some of the pitches for these products sound like they’re selling snake oil rather than tried and true methods that go back over 2,000 years of intellectual history. I can only presume that modern education is failing us all dramatically. People are “taught” (maybe told is the better verb) to take notes in school, but they’re never told why, what to do with them, or how to leverage them for maximum efficiency. Perhaps the idea has been so heavily imbued into our culture we’ve honestly forgotten the basic parts and reasoning behind it?

Even Vannevar Bush’s dream of the Memex as stated in his article As We May Think (The Atlantic, 1945), which many of these note taking applications might point to as an inspiration, ignores this same tradition and background, so perhaps these app creators and users aren’t all to blame?

Delineating Online Forms

I’ve been doing some serious reading and research into these traditions to help uncover our missing shared history. I’ll write something longer and more specific about them at a later date.

In the meanwhile, I want to outline just a bit about the various flavors as they relate to some of the more public online versions that I see in the related internet spaces. I hope to help better delineate what they have in common, how they differ, and what they may still add to the mix to get us to a more robust version of Bush’s dream.

Other’s thoughts and comments about these various incarnations and their forms and functions are both encouraged and appreciated.

Commonplace books

Historically commonplace books are one of the oldest and most influential structures in the note taking, writing, and thinking space. They have generally been physical books written by hand that contain notes which are categorized by headings (or in a modern context categories or tags. Often they’re created with an index to help their creators find and organize their notes.

They originated in ancient Greece and Rome out of the thought of Aristotle and Cicero as a tool for thinking and writing and have generally enjoyed a solid place in history since. A huge variety of commonplaces have been either copied by hand or published in print book form over the centuries.

Most significant thinkers, writers, and creators throughout history have kept something resembling a commonplace book. While many may want to attribute the output of historical figures like Erasmus, Newton, Darwin, Leibnitz, Locke, or Emerson to sheer genius (and many often do), I might suggest that their works were the result of sustained work of creating personal commonplace books—somewhat like a portable Google search engine for their day, but honed to their particular interests. (One naturally can’t ignore their other many privileges like wealth, education, and time to do this work, which were also certainly a significant factor in their success.)

Many people over the past quarter of a century have used a variety of digital forms to keep digital commonplace books including public versions on blogs, wikis, and other software for either public or private consumption.

Florilegium

Florilegia are a subcategory of commonplace book starting around 900 CE but flourishing in the 12th and 13th centuries and primarily kept by theologians and preachers. The first were a series of short excerpted passages often arranged in order of their appearance in a single text, but eventually were arranged systematically under discrete headings. Medieval florilegia where overwhelmingly, and often exclusively, concerned with religious topics from the works of scriptures, the moral dicta of the Doctors of the Church, and—less frequently—the teachings of approved, classical moral philosophers. The idea and form of florilegium generally merged back into the idea of the commonplace book which had renewed interest and wide popularity during the Renaissance.

These didn’t add any new or innovative features over what had come before. Perhaps, if anything, they were a regression because they so heavily focused only on religion as a topic.

Few (if any) examples of florilegia can be found in modern digital contexts. Though I have seen some people talk about using digital note taking tools for religious study, I have yet to see public versions online.

Zettelkästen

Born out of the commonplace tradition with modifications by Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) and descriptions by Johann Jacob Moser (1701–1785), the Zettelkasten, a German word translated as “slip box”, is generally a collection of highly curated atomic notes collected on slips of paper or index cards. Zettelkasten were made simpler to create and maintain with the introduction of the mass manufacture of index cards (and card boxes and furniture) in the early 20th century. Slips of paper which were moveable within books or files and later on index cards were a significant innovation in terms of storing and organizing a commonplace book.

Generally zettels (or cards) are organized by topics and often contain dates and other taxonomies or serialized numbers as a means of linking them to other cards within the system. The cross linking of these cards (and thus ideas) were certainly a historical physical precursor of the internet we have today, simply in digital form.

Almost all the current references I’ve seen online to Zettelkasten mention Niklas Luhmann as their inspiration, but none of them reference any other well-known historical examples despite the fact the idea has been around and evolving for several centuries now.

This productivity system and sets of digital tools around it came to greater attention in Germany in 2013 with the exhibition “Zettelkästen: Machines of Fantasy” at the Museum of Modern Literature, Marbach am Neckar and in 2014 with the launch of the zettelkasten.de website. A subsequent boost in the English speaking world occurred following the publication of Sönke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes – One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers in February 2017. The recent ability to use platforms like Roam Research, Obsidian, Notion, et al. has helped to fan the flames of their popularization.

More often than not, most of these digital tools (like their card-based predecessors) are geared toward private personal use rather than an open public model. Roam Research and Obsidian Publish have features which allow public publishing. TiddlyWiki is also an excellent tool for this as its so-called Tiddlers have a card-based appearance and can be placed in custom orders as well as transcluded, but again not many are available to the online public.

Waste books/Sudelbücher

This sub-genre of notebooks comes out of the tradition of double-entry book keeping where accountants often kept a daily diary of all transactions in chronological order. These temporary notes were then later moved into a more permanent accounting ledger and the remaining book was considered “waste”.

In the commonplace book tradition, these books for temporary notes or (fleeting notes in a Zettelkasten framing), might eventually be copied over, expanded, and indexed into one’s permanent commonplace collection.

In modern digital settings, one might consider some of the ephemeral social media stream platforms like Twitter to be a digital version of a waste book, though to my knowledge I may be the first person to suggest this connection. (To be clear, others have certainly mentioned Twitter as being a waste and even a wasteland.)

Wikis

Inspired, in part, by Apple’s HyperCard, Ward Cunningham created the first public wiki on his website on March 25, 1995. Apple had designed a system allowing users to create virtual “card stacks” supporting links among the various cards (sound familiar?). HyperCard was designed as a single user system.

Wikis allowed multiple users to author and edit pages on the web with a basic web browser. They were also able to create meaningful links and associations between pages, whether they existed or not using [[WikiLinks]]. They were meant to allow the average visitor to participate in an ongoing process of creation and collaboration.

Here there is some innovative user interface as well as the ability to collaborate with others in keeping a commonplace book. Transclusion of one page into another is a useful feature here.

Personal wikis have been used (as have many blogs) for information aggregation and dissemination over the years in a manner similar to their historical predecessors.

Second brain

Second brain is a marketing term which stands in for the idea of the original commonplace book. It popped up in the note taking context in early 2017 for promoting the use of commonplace books techniques using Tiago Forte’s expensive online course Building a Second Brain which focused on capturing, organizing, and sharing your knowledge using (digital) notes. It is a platform agnostic method for improving productivity wholly using the commonplace underpinning.

Google searches for this term will be heavily mixed in with results about the gastrointestinal system being the body’s “second brain”, the enteric nervous system, second brain tumors, a debunked theory that dinosaurs had two brains, and other general health-related topics.

Some websites, personal wikis and other online versions will use the phrase second brain, but they generally have no innovative features that are missing from prior efforts. Again, I view the phrase simply as marketing with no additional substance.

Digital Gardens

Informed heavily by their cultural predecessors in commonplace books, zettelkasten, and wikis, digital gardens are digital first note collections which are primarily public by default and encourage the idea of working in public.

Digital Gardens arose more formally in 2019 and 2020 out of the work and influence of Mark Bernstein’s 1998 essay Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas, Ward Cunningham’s Smallest Federated Wiki (which just celebrated it’s 10th anniversary), Mike Caulfield’s essays including The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral as well as some influence from the broader IndieWeb Community and their focus on design and user interface.

Digital garden design can often use the gardening metaphor to focus attention on an active tending and care of one’s personal knowledge base and building toward new knowledge or creations. The idea of planting a knowledge “seed” (a note), tending it gradually over time with regular watering and feeding in a progression of 🌱 Seedlings → 🌿 Budding → 🌳 Evergreen is a common feature.

There are a growing number of people with personal digital gardens in public. Many are built on pre-existing wiki software like WikiMedia, the Smallest Federated Wiki, or TiddlyWiki, static site generators like Jekyll, note taking platforms like Obsidian Publish and Roam Research, or even out of common blogging software like WordPress. A growing common feature of these platforms is that they not only link out to resources on the open web, but contain bidirectional links within themselves using either custom code (in a wiki-like manner) or using the W3C Webmention specification.

The Future?

With luck, application and platform designers and users will come to know more about the traditions, uses, and workflows of our rich cultural note taking history. Beyond this there are a few innovations, particularly in the public-facing arena which could be useful, but which aren’t broadly seen or available yet.

Still missing from the overall personal knowledge and note taking space is a more tightly integrated version of both a garden and a stream (in Mike Caulfield’s excellent framing) that easily allows interaction between the two arenas. Some of the more blog-based sites with notes, bookmarks, articles and IndieWeb friendly building blocks like Webmention, feeds (RSS, JSON Feed, h-feed), Micropub, and Microsub integrations may come the closest to this ideal.

One of the most fascinating recent entrants on the scene is Flancian’s Anagora which he uses as a personal commonplace book in a wiki-esque style. Over other incarnations it also has the ability to pull in and aggregate the notes of other digital commonplace books to create a larger marketplace of ideas. It also includes collaborative note taking space using Etherpad, which I’ve seen as a standalone tool, but never integrated into a digital commonplace book.

Ultimately, my dream—similar to that of Bush’s—is for individual commonplace books to be able to communicate not only with their users in the Luhmann-esqe sense, but also communicate with each other.

Niklas Luhmann apparently said:

Ohne zu schreiben, kann man nicht denken; jedenfalls nicht in anspruchsvoller, anschlussfähiger Weise.

(Translation) You cannot think without writing; at least not in a sophisticated, connectable way.

I think his conceptualization of “connectable” was much more limited and limiting than he might have guessed. Vannevar Bush, as the academic advisor of Claude Shannon, the godfather of the modern digital age, was more prepared to envision it.

(Luhmann’s “you” in his quote is obviously only a Western cultural referent which erases the existence of oral based cultures which have other ways to do their sophisticated thinking. His ignorant framing on the topic shouldn’t be a shared one.)


This post has grown out of my own personal commonplace book, portions of which are on housed on my blog, in a wiki, and in a private repository of which I hope to make more public soon. Further thoughts, ideas and expansions of it are more than welcome.

I’ve slowly been updating pieces of the history along with examples on shared commonplaces in both the IndieWeb Wiki and Wikipedia under the appropriate headings. Feel free to browse those or contribute to them as you would, at least until our digital commonplace books can communicate with each other.

I’d also invite those who are interested in this topic and who have or want online spaces to do this sort of thing to join us at the proposed upcoming Gardens and Streams II IndieWebCamp Pop up session which is being planned for later this Summer or early Fall. Comment below, stop by the page or chat to indicate your interest in attending.

Knowledge management practices on romantic display in George Eliot’s Middlemarch

Given that George Eliot had her own commonplace book, it’s fascinating but not surprising to see a section of prose about note taking and indexing practices in Middlemarch (set in 1829 to 1832 and published in 1871-1872) literally as the romance story is just beginning to brew. [Naturally a romance with index cards at its heart is just my cup of tea, n’cest pas?] Presently it’s not surprising to see the romance of an independent thinking woman stem out of an intellectual practice (dominated heavily by men at the time) that was fairly common in its day, but for it’s time such an incongruous juxtaposition may have been jarring to some readers.

In chapter two Mr. Brooke, the uncle, asks for advice about arranging notes as he has tried pigeon holes as a method but has the common issue of multiple storage and can’t remember under which letter he’s filed his particular note. [At the time, many academics would employ secretarial staff to copy their note cards multiple times so that a note that needed to be classified under “hope” and “liberty”, as an example, could be filed under both. Individuals working privately without the support of an amanuensis or additional indexing techniques would have had more difficulty with filing material in the same manner Mr Brooke did. Digital note takers using platforms like Obsidian or Logseq don’t have to worry about such issues now.]

Mr. Casaubon indicates that he uses pigeon-holes which was a popular method of filing, particularly in Britain where John Murray and the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary were using a similar method to build their dictionary at the time.

Our heroine Dorothea Brooke mentions that she knows how to properly index papers so that they might be searched for and found later. She is likely aware of John Locke’s indexing method from 1685 (or in English in 1706) and in the same passage—and almost the same breath—compares Mr. Casaubon’s appearance favorably to that of Locke as “one of the most distinguished-looking men I ever saw.”

In some sense here, we should be reading the budding romance, not just as one based on beautiful appearance or one’s station or even class, but one of intellectual stature and equality. One wants a mate not only as distinguished and handsome as Locke, but one with the beauty of mind as well. Without the subtextual understanding of knowledge management during this time period, this crucial component of the romance would be missed though Eliot later hints at it by many other means. Still, in the opening blushes of love, it is there on prominent display.

For those without their copies close at hand, here’s the excerpted passage:

“I made a great study of theology at one time,” said Mr Brooke, as if to explain the insight just manifested. “I know something of all schools. I knew Wilberforce in his best days. Do you know Wilberforce?
“Mr Casaubon said, “No.”
“Well, Wilberforce was perhaps not enough of a thinker; but if I went into Parliament, as I have been asked to do, I should sit on the independent bench, as Wilberforce did, and work at philanthropy.”
Mr Casaubon bowed, and observed that it was a wide field.
“Yes,” said Mr Brooke, with an easy smile, “but I have documents. I began a long while ago to collect documents. They want arranging, but when a question has struck me, I have written to somebody and got an answer. I have documents at my back. But now, how do you arrange your documents?”
“In pigeon-holes partly,” said Mr Casaubon, with rather a startled air of effort.
“Ah, pigeon-holes will not do. I have tried pigeon-holes, but everything getsmixed in pigeon-holes: I never know whether a paper is in A or Z.”
“I wish you would let me sort your papers for you, uncle,” said Dorothea. “I would letter them all, and then make a list of subjects under each letter.
“Mr Casaubon gravely smiled approval, and said to Mr Brooke, “You have an excellent secretary at hand, you perceive.”
“No, no,” said Mr Brooke, shaking his head; “I cannot let young ladies meddle with my documents. Young ladies are too flighty.
“Dorothea felt hurt. Mr Casaubon would think that her uncle had some special reason for delivering this opinion, whereas the remark lay in his mind as lightly as the broken wing of an insect among all the other fragments there, and a chance current had sent it alighting on her.
When the two girls were in the drawing-room alone, Celia said—
“How very ugly Mr Casaubon is!”
“Celia! He is one of the most distinguished-looking men I ever saw. He is remarkably like the portrait of Locke. He has the same deep eye-sockets.”

—George Eliot in Middlemarch (Norton Critical Edition, 2nd edition, Bert G. Hornback ed., 2000), Book I, Chapter 2, p13.

If you’re an analog zettelkasten fan, I just bought a few bricks of 500 index cards for $6.08 each at my local Amazon Fresh. Most brands list for $12-$16 for this many; even Amazon.com is currently listing them for $10.50. Sadly it doesn’t match my all-time-best of $2.06. What’s your best? 🗃️📝
Two small black metal L-shaped bookends with their packaging card

I’d mentioned that my Steelcase card index came without the traditional card stops/follower blocks at the back of the drawers. Needing a solution for this, I’ve discovered that my local Daiso sells small, simple bookends for $1.75 for a pair and they’re the perfect size (7 x 8.9 x 9.2 cm) for the drawers. These seem to do the trick nicely, though they do tend to slide within the metal drawers without any friction. Giving them small rubber feet or museum putty from the hardware store for a few cents more fixes this quickly.

Acquisition: Remington Streamliner 196X Portable Typewriter in Metallic Mint Blue

On March 11, 2023, I’d gotten a nice deal on a Remington Streamline portable typewriter in a generally uncontested online auction. I was certainly taking a small chance on a typewriter only by a few photos and the label “untested”, but I couldn’t resist the mint blue color which seemed like it would be a close match to my TWSBI Eco T fountain pen and my custom General Fireproofing 20 gauge steel desk

Yesterday, the typewriter arrived, and today I took a short break to open it up and give it a short test drive. In addition to the fantastic news that the machine is in stunning shape, its color is about as perfect a match to the pen and the desk as one could ask!

Close up of the Remington Streamliner logo in black and red on the typewriter's hood on which sits a matching mint blue TWSBI Eco T fountain pen with red ink.

View of a working desk area featuring a silver/glass topped mint blue desk on which sits a matching colored portable typewriter, a fountain pen and a stack of Post-it notes. In the background is a card index filing cabinet and a barrister bookcase full of books.

Overall

The overall condition was beyond my dreams for this vintage and with some plastic portions. The typewriter only has a few signs of use and wear with some paint worn off at the corners of the back and on the right hand side where the platen knob meets the body. A bit of the “R” on the top Remington logo is worn off and seems to be thermally printed on, so I wouldn’t recommend heavy scrubbing, harsh abrasives, or caustic chemicals when cleaning the bodies of these for fear of removing the logo all together. These small flaws gives the machine some nice patina and the street cred of some reasonable use as a portable. There’s some small wear to the plastic hood where the two position return lever has rubbed against it. Otherwise it is in about as good a condition as one could hope. 

All the keys worked with some severe stickiness on the “L” key. The smallest of tweaks on the head of the typebar remedied the issue without resorting to cleaning. The margin release wasn’t operating properly, but only because an obvious and easily re-mounted tension wire had become unhooked.

There is some minor grime and dust inside the body which could stand some cleaning, but it’s in great shape right out of the box. I’ll try to spend some time blowing it out and cleaning it up internally while I await some replacement ribbon.

The typewriter itself is has a metal chassis which is permanently screwed into a slightly darker plastic green base. This base dovetails with the plastic lid to create a case with a rubber-like plastic handle. Sadly the lid of the case was badly cracked and splintered into a dozen or so pieces in shipping, so I’m going to consider the lid a total loss. I’ll have to fashion some type of cover to keep the dust (and more importantly the German shepherd fur) out of the internal mechanisms.

On this model, the serial number is imprinted on to the black metal bottom chassis between the “U” and “J” keys when looking down at the typewriter from above. The serial number on my particular machine is AX 16 74 89. Sadly, the Typewriter Database doesn’t have serial numbers for this model or the late 60s or early 70s timespan in which these were made. One model in the database is dated to 1969 with a serial number starting with CX so it’s possible mine may be as early as ’68 or ’69 but sadly without better data, one can’t be sure.

Richard Polt has a Remington Streamliner manual for the 60s available, and though it’s close in broad look and functionality, it’s obviously not for this specific model or year.

Given the time period and the metallic mint paint, I do sort of wish this model also had Positraction, but then I suppose it would have needed to be produced by GM rather than Remington.

Angled view from the right hand side and behind of the Remington Streamliner typewriter with the hood removed to provide a view of the typebasket, typebars, ribbon spools and the platen.

Keys

The keys appear to be thin beige pieces of almost bone-like plastic floating in mid-air but have thicker plastic and metal bases which give them a nice action. There’s a standard back space (curved arrow on the left), a margin release (double arrow on the right), but surprisingly for the age, is missing a dedicated 1/! key. There is no built-in tab functionality.

Close up of the cream colored keys of the Remington Streamliner keyboard

Ribbon

The machine has the typical larger Remington ribbon cores and this one included a dead, improperly seated ribbon on original metal rings. I swapped these out briefly for a new ribbon, though the plastic hub doesn’t seat as tightly as one would wish for the ribbon advance to work properly. I’ll get some new ribbon and handspool it onto the original cores and we should be off to the races. I’ll note that no metal ribbon covers, which had been standard on earlier models of this make, were present, though its probably just as likely that these were never included on their later models either for weight, functionality, or manufacturing cost reasons.

I’m don’t see any switch or button for the spool reverse, but suspect that the built-in mechanical sensors will operate as expected for Remingtons of this era. If not, it’s easy enough to actuate the switch manually with the hood off.

Also not available on this model is a switch for using two colored ribbons, so I’ll just have to be satisfied with a single color. 

Overhead view from behind of Remington Streamliner typewriter with the hood removed to allow a view into the typebasket featuring all the typebars and pica typeface as well as two plastic ribbon spools.

Other Functionality

 As a later portable, the machine is missing some of the additional niceties of heavier late 50s or early 60s desk models. It does have a “card finger”, though only on the left. The return arm has two positions and a simple friction fit operation—one for use and the other for storage.

The machine has a carriage shift rather than a basket shift. The platen knobs are rather on the small side, and don’t have a typical button for variable line spacing. This line spacing functionality is built into the small switch on the left hand side for single or double spacing, but is labeled as “0” for small adjustments. It doesn’t appear to have a carriage lock of any sort, but does have margin stops and a satisfying bell.

In general, this model is a no-frills portable meant for basic functional typing on the go.

Typeface Sample

The pitch on this machine is 10 characters per inch (pica). The full platen is 85 characters wide.

Since I don’t have a properly inked/fitted ribbon for it yet, I’ll post a typeface sample at a later date.

Photo Gallery

 

 

 

 

Here’s a version of the timeline of some of the intellectual history I presented today at the PKM Summit in Utrecht. I’m happy to answer any questions, or if you’re impatient, you can also search my online digital repository of notes for any of the people or topics mentioned.

It covers variations of personal knowledge management, commonplace books, zettelkasten, indexing, etc. I wish we’d had time for so much more, but I hope some of the ideas and examples are helpful in giving folks some perspective on what has gone before so that we might expand our own horizons.

The color code of the slides (broadly):

  • orange – intellectual history
  • dark grey – memory, method of loci, memory palaces
  • blue – commonplace books
  • green – index cards, slips, zettelkasten traditions
  • purple – orality
  • light teal – dictionary compilations
  • red – productivity methods

I think I’ve bought yet another typewriter: a late 60s/early 70s Remington Streamliner. I bought it in part because it looks beautiful, but also (I’m not going to lie here) because it’s very similar in color to my mint blue TWSBI Eco-T fountain pen and my General Fireproofing Co. desk

I swear this is my last one for a while… at least until I find a reasonably priced and superb condition late 50s Olympia SM3 preferably in either green or maroon.

Acquisition: 1957 Remington Quiet-Riter with Miracle Tab Manual Typewriter

In my recent typewriter collecting spree, I’ve received what may be the best of the group so far. Immaculately wrapped and boxed, the portable Remington Quiet-Riter arrived on my doorstep yesterday afternoon. With it’s incredibly smooth, quiet action and crisp elite typeface, I can tell it is going to be my daily driver for years to come.

Overall Condition

Having purchased it “untested” as an auction item at bargain basement price, you’re never quite sure what to expect, you just pray for no major escapement damage and go from there. I fully expected to need to fix half a dozen bits and some heavy cleaning as I have with other machines. As it turned out, each part I began testing worked flawlessly and the machine is quite clean!

In general the machine is in near mint condition. There is one tiny brown discoloration spot on the case, but, the case being brown, it’s not very obvious. Beyond this, the case looks like it just came off the factory floor. 

The machine was generally very clean and almost looks like it had been serviced and then not used since. There was some lint and dust on the bottom which wiped off easily and a quick blow out should clear the rest. There are one or two minor signs of wear to the powder coat on the front and a small bit of peeling on the bottom rear, but overall it’s been pretty well loved and probably not seen more than a few years of moderate use.

Everything functioned as expected save two required adjustments relating to how the slugs strike the platen. The capital letters were striking a tad higher than the lower case, but the adjustment for the UC “on feet” screw on the bottom of the typewriter fixed that issue fairly quickly. There’s also two separate brackets each with two screws that will require adjustment for the caps lock to be properly aligned as well; I’ll take care of that later this week sometime. I notice one or two small screws that could use some fine tuning as well, but I’ll get to that shortly as well. Interestingly there is already a YouTube video for some of these adjustments for this exact year model should anyone need it. Additionally, Theodore Monk has some details for alternate makes/models.

The serial number on the machine is QR3214352 which the Typewriter Database dates specifically to April 1957. This means that this machine will be 67 years old this coming Spring.

The serial number QR3214352 stamped into the metal chassis.
The serial number on the Remington Quiet-Riter can be found stamped into the chassis on the right hand side of the machine on a piece of metal next to the ribbon spool underneath its hood.

Keys

Unlike many early typewriters, this keyboard has a dedicated key for the “1”/”!”  as well as a dedicated caps lock key for the right hand (in addition to the usual one for the left). Also present is a special “Tab” key on the right hand side just below the margin release “M.R.” key.

Close up of the green keys with light green lettering on the keyboard of the Remington Quiet-Riter.

Other Functionality

In addition to some of the standard functionality, including tab settings which became common in the 1950s, this unit has an auto-reverse for the ribbon, 3 type select settings for finger pressure/action, and three line space selections. Richard Polt hosts versions of the Quiet-Riter manual (1955) as well as a parts catalog (1953) a service manual (1953).

Of particular note (and something I’ve never seen on a machine before) is a set of teeth on the platen which have a custom switch for fractional line spacing. This is useful for sub-script and super-script needs. It’s effectuated by pressing down on the line locating lever on the left side near the platen knob which then allows one to rotate the platen up or down the required amount to type the characters. When done, one switches the lever back to set the platen to the original line spacing. This would also have been useful on older machines for creating equal signs with two strikes of the hyphen, but isn’t needed on the Quiet-Riter which has a dedicated “=” key.

While the unit came with an all black ribbon in usable shape, I chose to switch it out with a new blue/black combination. The Quiet-Riter has the larger custom 2cm core rings and spools (and this unit had the original metal rings and covers), so I had to manually remove the plastic cores from the newer ribbon and carefully insert them into the machine so that when the spool empties the mechanical sensor will trip and automatically reverse the ribbon. Of course, given the set up one could also wind their own replacement ribbon as seen here:

Typeface Sample

The pitch on this machine is 12 characters per inch (elite). The full platen is 110 characters wide.

Typed library card catalog card that reads:
1957 Remington Quiet-Riter Miracle Tab 
Serial number: QR 3214352 
Elite typeface; portable; platen 38mm 
1234567890-= !"#$%&'()*+ qwertyuiop
asdfghjkl; 
zxcvbnm,./ QWERTYUIOP ASDFGHJKL:@ ZXCVBNM,.? 
the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog 
A VERY BAD QUACK MIGHT JINX ZIPPY FOWLS

Sound 

Here’s a sound sample of inserting an index card, writing a sentence, and a return on the 1957 Remington Quiet-Riter.

Photo Gallery

A powder coated gray typewriter with green keys sits in its open case on a wooden table. View into the very clean type-basket of the Remington Quiet-Riter View of the top right corner of the Remington Quiet-Riter carriage return with typeface markings that go up to 110 where the margin selector has been set. Oblique angle of the right side of the typewriter. View from the keyboard up into the underside of the open hood of the typewriter featuring several pieces of black felt which help to dampen the noise it makes. Close up view of the steel ribbon spool. A view of the bottom of the typewriter indicating how generally clean the machine is. Close up of the bottom right corner of the machine which has a few small patches of peeling paint, one of the few flaws on the machine. A view of the rear end of the typewriter featuring a painted Remington Rand logo. The open hood of the typewriter featuring the right ribbon spool in front of which is the color selector for either the top color, the bottom color or the stencil setting (middle).

Exquisite brown textured hard case with brown rubber edge trim and large tan stitching sitting on a wooden table next to a green plant

Acquisition: 196X Smith-Corona (SCM) Galaxie Deluxe 10 – 6T2V Series Manual Typewriter

I purchased this SCM typewriter through an online auction on 2024-03-02 and received it this morning on 2024-03-07 at 10:00 AM. The seller stated this was a 1969, but the Typewriter Database doesn’t seem to have serial number dating for this range of typewriters which were manufactured between 1966 and 1972. I doubt the seller was in possession of any details to support their 1969 claim.

The machine didn’t come with its original manual, but Richard Polt’s site has a reasonably close one for the Smith-Corona Galaxie line. You have to love the atomic logo on the front and the description “World’s Finest Non-Electric Portable”, which means that at the time, electric machines must have begun taking over the market.

Serial number: 6T2V-146176

Overall condition

The machine is in fairly reasonable shape with some scratches and imperfections. I’ll clean it up and post some additional photos shortly. I’ve already created a stub for it on the Typewriter Database. One of the noticeable bits of “wear” is that what were surely white plastic trim and keys have yellowed with light exposure over the ages. 

There is some body wear and scratching commensurate with age, particularly where the return bar might hit the hood. It sadly didn’t come with a case.

The good news is that it not only works, but works pretty well for the model and age and the $18.00 I paid for it. Just playing with it a bit this afternoon has already given me more joy than the cost of admission. I can’t wait until I’ve given it a complete overhaul.

Keys

Close up of the typewriter's keyboard .

Space bar key is friction fit onto the keyboard and came off pretty easily when I flipped it over for some quick repairs. Fortunately it goes back on quickly.

I think this is the first time I’ve had a typewriter with a dedicated “1” / “!” key rather than relying on the “l” or the usual apostrophe-back space-period combination for those to glyphs.

It came with broken linkages on keys “1”, “T”, and “.”, but these were easily fixed although the “.” was blocked a bit by internal mechanisms. The “T” type-bar was slightly bent, but when back into alignment with a small tweak. All the keys work well though the “.” is a bit sticky, something that should clear itself up once fully cleaned. I suspect that these broken linkages were the reason the last owner gave up the typewriter. Overall, the typewriter has a pretty sharp action and a satisfying snap when typing. I’m including a sound file below.

View of the bottom of the typewriter with its bottom covered removed. several pair of handheld clamps are holding pieces in place and short lengths of dental floss are tied to portions of three different type arms.
A simple “surgery” to fix some broken keys and we’re off to the races.

For the fast typist that occasionally gets stuck with jammed keys, this model has a key unjammer (on the right side indicated with a key that has a down arrow over two opposing right and left slant marks). When pressed, it presumably pushes back on the U-bar which forces the typebars back. I’ll have to take a closer look at the mechanism when I open it up for a deep clean. This allows the typist the ability to keep their hands on the keys during a jam instead of needing to put their hand into the basket and manually fixing it. The key is roughly where the backspace/delete key on a computer keyboard would be, so it’s reasonably usable for the modern typist.

The machine comes with a clever tab, tab set, and tab clear arrangement just above the top row of keys. With the rear carriage open, one can see a row of metal “teeth” which are either switched “on” or “off” to allow the tab mechanism to operate.

The typewriter also has a fantastic “power-space” button to the right of the space bar that allows the carriage to quickly ratchet itself along. I’ve never had a machine that did this and can imagine using it regularly. I can’t wait to get into the internals to see how the mechanics of this work.

Other Features

The rubber feet are in reasonable shape and are still soft/functional. 

View of the bottom of the typewriter which has a sheet of metal that could be removed by unscrewing four screws.

The machine seems to be missing a plastic cover on the left side of the carriage, but this doesn’t affect functionality. The clear plastic line indicator which also holds the paper against the platen where the slugs hit the paper has sadly been broken off. There are still extant posts, so perhaps I can manufacture a replacement. One can align the top of the line retainer with lines on one’s paper and then advance to get proper type alignment in any case. This can be done by pushing in the black button in the center of the left platen knob to allow for variable line spacing

The original manufacturer sticker has faded into nothing-ness

The unit came with its original metal ribbon spool, but otherwise didn’t have ribbon, so I’ve replaced it with a blue/green ribbon combination. Ribbon installation was very simple and straightforward. Of note here is that instead of lifting up and back as on many other typewriter models, the hood on this model has two internal arms which allow it to slide forward for easy access to the ribbon and type-basket.

The typewriter with it's hood slid forward to see the type-bars and ribbon inside.

The bell works! 

The center of the type-basket is marked with the phrase “Jeweled Escapement” underneath a crown which includes a small red jewel.

Close up of the type-basket and a crown with a ruby colored jewel.

The machine comes with a page gage on the left side of the platen assembly with markings for several lengths of paper. This cleverly allows one to set the page length of paper one is using, insert the paper, and then as one gets to the bottom of a sheet, lines appear for 2 inches left, 1 inch left, and finally a red line to indicate that one is at the end of the page and will need to quit typing to change sheets. With careful management, this allows the typist to have a consistent page margin at the bottom of their sheets.

Close up of the numbered markings on the edge of the platen which indicate both 1 inches and 11 inches.

The Galaxie Deluxe has line spacing controls for single, double, and even triple spacing.

At the base of the carriage near the right platen knob, there is a metal locking tab that when actuated will center the carriage and place it into a pseudo-locked position for storage or transportation in a case. It prevents the machine from typing or the carriage from moving to the left. Presumably it also disengages the escapement to prevent wear on the teeth during shipping, but I’ll have to check this when I’ve got it opened for cleaning.

Typeface Specimen

This typewriter uses a pica scale and the paper scale has markings up to 83 but will space to 84.

An index card with the typewriter name, serial number, and a sample of all the keys typed out followed by the sentence "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog"

Sound

Here’s a sound sample of inserting an index card, writing a sentence, and a return on the Galaxie Deluxe.

Photo Gallery

Hiding inside

One of my favorite parts of used goods is the hidden things one finds inside of them. Here I really only expected the typical pencil eraser bits, but I also found a tiny photo of a boy from what appears to be the early 1970s.

A metal ribbon spool, two small pieces of broken plastic and a tiny tumbnail sized photo of a boy from the 1970s.

 

Type On!