Celebrating Ernie Gann’s Typewriter on His Birthday

By Scott Spangler on October 17th, 2022

When I returned home from the EAA Aviation Museum to start writing this I discovered that today, October 13, 2022, is Ernest K. Gann’s 112th birthday. This is significant because he owned the subject of my photo session, an Olivetti Lettra 22 ultraportable typewriter made in Ivrea, Italy, one of the most iconic—but least appreciated—artifacts in the museum’s collection. Without this seemingly archaic mechanical machine, we would not have been able to read any of the approximately four dozen titles engraved in brass plates affixed to the typewriter’s shell, a writer’s equivalent of a fighter pilot’s victories.

Many of those books stand shoulder to shoulder on a shelf in the “Chicken House,” Gann’s writing studio at Red Hill Farm on San Juan Island, Washington, his home for 26 years. After he passed on December 19, 1991, his wife, Dodie, donated the studio’s content to the EAA Museum, which used photos and other resources to recreate it as close as they could to the last time Gann settled into the worn black leather chair. In the typewriter was the first few lines of a new composition, “In Care of the Postmaster,” whose typescript title page and a few others cover up notes handwritten on pages torn from a spiral bound notebook.

Gann wrote his first book, the Sky Roads guide in 1940, followed by two more guides, All American Aircraft in 1941 and Getting Them into the Blue in 1942, before he started turning his airborne adventures into fiction, starting with Islands in the Sky in 1944. These books, plus Blaze of Noon and Benjamin Lawless were not written on the trim little typewriter on a small table in the recreated Chicken House. Olivetti did not introduce its Lettra 22 until 1949. But it captured the words that composed 20 works of fiction, memoir, and autobiography (not to mention magazine articles and screenplays) from Fiddler’s Green in 1950 to 1989’s The Black Watch: The Men Who Fly America’s Secret Spy Planes.

Looking at the empty chair I can clearly see Gann sitting there, referring to his notes and contemplating his next words, or perhaps pounding out the next typescript draft that incorporates all of the revision he penciled into the preceding draft. Perhaps this is only something another word merchant might appreciate. Gann wrote a bit about his writing life in his 1978 autobiography, A Hostage to Fortune. Although he passed before computers became a thing, my guess is that he’d agree that these digital devices are not the most productive writing machines.

Connected to the internet, a computer pushes content into your sphere of awareness, an eager diversion from the creative task at hand. A typewriter, on the other hand, almost addictively draws words and ideas from almost anyone who lays their fingers on the keys. Yes, computers have their place and purpose. But in creating a world of words, Richard Polt, author of The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century, said it best: “A typewriter still has a computer beat when you want a self-contained, secure, lasting, physical writing machine. Turn to a typewriter and you’ll find yourself focusing on writing—the reason the machine exists. You’ll find the impatience and anxiety of your computing mind ebbing away. You’ll gradually stop wanting to be interrupted. You’ll concentrate on the page.”

I wonder what aviation would look like today had we not had the inspiration Ernie Gann provided in such works as The High and the Mighty, Band of Brothers, and The Aviator. So, Ernie, here’s to you on your birthday. Thanks for paying attention to the world around you—and for learning how to type. –Scott Spangler, Editor.

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