Martin Tytell, whose unmatched knowledge of typewriters was a boon to U.S. spies during World War II, a tool for the defense lawyers for Alger Hiss, and a necessity for literary luminaries and perhaps tens of thousands of everyday scriveners who asked him to keep their Royals, Underwoods, Olivettis (and their computer-resistant pride) intact, died...
NEW YORK — Martin Tytell, whose unmatched knowledge of typewriters was a boon to U.S. spies during World War II, a tool for the defense lawyers for Alger Hiss, and a necessity for literary luminaries and perhaps tens of thousands of everyday scriveners who asked him to keep their Royals, Underwoods, Olivettis (and their computer-resistant pride) intact, died Thursday in the Bronx. He was 94.
The cause was cancer, said Pearl Tytell, his wife of 65 years. She said her husband also had Alzheimer’s disease.
When he retired in 2000, Mr. Tytell had practiced his recently vanishing craft for 70 years. For most of that time, he rented, repaired, rebuilt, reconfigured and restored typewriters in a second-floor shop in Lower Manhattan.
There, at Tytell Typewriter Co., he catered to customers such as writers Dorothy Parker and Richard Condon, newsmen David Brinkley and Harrison Salisbury, and political opponents Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson.
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Mr. Tytell worked on typewriters that could reproduce dozens of alphabets appropriate for as many as 145 languages and dialects — including Farsi and Serbo-Croatian, Thai and Korean, Coptic and Sanskrit, and ancient and Modern Greek. He often said he kept 2 million typefaces in stock.
He made a hieroglyphics typewriter for a museum curator, and typewriters with musical notes for musicians. He adapted keyboards for amputees and other wounded veterans. He invented a reverse-carriage device that enabled him to work in right-to-left languages such as Arabic and Hebrew.
An error he made on a Burmese typewriter, inserting a character upside down, became a standard, even in Burma.
Martin Kenneth Tytell was born Dec. 20, 1913, the ninth of 10 children whose Russian Jewish immigrant parents lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Going to school mostly at night, he earned a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University and a master’s in business administration from New York University.
But, as a boy he worked in a hardware store, carrying a screwdriver everywhere, and one day in school he got himself excused from gym class by volunteering to answer the telephone in a nearby office.
Sitting on a desk was an Underwood typewriter, which he took apart. The man who came to fix it gave him his first lesson in typewriter repair. Before he was out of high school he had the typewriter-maintenance account for Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital.
In 1943, a contraband shipment that included 100 Siamese typewriters was seized by the federal government, and Mr. Tytell, then in the Army, was asked to convert them for the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II precursor to the CIA. His machines, capable of reproducing 17 languages, were airdropped to OSS headquarters at various war fronts.
In 1950, lawyers for Alger Hiss, the former State Department official who had been convicted of lying to a grand jury about passing secret information to a communist agent, hired him to prove that, unlike a fingerprint, a typewriter’s writing pattern is reproducible.
Hiss had been convicted largely because the government presented expert testimony maintaining that the documents passed to Whittaker Chambers were written on a typewriter owned by Hiss and his wife, Priscilla.
At his sentencing, Hiss famously accused Chambers of committing “forgery by typewriter.”
Afterward, to prepare for an appeal, Hiss’ lawyers hired Mr. Tytell to build a typewriter whose print pattern would be indistinguishable, flaws and all, from that of the Hisses.
It took him nearly two years, but he succeeded. His work became the foundation of Hiss’ plea, ultimately unsuccessful, for a new trial and, after his release from prison in 1954, of the debate over his guilt, which goes on to this day. Hiss died in 1996.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Tytell is survived by a daughter, Pamela, of Paris; and a son, Peter, of Manhattan. Peter Tytell, who closed the store about a year after his father retired, is a forensic-document examiner who frequently testifies in criminal trials, a natural offshoot of the family business.