Beowulf’s Bespoke Typewriter

Over the weekend we picked up a typewriter I’d frankly been coveting for some time. A Hermes Ambassador is a fine enough acquisition in and of itself: it’s a massive, marvellously overbuilt standard typewriter with all kinds of bells and whistles, including a document feeder and two margin release keys (one for adding just a few extra spaces), plus support for a carbon ribbon and a motor. But this example, built in 1960, was something else: it has a keyboard that may literally be one of a kind.

Close-up view of the unique keyboard of my new 1960 Hermes Ambassador typewriter, focusing on the top left of the keyboard.
Close-up view of the unique keyboard of my new 1960 Hermes Ambassador typewriter, focusing on the æ, ð and þ keys on the right-hand side of the keyboard.
No, we haven’t cleaned it yet. We just got it.

This keyboard replaces the # and % with square brackets and adds a number of new letters: there are ash (Ææ), eth (Ðð) and thorn (Þþ) keys, plus a lowercase ezh (ʒ) above the 4 in lieu of the dollar sign. It also adds six accents on three dead keys:1 grave and acute (`´), circumflex and cedilla (ˆ¸) and ogonek and diaresis (˛¨). To get those letters and accents, it loses a bunch of normal typewriter keys: not only does it lose the #, % and $ glyphs, it also doesn’t have a (+=), (@¢), (¼½), or (!1) key. Typewriters with only 42 keys don’t have the (+=) or (!1) key either,2 but the Ambassador has 46 keys, so it can accomodate quite a few substitutions without losing core punctuation. I can still use it for writing so long as math or currency aren’t involved.

But what is with all these extra keys? Who would need a typewriter with these special characters? What language was this for? Who on earth would need an ogonek?

I’m told that the first owner of this machine was a university professor, which leads to me to suspect that he was studying Old Norse, Old Icelandic and/or Old English in the original and needed an almost bespoke keyboard that could handle the texts on which he worked.3 It would explain the need for Æ, Ð and Þ, and the Latin orthography of Old Norse would make use of the acute accent and the ogonek (in ę and ǫ). The keyboard is missing Old English’s wynn (Ƿƿ), though, and the ezh (Ʒʒ) is a bit of a puzzle—unless it’s actually supposed to be a yogh (Ȝȝ), which might be useful in Old English and Scots. I don’t know: this is very much not my field.

But from what little I can figure out, this is a typewriter for studying Beowulf, the Prose and Poetic Eddas, the sagas, and plenty else besides. It’s something Tolkien himself might have found terribly useful—and not just in his day job either, considering his fondness for using accents in the words of his invented languages.

Funny how it’s now ended up in the hands of a fantasy writer.


  1. A dead key doesn’t advance the carriage: you type the accent, then the letter it goes on.
  2. By the way, the canonical way to type an exclamation point on an old typewriter that doesn’t have one is to type a period, backspace, then type a quotation mark. A lowercase l is used for 1.
  3. And it may in fact have been bespoke: some of these keycaps seem to have been done by hand.