Disadvantages of Typewriters | A cautionary tale

Erika Typewriter (Cyrillic), close up.

The Erika typewriter company was established in the early 1900s by Carl Laufer and Ludwig Kracker: Erika was the name of Kracker’s wife.

By the 1930s, Kracker had stepped down. Under Laufer, the company became one of Germany’s largest typewriter manufacturers. Its factories were turned over to making military equipment during WW2, but afterwards reverted to typewriters. And when Germany was split in half Erika, in the communist East, was nationalised.

It supplied machines for use across the Soviet bloc, including many machines with Cyrillic type, like this one I drew after seeing the original in a workshop in East London.

Click to englage.

The most common Cyrillic keyboard layout is known as JCUKEN or ЙЦУКЕН, based on the first letters of the top left letter row.

This layout was developed in the late 19th century and has been the standard for Russian typewriters and computer keyboards.

The JCUKEN layout follows a similar principle to the QWERTY layout, with the most frequently used letters placed in the middle row for easier access.


Every typewriter has a slightly different “fingerprint”, and the East German security service, the Stasi, built up a library of those fingerprints in order to identify the source of unapproved materials.

It’s quite likely that the nationalised Erika company collaborated with the Stasi in building up that library.

In 1984, a physicist named Lutz Eigendorf defected to West Germany. He wrote a series of reports critical of the East German government, which were smuggled back into East Germany and distributed as samizdat (self-published, underground literature).

The Stasi launched an investigation to identify the source of these subversive documents.

They analyzed the typewritten reports and, using their library of typewriter fingerprints, determined that they had been typed on a specific Erika typewriter.

Through further investigation, the Stasi identified the owner of the typewriter as a woman named Gisela Meyer, an acquaintance of Eigendorf.

She was arrested, charged with “subversive activities” and “treasonous espionage” and sentenced to 4 years and 3 months in prison.


Naturally, subversive typists tried to get around the problem of typewriter fingerprints.

One way they did that was by using more than one machine to type any given document – creating a h yb rid fingerprint that was not traceable.

But owning two machines was itself likely to attract suspicion. And if you collaborated with someone else, how could you be sure they were not Stasi informers?

Erika was privatised soon after the reunification of Germany, in the early 1990s. The company struggled to compete in a market economy – with strong competition from computers – and soon closed down.

Thanks for looking.