History
Deep History
Corona

SCM
1970s
Competition
New Print Technology
Word Processors
New Product
Hanson Trust
Personal Word-Processors
Simply Smart
PC-Makers

Sources

Smith-Corona

Smith-Corona are primarily a supplier of thermal direct and thermal transfer materials. .

History

Smith-Corona are one of the great names in office technology, making typewriters from 1886 to 1995 and surviving to 2001. They didn't quite manage the transition from mechanical typewriters to computer printing or word-processing successfully so a name that was once familiar to every office worker has faded a bit. These days the brand-name is used to sell thermal labels.

Smith-Corona's decline in typewriters happened contemporaneously with Hewlett Packard's rise in printers. From the mid 1970s onwards Smith Corona blamed their struggle on unfair Japanese dumping of product in their market. They lobbied the US government to impose swingeing tariffs against imported typewriters, engaging in a 20 year battle against Brother Industries.

Smith-Corona understood that typewriters were becoming electronic. What they couldn't accept was the idea of a typewriter would become a busted flush. The future was PCs driving printers. To Smith-Corona management it seemed they could offer a typewriter style word-processor adequate for the average person's needs with greater ease of use and at lower cost. During the 1980s they succeeded in doing that. In the 1990s the low cost and capabilities of PCs won out. Today there seems to be just one machine intended as a word-processor on the market, the Neo.

Smith-Corona management were obviously wrong in the sense that their products are only remembered by the over-40's and typing is now almost invariably done with a PC and printer. HP had their own troubles becoming a PC company, but by focusing on printers they became a $100Bn company and at present are the world's biggest IT supplier. It's an interesting contrast.

Deep History

Smith Premier Typewriter Company was established in 1886, a dozen years after manufacture of the Sholes &Glidden or ‘ Remington No1 ’, generally regarded as the first recognisable typewriter in production.  Remington were gun manufacturers, so were the Smith brothers. The pen may be mightier than the sword, precision metalwork is the foundation for both.

The original ‘ Smith ’ machine was invented by Alexander T Brown, who had been engaged to improve one of Lyman Smith's gun designs. He also perfected the breech-loading shotgun and two-speed gears for bicycles. Alexander Brown had seen the Sholes and Glidden typewriter at the US Centennial Exposition in 1876, and was convinced he could build something better. The machine he designed had both upper and lower case worked from a double keyboard - a key for every character. It was also solid and attractive. The case had fluted columns and a frame decorated with flowers and cattails which may look crazy now but fitted very nicely with the Palladian aspirations of business at the time - take a look at old city-centre bank buildings. Like other typewriters of the time it was a blind-writing machine, the typist could not see the typing as it happened. Lyman Smith financed the development.

In 1893 Smith-Premier merged with six other manufacturers including Remington Standard Typewriter to form Union Typewriter Company of America, based in Syracuse, New York. Trusts were a very popular idea amongst manufacturers at this time - see AT&T and IBM, and there could be customer benefits, one result was to achieve an industry standard on keyboards.

In 1895 the Oliver typewriter with it's visible typing appeared. The Smith brothers saw the advantage of this and had a new design prepared by Carl Gabrielson. L.C. Smith created a new machine, with a single keyboard and visible typing. They pulled out of Union and started a new venture. L.C. Smith & Brothers Typewriter Company of Syracuse was founded on January 27, 1903. Smith-Premier continued. Simth's built a new factory, so quickly the architects apparently had trouble staying ahead of the builders. It had it's own railway junction and bridge over a nearby creek. By 1914 visible typing had swept the market. Rival companies either adapted their designs for visible type or lost their market.   It was the equivalent of WYSIWYG in the 1980s?

Corona

In the early years of the 20th Century there were a great many typewriter producers, each with an advantage in ease of use or print quality. In 1906 yet another new rival emerged, the Rose Typewriter Company.   Three years later Rose was bought out, moved and became Standard Typewriter Company. Standard bought out a portable, folding model which became very popular with both the military and journalists in World War 1. The next model called the Corona was also very successful, so they renamed themselves as Corona Typewriter Company.

The Corona design was not only portable, which most other typewriters were not, it proved very robust. During the 1924 Dempsey-Firpo fight Firpo knocked Dempsey out of the ring onto a journalists Corona Portable. Dempsey climbed back into the ring and continued the fight (with a severe cut to his head). The Corona typewriter was unharmed. Corona had a new slogan - "Dempsey knocked out Firpo, but he could not knockout Corona!"

Smith & Corona

The pressures for consolidation which bankrupted Oliver Typewriter and were pressing Remington to merge with Rand and Powers-Samas applied to Smith Brothers as well. Smith merged with Corona in 1926 to form ‘ Smith & Corona ’. The new company employed something like 3,000 people in 1929. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression following cut the market so the company responded by making colourful portable typewriters aimed at home use. They concentrated on lightweight and easy to use typewriters. Smith & Corona took over the Portable Adding Machine Company in 1934 giving them an additional product line, though not one to match that of Remington-Rand and IBM.

During World War 2 the factories switched to war production, cryptographic equipment, bomb fuses, and Springfield rifles. The sales force to helping the government buy used typewriters for war use. Smith-Corona

Typewriter production resumed in 1943. In 1946 the name was simplified to Smith-Corona.

From the end of the war the new electric typewriters from IBM and Remington began to dominate the office market. Smith-Corona introduced an electric model in 1955, rather late, but it featured a highly ergonomic keyboard and automatic repeat on all keys. In 1957 they introduced the world’s first portable electric typewriter.

SCM

In 1956 Smith-Corona bought teleprinter maker Kleinschmidt Laboratories. Kleinschmidt were known for producing lightweight teleprinters, favoured by the military. Then in 1958 they merged with Marchant Calculators forming Smith Corona Marchant Inc (SCM). Marchant had an unusual design of mechanical calculator which was complicated but fast.

In the 1960s they tried to stay competitive by developing electronic calculators, developing the 240SR in 1965. Unfortunately for SCM (and other calculator makers) the microelectronics revolution was about to deliver calculators at very low prices, wrecking what had once been a big industry. Typewriter enthusiasts seem to think Marchant was a disaster for Smith-Corona; and certainly they had spent money on a project that was wasted. If SCM's management had connected the dots and seen that electronic calculators meant not just typewriters but computers things might have been very different.

1960s

Smith-Corona-Marchant had become a general office machines company. They had typewriters, calculators and had begun making copiers using dieline processes - Xerox had exclusive access to the patents that would make their fortune in the 1960s. So SCM was an office machines supplier and offices in those days did not have computers.

SCM had half a dozen big competitors and they had made forays into computers. Olivetti took over Underwood. Olivetti had experimented with computers but in 1964 the expense of that forced them to sell most of the division to GE. Royal was taken over by Litton Industries. Remington had transformed itself into a computer company with the purchase of UNIVAC

The IBM Selectric golf-ball launched in 1961 came as something of a shock to the market. It had precedents as far back as the Hammond and Blickensderfer typewriters but it was quite different. In the office sector where electric typewriters predominated the IBM Selectric took as much as three-quarters of the market in the US. However SCM sold mainly to smaller offices and were probably sanguine about this development.

Within a few years IBM had introduced the SE/MT, a Selectric typewriter with magnetic tape storage that could store and replay documents as well as acting as an input terminal for a computer. IBM began to talk of word-processing

Opinion differs about the best ever typewriter. By the 1960s typewriter design had evolved for three-quarters of a century and the mechanisms were getting pretty good.

In the 1960s the great business fashion was to build conglomerates so in 1967 SCM bought Allied Paper Corporation. There was some business logic here, Allied Paper had strong interests in business forms, particularly things like carbonless copy paper used for things like invoices and wage-slips. SCM was presumably looking for synergies in its businesses.

It is less easy to see logic in purchases like Proctor Silex (appliances) or Glidden Company (paints and chemicals) and Durkee Foods. Glidden apparently merged with SCM rather than accept a takeover by Dallas Greatamerica Corp. There was some hope that Glidden's paper coatings research would complement the copier business. The joint size of Smith-Corona wand the Glidden-Durkee division put the company beyond the reach of most takeovers at the time.

Complex mechanical assemblies like typewriters needed to be sold in large numbers. The costs of tooling up for production are high, the marginal cost of an extra unit is not that high. The costs are an even greater issue for a business with a tradition of vertical integration and a specialised market, which typewriter makers were used to having. So it was difficult for new companies to enter the field.

Smith Corona probably didn't notice Singer, a sewing machine company, buying Friden and several other companies to make itself into a computer company (they sold that business to ICL in the 1970s). However there are a lot of parallels between making sewing machines, typewriters and computers.

1970s

Other than the IBM Selectric Typewriter design remained pretty stable into the 1970s. The only significant change was the Coronamatic Cartridge introduced in 1973 - this made it possible to change the ribbon without touching an inked surface.

The office calculator market changed radically in the early 1970s first with Busicom's microprocessor based device. Then in 1973 with the introduction of handheld products for under $100 like the Sinclair Executive. It was possible to put all the logic of a calculator onto a chip and combine it with an LED display. One of the main manufacturers of chips was US aerospace giant Rockwell. The breakthrough had not been foreseen by several calculator companies - for instance in the UK the MD of Sumlock Anita couldn't believe anyone would want a pocket calculator. Meanwhile scientific instrument Hewlett Packard was getting into the new game as fast as possible and were to make something of a name for themselves. At the low end companies like Casio and Sharp were producing masses of calculators for $10. Rather than compete in what had become a mass market (which should have been its element) SCM dropped its Marchant calculator line.

Xerox was the big growth story in office equipment in the 1960s. Xerox used the electrophotographic process patented by Chester Carlson from the 1930s on. Xerox machines were far simpler to use than any other copier and outsold them all as Smith Corona found out. Smith Corona pulled out of copiers in the early 1970s. Once more they might not have tried hard enough. In 1975 Xerox signed a consent decree with the US FTC which required them to license some of the technology, and the patents were already beginning to expire. Japanese competitors like Canon, Minolta and Ricoh started making copiers just after SCM dropped them.

In 1973 the Smith-Corona division of SCM opened a new plant in Singapore employing 1300 people. In 1974 there were 4,000 people employed in Cortland, New York, giving the company its highest ever employment figure of 5,300. (according to Danneels)

Competition

Brother Industries of Japan, historically a sewing machine maker but looking to diversify was shipping typewriters. Japanese companies were beginning to find an outlet badging their products, for instance Montgomery Ward seems to have been selling Brother machines as the ‘ Signature ’ in 1961.

There had always been a market for typewriters to use at home, indeed one of the very first sales of a ‘Sholes & Glidden ’ had been to author Mark Twain. Aspirant authors, graduate students and people wanting to work from home would buy typewriters from catalogs. There was a growing market in catalogs and department stores. Smith-Corona's products were a good match for this growing market. They weren't happy to find low-cost Japanese products being introduced.

In 1974 SCM filed a complaint in the US against Brother Industries, alleging that Brother was ‘dumping’ portable typewriters in the US market. (ie exporting at below cost to gain foreign exchange or market share). The US government did indeed impose a tariff of 58% in 1978.

In an ironic twist Brother opened a plant in Bartlett, Tennessee in the 1980s manufacturing 600,000 typewriters per year for the US market. Meanwhile Hanson trust had taken over SCM and moved production to Singapore, so in the 1990s Brother filed a complaint against SCM.

New Technology

Despite the setback in calculators and copiers Smith-Corona typewriters were doing well. The IBM Selectric was taking over in large offices but that didn't impact much on Smith-Corona who mainly sold into what is now called the SOHO sector - Small Offices and Home Offices.

In retrospect it is easy to see that the problem for typewriter manufacturers was not really going to be foreign imports but computers. That was far from evident in the 1970s and through most of the 1980s. People wanted something called a typewriter for most of that time. The word computer attracted one sort of customer but repelled another.

The emergence of new computer printers was to prove highly relevant to typewriter makers. From the 1930s through to 1970 very little changed in the typewriter industry. Computer printers were big, expensive and designed for speed not print quality. Also there simply weren't many of them. But now things changed.

New Print Technology

Several new print technologies were becoming possible, enabled by the rapidly falling cost of electronics and particularly the microprocessor.

The time honoured type-bar print mechanism used by Smith-Corona and almost every other typewriter make except IBM would be challenged by all this. Daisy-wheel mechanisms in particular were quite easy to implement, and well suited to typewriters.

Word Processors

Word-processing was still an uncertain concept. Clearly it involved separating the action of keypressing from print so that errors could be corrected. Would that apply to the last word, a line or a whole document. Should it be possible to cut and paste paragraphs, which would need quite a big memory and presumably a screen. What about form letters, macros and mail-merge? The term word-processor might mean little more than a distinction from the number-based calculators. It did seem that it would cut across traditional office methods which had existed for nearly a hundred years.

Smith-Corona seem to have been slow to appreciate the importance of word-processing. Online searches don't show much activity in business shows in the 1970s. IBM, Xerox, Wang and AES data were leaders. To be fair, Wang word-processors started at about $12,000 per user; Smith-Corona customers were thinking of spending a 20th of that.

In 1976 Smith-Corona opened an R&D lab in Newton, near Danbury, Connecticut. They hired electrical and electronic engineers and by 1980 had a product, the Typetronic, an electronic typewriter aimed at office use.

New Products

The R&D and introductory expenses for the Typetronic were $25 million and were plagued with difficulties according to Danneels. The Typetronic was aimed at offices, and didn't do very well. It was followed up by the Electronic Typewriter series or ‘ET’. The ET had a small display, suitable for correcting the last few characters typed. By 1983 the ET line represented 25% of sales, so it grew rapidly.

As well as the ET line Smith-Corona made some daisy-wheel printers and some dual-purpose typewriters which could be used stand-alone or connected to a computer. By the early 1980s the Apple II was a well established product and the IBM PC was just beginning it's meteoric rise.

By 1981 Smith-Corona began losing money, beginning a run of five years of loss making. The response was a restructuring, consolidation of US operations and a 50% reduction in employment worldwide.

In 1985 the first PWP was introduced. These models had a larger screen where several lines of text could be seen and with enough memory to be able to store and retrieve text as well as insert, delete, find, move and replace. Functionality was better than microcomputer word-processors of the time in some ways (Apple II computers had 40 character upper-case only displays at the time).

Presumably in response to the losses Smith-Corona closed the Newtown, Danbury Lab in 1982, supposedly ‘ consolidating ’ its work at their New York manufacturing site in Cortland. But it emerged that it wasn't so much a consolidation as a closure - the R&D that continued was to support manufacturing and come up with copy-cat products rather than to deliver anything new.

The new products seem to have been successful. By 1986 the company returned making a profit. Sales climbed and the leaner manufacturing side struggled to keep up with demand.

Company financial results tend to be misleading. Smith-Corona's future product line had been decided by what the Newtown Lab had done, but it was closed and the entire company sold before the results were seen.

There seems to be a strong contrast with Brother Industries here. Brother (and Canon, Panasonic and Sharp) went on researching and trying to find winning formulae. Canon was developing inkjets and laser-printers - although they would have failed projects like the Canon ‘ Cat ’. Canon and Brother developed products, Panasonic and Sharp were less successful. Smith Corona may have thought they had temporarily cut costs. In retrospect R&D was the fatal cut. It isn't clear that they could have found a winning formula, but simply carrying on with the same products could not be it.

Hanson Trust

In 1986 the whole of SCM was bought by Anglo-American investment house Hanson Trust for $930 million. Hanson bought financially under-performing companies frequently managing to turn them around. The cost was usually the sale of many of the assets and a wave of redundancies. In SCMs case Hanson sold the headquarters building in New York, various other SCM businesses and most of Allied Paper, making the money it had invested back in one year. Effectively Hanson bought and sold Glidden-Durkee and got Smith-Corona and a titanium dioxide business it retained for nothing.

Hanson didn't regard Kleinschmidt as important. It's then president, Harry S. Gaples, was able to buy it. Kleinschmidt had started to work on Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) and Car Location Message (CLM)in 1979. Today it is a specialist in that field - B2B e-Commerce, EDI, CLM, XML.

There was a sting in Allied Paper's tail; since the 1950s its mills at Kalamazoo had been recycling waste paper, mixed into the waste were Polychlorinated Bi-phenyls (PCBs) used as an ink carrier. The settling lagoons contained 8 million cubic yards of contaminated material that had spilled into the Portage creek and Kalamazoo River. Hanson sold the mills but initially retained responsibility for the PCBs. However subsequently that responsibility transferred through a chain of owners to Lyondell-Basell, a subsidiary of one of the US's third largest chemical manufacturers. Lyondell-Basell went bankrupt. In 2007 Hanson itself was taken over and is now a subsidiary of Heidelberg, the worlds second largest producer of cement. Modern industry is a tangled web with a few rather nasty carcasses in it.

Personal Word-Processors

For a few years in the late 1980s Smith-Corona was rather successful. SCM doesn't seem to have found the synergies in forms production or special paper coatings so Hanson's disposal of those arms of the company probably didn't harm it. And in fact the PWP series still had a swan-song of profitability.

A word processor, like a microcomputer is based on a microprocessor, memory, screen and printer, sometimes wrapped up into a box smaller than a mechanical typewriter. There are several aspects to a dedicated word-processor.