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At the American Business History Center, we continually peer back into the mists of the past, telling the stories of interesting companies and people. But what was their daily work life really like? What did their desks and work environment look like?
In our modern age of pervasive personal computers and smartphones, it can be difficult to remember what life was like before those technologies, even for those of us who worked in an office “back then.” Here we take a quick illustrated trip through the evolution of office machines.
The first big breakthrough was of course the typewriter. There were many failed attempts to find some method faster than handwriting in the early 1800s. In 1868, inventors Christopher Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel Soule were issued a patent on a working typewriter. Sholes also created the QWERTY keyboard layout based on the frequency of each letter, which was carried over to the computer age and is still with us. The Sholes group apparently did not think that highly of their invention, selling the rights to James Densmore and George Yost for a reported $12,000. Those two needed to find a manufacturer capable of making the complex “type-writer.”
This led them to the famous rifle barrel (and later complete weapons) maker E. Remington & Sons. Using their metalworking and precision parts-making skills, Remington had expanded into making sewing machines, another wonder of “modern” technology. Densmore and Yost reached an agreement for Remington to manufacture and commercialize their typewriter. Shipments from the Remington factory in Ilion, New York began in 1873. The first “Glidden and Sholes Type-Writers” could only type capital letters. (Today we’d call this design style “steampunk.”)
In 1878, Remington introduced the “Remington Model 2” with a shift key, allowing both upper-case and lower-case typing.
The typewriter was not an immediate hit. It was intended for editors, authors, reporters, and ministers. Businesses were for some unknown reason slow to adopt it, possibly because they thought it was a cold way to communicate compared to handwritten letters, much like some people see emails, texts, and tweets today. The machines were also expensive, selling for $100 ($2700 in 2020 money).
Gradually, the typewriter caught on, as more people learned to use it. Mark Twain was the first to write an entire book on one, submitting typewritten copy to his publisher. Nevertheless, demand did not rise as fast as Remington had hoped, so in 1886 they sold the whole operation to Densmore and Yost for $186,000, making the Remington Standard Typewriter Company an independent entity unrelated to the arms maker.
Many other inventors and companies developed typewriters of diverse design and typing methods, but Remington continued to lead the field.
The success of typewriters was enhanced by the availability of carbon paper, an effective way to make copies while typing. Famous historian Daniel Boorstin called carbon paper one of the most important inventions of modern times. The first carbon paper patent was issued in 1806 to Ralph Wedgwood, cousin of famous English pottery maker Josiah Wedgwood. But carbon paper was hard to use with pen and paper, because you had to press so hard that you either tore the paper or broke the nib of your quill. But it worked fine with typewriters.
One challenge of the early designs was that the typist could not see what they were typing until the paper rolled forward. This led one John Underwood to bring out a “visible typewriter,” the “Underwood Model 5,” in 1895. The Model 5 is considered the first modern typewriter, and all that followed it used its basic design and layout. It was an immediate hit. With further improvements, Underwood sold over half of all the typewriters sold in America, the factory turning out one typewriter a minute. Underwood led the industry from about 1905 until the mid-1920s. It is estimated that the company made over five million typewriters by 1939.
During this era, there were more than eighty typewriter manufacturers in America. In addition to Remington and Underwood, important producers included LC Smith, Royal, and Corona. The Royal Typewriter Company was backed by famous investor Thomas Fortune Ryan and enjoyed success with its “Royal Standard” of 1906.
Corona’s “Model 3,” introduced in 1912, was the first successful lightweight, “portable” model and a big success.
Electric typewriters were first introduced early in the twentieth century, but they were heavy, complex, and expensive. IBM introduced its first electric, the “Electromatic,” in 1935. But it was not until 1961 when the company introduced the “Selectric” with a type ball that that the company took over the office market. The Selectric went on to become the biggest selling typewriter of all time.
Smith-Corona, the result of a 1926 merger, brought out cheaper, lighter portable electrics which served students and home users. (And got this writer through college.)
Without the typewriter, American commerce and industry would never have been able to show the rapid growth it posted between the 1880s and the 1960s. Millions of letters, invoices, statements, and telegrams were typed in this era. In World War II, the US Army alone bought a million typewriters. The American typewriter makers also sold their products around the globe, dominating world markets for office machines and paving the way for additional office equipment. One can find many books on typewriter history as well as a multitude of collector websites.
But businesses use numbers as well as words.
Working with Numbers
It is amazing how much time some inventions take to travel from idea to commercialization. Or, from invention to innovation in the language of some. In his excellent new book How Innovation Works, author Matt Ridley tells the difference between invention and innovation: a beaver looks up at Hoover Dam and says, “I did not build it, but it is based on my idea.” Machines that work with numbers followed just such an arduous path from idea to usage.
French mathematician Blaise Pascal developed an adding and subtracting machine in 1642. Many other attempts followed in the next two centuries. Yet it was not until Frenchman Charles Xavier Thomas de Colmar brought out his mechanical “Arithmometer” in 1820 that adding machines became more broadly useful.
Following various inventions and improvements in America and Europe, in 1886 Dorr Felt of Chicago introduced his “Comptometer” which triggered widespread use of faster adding and subtracting machines.
Machines that could multiply soon followed, with several companies entering the field. Among the most important was the American Arithmometer Company, founded by William S. Burroughs in St. Louis in 1885. While Burroughs died in 1898, in the early 20th century his company became one of the two key producers of calculating machines (alongside Felt’s company Felt & Tarrant). In 1903-4, the company moved to Detroit and was renamed the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. Burroughs was selling almost eight thousand machines a year. (Burroughs’ grandson, also named William S., was the famous counter-culture author.)
Over time, more companies produced more advanced machines. Calculators became so advanced that they were even used for engineering purposes, competing with the good old slide rule. Leaders in the calculator field included Monroe, Marchant, and Friden. Their products advanced from hand-cranked to electrical, and then by the 1950s calculators had become heavy, massive, expensive electro-mechanical gadgets with thousands of internal moving parts. Electronic versions followed those, until eclipsed by the desktop computer.
Specialized Office Equipment
In addition to the typewriters, adding machines, and calculators used in almost every office, some businesses or departments required more specialized equipment. Perhaps most important were reproducing machines, led by Chicago’s AB Dick Company and its mimeograph machines. Another maker of duplicating machines was the British Gestetner company. Smart people in their Chicago office gave the first break to Raymond Loewy, America’s greatest industrial designer, when he got the assignment to streamline their products. (See this post for his illustrious story.) This field was later virtually destroyed by Rochester’s Xerox Corporation, at its height one of America’s fastest-growing technology companies.
Another maker of specialized machinery was the Addressograph (later Addressograph Multigraph) Company, which made equipment for mass-addressing mailings.
The Industry Evolves and Matures
Over the years, many combinations and mergers took place. At the height of the trust movement in the 1890s, Remington and others merged to form the Union Typewriter Company. But, like many other consolidations, that one did not last and the component companies soon regained their independence.
In 1926, Smith merged with Corona, and later bought the Marchant calculator firm to broaden its line, become Smith-Corona Marchant (SCM). In 1927, Remington merged with Rand Kardex, a maker of card and filing systems for offices, becoming Remington Rand. International Business Machines (IBM) was on a different track with its giant punched-card tabulating machines. Remington Rand became the largest office equipment maker, with a broad product line. The company, later merged with the Sperry Gyroscope company and renamed Sperry Rand, also developed the first mainframe computer, but was quickly badly beaten by IBM. (See this video for the history of the computer)
In 1957, Felt & Tarrant was renamed the Comptometer Corporation after its main product. In 1961 Comptometer merged with the prominent Victor Adding Machine Company to become Victor Comptometer Corporation. In 1963, Italian office machine maker Olivetti bought the by-then money-losing, troubled Underwood company.
In 1958, Litton Industries, one of the earliest true conglomerates, owning many diverse businesses, bought the Monroe Calculating Company, followed by the acquisition of Royal Typewriter in 1964.
Remington Rand, Burroughs, Smith-Corona Marchant, Victor Comptometer, and Litton Industries were thus all able to offer business a large array of office machines, both through their own sales offices and thousands of independent office supply stores.
Another key industry player was the National Cash Register Company (“the cash,” or NCR) of Dayton, Ohio. Long plagued by inadequate records and employee pilfering, retail merchants gradually adopted the huge, expensive machines. NCR dominated the field. The company was led by the remarkable John H. Patterson, who invented many of the sales techniques used by business to this day – pep talks, quotas, demonstrations, and many other methods.
Patterson was something of a tyrant and drove off many of his best people. Former NCR executives included Charles Kettering, who became the technology wizard of General Motors; Richard Grant, General Motors’ sales chief who led them to surpass Ford in the late 1920s; and most importantly Thomas Watson, Sr. Watson was a master salesman. He took over the limping Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company and renamed it after its Canadian operation, International Business Machines. IBM under Watson and his son went on to become far larger and more profitable than any company mentioned in this article. (To learn more about IBM and its history, see this outstanding book and our post on the three greatest companies in American history). With its large production facilities and its understanding of complex machines, NCR became a big producer of accounting and bookkeeping machines, alongside Burroughs.
Furnishing Those Offices
All of these machines – and the people who used them – had to sit somewhere. So we should not forget the makers of desks and chairs. All those typed papers and financial statements also had to reside somewhere, requiring millions of filing cabinets.
The most interesting of the many companies in these fields was the Shaw-Walker Company of Muskegon, Michigan. The company was founded in 1899 by twenty-three-year-old Arch Shaw and his partner Louis Walker. In 1903, Shaw established a separate company to publish management books and produce System: The Magazine of Business, the forerunner of the modern business magazine. Both Forbes and Fortune followed in System’s footsteps. In 1928, he sold his publishing business to McGraw-Hill, which renamed the magazine Business Week. Shaw also became a lecturer and board member at the Harvard Business School, playing a key role in its evolution and prestige.
The Shaw-Walker Company was a very large maker of desks, chairs, and filing cabinets, a brand familiar to any American office worker of the time, as seen in these pictures:
Today, Grand Rapids, Michigan is the world’s center for office furniture. Three major producers are based there: Haworth, Herman Miller, and Steelcase. Other leading companies include Hon, based in Iowa, and Knoll, based in Pennsylvania.
What Became Of?
The world described in the preceding paragraphs was in large part demolished by the rise of the computer, particularly the microcomputer (PC) with its huge range of functions and low price. Most of the companies mentioned in this article have changed hands and changed names, if they survived the onslaught of the computer at all. Some brands are still manufactured. Some are owned by Japanese or European companies. The old Remington Rand computer business was merged with Burroughs and is today called Unisys. Notably, both IBM and NCR continue to prosper, though they have had plenty of ups and downs in the interim.
We can only wonder if, in the next century, the look of the average office will have changed as much as it has since 1921. Or will people all be working from home?
American Business History Center
Note: this story is largely based on the outstanding book Before the Computer: IBM, NCR, Burroughs, & Remington Rand & the Industry They Created 1865-1956, by James Cortada, who also wrote the wonderful, more recent book on IBM’s history referenced in the article.