Tim’s Museum of Obsolete Tech 4

SCM Secretarial 250 Office Electric

Of the various typewriters I own, my Smith-Corona has the brand history that most typically illustrates the rise and fall of American manufacturing.

Front view of typewriter, with mug for size comparison. The top of the typewriter is about 50% higher than the mug.

Once upon a time in the 1880s, four Smith brothers left the gun manufacturing business and established the Smith-Premier Typewriting Company. In those days, typewriters were often upper-case or lower-case only. Smith had great success with their double keyboard, featuring “a key for every character.” In 1895, Smith merged with six other companies to form the Union Typewriter Company of America, but a dispute over the usefulness of a new-fangled feature – the ability to see what you typed as you typed it – led the Smith brothers to leave Union and start a new company, using their family name again.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that seeing what you type is a desirable feature, but the earliest typewriters are now called blind typewriters – the impressions happened out of sight, and you did not see what you had typed until you took the paper out.

While Smith did well with their Model 2 Visible Typewriter (followed a year later by Model 1), a company called Rose Typewriter developed a successful portable typewriter. Smith bought Rose, and operated the subsidiary as the Standard Typewriter Company. In the 1910s, Standard created a portable model called the Corona, which achieved fame for its usefulness and reliability in the field during the First World War and at sports events after. Smith renamed Standard after its famous Corona model.

Back view of typewriter, displaying large SCM logo.

In 1926, Smith merged with Corona. Smith-Corona survived the depression by selling portables for the the home market, introducing bright colours, and selling white label typewriters for other brand names, including Singer (the sewing machine company). Post-war (after a period making guns again), Smith-Corona aggressively expanded by acquisition, picking up several adding machine companies including Marchant Calculator, the M in what was now called SCM. SCM introduced electric office and portable typewriters that were more refined and popular than earlier electric models, and offered a powered carriage return feature.

During the 1960s, SCM swallowed up copier companies, paper companies, a paint company (they were interested in inks and paper coatings for copiers), and even the Proctor-Silex company, which at the time made can openers and toasters.

It all began to unravel in the 1970s. Electronic calculators wiped out the adding machine market, and IBM’s Selectric dominated the office typewriter market. Thrifty office and home buyers had cheaper offerings from overseas (such as my Speedwriter). SCM claimed the Japanese Brother company was dumping cheap office equipment in United States, but Brother countered-sued after they moved manufacturing to Tennessee while SCM moved manufacturing to Singapore. (After twenty years of litigation, both companies dropped their suits, realizing there was no longer a market to fight over.)

A corporate takeover of the struggling SCM in the mid-1980s saw the company gutted of profitable divisions and valuable real-estate. The remnants of the company laid off employees, moved some production to Mexico, and staked its growth on electronic typewriters and dedicated personal word processors (as opposed to word-processing programs used on general purpose computers – what we use now).

In 1989, I bought one of those SCM electronic typewriters for university essays, but within a couple of years I replaced it with a used Singer portable computer (yes, the sewing machine company, again). My Singer computer used the CP/M operating system, and was out of date when I bought it (hence a bargain), but I still have, and can read, the files for the essays I wrote on it. However, not everyone believed computers were replacing typewriters.

In 1991, the SCM CEO stated computers were “a logical extension of our line, not a replacement for other products within our line. We strongly believe in the continuing need for the typewriter and will maintain our lead position in the market place.” The company cut more jobs, moved more production to Mexico, and finally went bankrupt in 1995.

Top view of typewriter.
The top cover slides forward for easy access to the ribbon. However, not being able to remove it makes cleaning harder.

SCM recovered from bankruptcy, returned to selling portable electronic typewriters, and went bankrupt again in 2000. It resurrected again, but stopped making typewriters in 2005. Since then, it has existed by selling printing supplies such as thermal papers.

My model has a 250 label. The 250 was a line name for various similar models sold from the early 1960s through the early 1970s. They were available in various colours, different carriage sizes, and with manual return. Mine is from the end of the run, likely 1972 or 1973. It has a power carriage return. The half-space key is not powered, the space bar is one space only, and the power space key can be held down for multiple spaces. A few other keys repeat if held, such as the period, but most do not.

The motorized drum for providing the power assist to the type keys has a rattle, but the typewriter works well. It has an extra-wide carriage, allowing legal size paper to be inserted in landscape format, and it has an elite font – 12 characters per inch, instead of the more common pica font, which has 10 characters per inch. The typeface is more modern than commonly used in typewriters. It’s worth noting that my typewriter was made in Canada, likely to avoid import duties.

While it is a perfectly functional typewriter, full-featured and compact, it’s bland. It lacks the romance or hipster appeal of a manual, the capabilities of a Selectric, and the design of, well, almost anything. The push-button style keys, and the cheap stickers for some keys, add nothing to the appearance. The body can’t decide whether to be angular or curved. The typeface looks modern, but is plain and not ideal for reading. This machine was made at the height of SCM’s corporate rise, and the design reflects a company unfocused and unable to see the marketplace forest for the accounting department trees.

The upper rows were typed with the Smith-Corona 250. It’s almost, but not quite, a sans-serif font. For example, the j and l have serifs, while the k does not. Most curves are squared off (reducing readability), such as the q, o, and g, but some are not, such as the f. The lower rows were typed with the Underwood office manual. It requires a new ribbon, but has a much more readable typeface, and not just because it is a larger size. Compare the ascenders and descenders of the Underwood numbers with the boxy SCM numbers. (You’d never know I am taking a Design and Typography course.)

The company which once saw the new technology of visible typing as the obvious approach failed to appreciate the new technology of personal computers. SCM eventually made modest efforts to adapt, but the stripping of its assets in the 1980s made money for the corporate owners while leaving the company without the resources to compete in the personal computer market. Growth, breakup for quick profits, and fading into oblivion is a path many once-innovative businesses have followed.

It’s not easy to hold the camera with one hand and type with the other, but this short clip gives an idea of this typewriter in action.

Categorized as Writing

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

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