Remington

and the

Electromatic

By

Darryl Rehr

 

1925 Remington

 

1933 IBM Electromatic

The Remington Electric of 1925 is a machine with a bad rap. Large, heavy and unwieldy, this electrified version of the company’s No. 12 typewriter has been dubbed commercially "unsuccessful." In part, that is true, since only 2500 units were made. However, new evidence shows that the lack of "success" should be attributed to the company itself, and not the machine. You see, it turns out that Remington was able to sell every Electric it could make, and on the introduction of some untimely bureaucratic indecision put the brakes on the project. Had circumstances been different, IBM might never have purchased the design, and who knows just how big "Big Blue" would have grown as a result?

Fortunately, we’re able to update this story thanks to the help of Frank Smathers of Oxnard, California, whose father, John, patented the concepts, which grew into the modern electric typewriter. Before the elder Smathers died, his son made certain to write down the details of the invention so his father could check them for accuracy and they could be preserved for posterity.

The beginnings of the story date back to about 1914, when John Smathers conceived of a typewriter powered by a continuously moving roller. This "power roll" eventually became a widespread standard in electric typewriter design. Smathers, however, did not originally think of powering his roller by electricity. Instead, he envisioned a "factory" setting, with rows of typists operating machines whose rollers were driven by leather belts attached to a central power source, as was he norm in mechanized factories of the day. The power source might have been a water wheel or a steam engine.

Smathers eventually became associated with a firm called North East Electric Co. of Rochester, New York. N.E. Electric was interested in finding a market for its electric motors. It hit upon the idea that Smathers’ power roller concept could well be adapted to electricity, and it proceeded to develop the design so it could be marketed to a typewriter manufacturer.

Remington was the company that ran with the concept, and beginning in 1925, Remington Electric’s were issued powered by North East Electric motors. In their arrangement, N.E. Electric produced the entire power unit and supplied it to Remington, which, with a few adaptations, simply mounted a No. 12 typewriter on the power base.

According to Frank Smathers, both parties were thrilled. Remington sold every new machine as soon as it came out of the factory. However, the enterprise soon ran into an obstacle.

At the time of the joint effort with N.E. Electric, Remington was engaged in the merger talks that would later transform it into Remington Rand. Once the original 2500 machines were made, N.E. Electric asked Remington for a firm contract for the next lot. Unfortunately, Remington’s merger talks created something of a power vacuum, and there was no executive willing to commit to N.E. Electric for a firm number of power bases. That was not the way N.E. Electric did business, and the Remington Electric died right there-not because it didn’t sell, but because the "upstairs" executives couldn’t make a decision. How many of us working in the corporate world have encountered the same problem?

The failure of the Remington partnership mover N.E. Electric to plunge into the typewriter business on its own. Around 1929, the first Electromatic Typewriter appeared. A short time later, N.E. Electric was purchased by General Motors’ Delco division, but the typewriter business was spun off as the Electromatic Typewriter Co. John Smathers was an officer in a company formed to administer the still-active patents.

The Electromatic was a heavy paper-pounding machine that could do some things that no other typewriter could. Besides being speedy, the force exerted by electrically powered type bars could turn out more carbon copies than any machine powered by the weak fingers of a human being. IBM apparently exploited this advantage and marketed the Electromatic (as its Model 01) to government agencies, which frequently had to fill out thick, multi-part forms. A later model "04" had the same appearance as the Electromatic, but featured proportional spacing.

The Electromatic was successful in part from its design, but also from the marketing skill of IBM. With this machine, in America at least, the age of the electric typewriter was born. It was Remington, however, that introduced the "modern" electric to the marketplace – a fitting accomplishment, perhaps, for the company that founded the world typewriter industry.

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