The history of IBM electric typewriters

The following is the text of a booklet copyrighted by the IBM Education Department in 1949 and republished by IBM in 1951.


The many advantages of the modern IBM Electric Typewriter can be appreciated by reviewing the history of typewriters, the years of research, and the millions of dollars spent on their development.

Invention of the typewriter

History tells us that the first known patent for a typewriting device to make characters “so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print” was granted by Queen Anne of England on January 7, 1714. This patent was issued to a man named Henry Mill, an English engineer. No record or description of the invention has survived.

The first writing machine constructed in the United States was the invention of William Austin Burt of Detroit. This machine was developed in 1828, and his patent was signed by President Andrew Jackson in that same year. His crude device had something of the appearance of a butcher's meat block and was called a "Typographer." The only model of Burt's machine was destroyed in the Patent Office fire of 1836.

The first practical typewriter was completed in September, 1867, although the patent was not issued until June, 1868. The man who was responsible for this invention was Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The first commercial model was manufactured in 1873 and was mounted on a sewing machine stand. The carriage was returned to the left margin by a foot pedal similar to a sewing machine treadle. This machine was a blind writer and wrote in only one case; that is, it not have both capitals and small letters, but wrote only in capitals.

It is interesting to note that Mr. Sholes invited Thomas A. Edison to Milwaukee to see his miracle machine and Mr. Edison told Mr. Sholes at the time that some day the typewriter would be operated by electricity. In fact, a short time later Mr. Edison built a typewriter which was operated electrically -- by a series of magnets. Since it was a large, cumbersome and expensive machine, it was never marketed. Mark Twain, the American humorist, was among the first purchasers of a typewriter, and he was the first author to submit a typewritten manuscript to a publisher.

Since Mr. Sholes's original machine, many makes of typewriters have been introduced and marketed. However, there have been only four major and important improvements since the original machine in 1873. These improvements in the order in which they appeared are as follows:

The International Business Machines Corporation was responsible for two of these four major changes in the typewriter industry, namely, Power Operation and Proportional Spacing.

Development of the IBM Electric typewriter

The first power operated machine of practical value was invented in 1914 by James Fields Smathers of Kansas City, Missouri. Mr. Smathers's operations as an inventor were halted by World War I. After he had served in the Army, he came back and went to work on his power-driven machine. In 1920 he produced a successful advanced model, and on April 2, 1923 turned that machine over to the Northeast Electric Company in Rochester for development. The machine originally had been designed to operate from a power-driven line shaft. The first conception of a power-driven typewriter worked on the same principle as the sewing machines in a large tailoring plant. This method of driving was immediately found to be a handicap to the machine because it eliminated the flexibility and portability of the typewriter. The Northeast Electric went ahead from this point with the development of a motor to be self-contained in the power base.

The original idea in developing the Electromatic drive was to make a power unit for all kinds of typewriters. The Northeast Electric Company actually built and sold 2500 of these power units to a typewriter company, where they were assembled on ordinary typewriters and marketed.

When an electrical drive was put on a machine it soon became apparent that the typewriter would require redesigning. The decision was made to design a typewriter primarily for power operation, and it was at this time that the Electromatic came into being. In 1928, when the General Motors Corporation purchased the Northeast Electric Company, the departments manufacturing the Electromatics did not go along in the transfer of ownership, but struck out with Rochester capital behind them to organize a new company under the same name of Electromatic Typewriters, Inc. The first model of Electromatic's new machine was completed on March 4, 1930. In 1933 Electromatic Typewriters became a division of IBM and immediately reaped many benefits from its association with this corporation. IBM's highly skilled engineering, educational and sales departments were instrumental in the continued steady growth of the Electric Typewriter Division.

Standard IBM Electric typewriter

Today's IBM Electric Typewriter, a completely new and modern product, brings to every user the advantages of speed, ease of operation, accuracy, reliability and beauty of work. The typist's versatility is increased because she is able to do all kinds of work, such as stencil writing and multiple copy work, with the minimum amount of effort. The appearance of the typewritten work is improved because, regardless of the operator's touch, each character strikes the paper evenly and uniformly.

The new IBM Electric Typewriter incorporates all the latest developments in electric typewriter engineering. Every movement is electrically powered and controlled from the keyboard. All working parts -- Carriage Return Key, Tab Key, Backspacer, Shift Keys and Space Bar -- operate electrically with instant and unfailing precision. Every key on the speed keyboard operates at a light, finger-flick touch.

The IBM Electric Typewriter takes the fatigue out of typing because it eliminates awkward, time-consuming operations -- tiring finger-travel over steep rows of keys, wasted effort in pounding the keys, uncertainties caused by impeded natural finger movements. And it puts within easy reach of all typists the essentials for developing typing technique and efficiency.

The IBM Electric Typewriter plays an integral role in the business world. The superior quality of work, and the increased speed with which this work is performed, have increased efficiency in business offices everywhere. Typists like the IBM Electric Typewriter because it is so easy to use and because the keyboard is ideally sloped for comfortable, relaxed operation.

IBM Executive electric typewriter

Embodying the revolutionary IBM spacing principle, the IBM Executive Electric Typewriter represents the most dramatic advance ever made in the typewriter industry.

This new and distinct type of letter spacing allows each letter or character the exact space it requires. On ordinary typewriters, a narrow letter such as "i" occupies the same space as a wide letter such as "m". The IBM spacing principle gives a new beauty to typing and makes it easy to read.

All the new and advantageous features of the Standard IBM Electric Typewriter are included in the IBM Electric Executive Typewriter. The Line Position Reset "locks out" the platen ratchet for variable line spacing and guarantees that the original spacing is resumed. The Four-Position Ribbon Control provides increased ribbon wear and economy while the Impression Indicator controls the force of the type blow. Carbon copy work is improved through the use of the Multiple Copy Control and margins are set and released from the keyboard. Every feature operates with electric ease and speed and is designed for the comfort and efficiency of the typist.

The IBM Executive Electric Typewriter is unsurpassed for executive correspondence. Letters prepared on this typewriter have a unique appearance and dignity that is truly representative of the most modern business office. The IBM spacing principle embodied in the Executive Typewriter makes possible preparation of copy with a straight right margin. By using the two- and three-unit space bars and typing the copy twice, a typist can prepare master copy for effective sales letters, bulletins, and booklets. Uniformity of impression on paper or metal plates, and on photographic masters, guarantees excellent reproductions. This booklet is a photo-offset reproduction of typing done on the IBM Executive Electric Typewriter.

The enthusiasm of IBM customers is evidence of the value of this machine -- for executive correspondence, statistical reports and statements, and masters for reproduction.

The typewriter today

The typewriter today is the most used piece of office equipment, and yet it is one of the last business machines to use electricity. IBM has pioneered the development of the Electric Typewriter to provide increased efficiency for the broadening requirements of modern business. IBM continued to set the trend in 1941 by revolutionizing the typewriter industry with the invention of the IBM Executive Electric Typewriter, embodying the IBM spacing principle. Ease, speed, and quality have always been the three dimensions of the IBM Electric Typewriter. With the advent of sound reducing features, the fourth dimension -- QUIET -- came into being.

The future will see additional IBM "firsts" because IBM engineers are seeking constantly to make typewriting easier, faster, quieter, and better than ever before.