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Thursday, 7 June 2012

The First Royal Portable Typewriter: 90 Years Ago Today

It was on this day in 1922 that Edward Bernard Hess and Lewis Cary Myers were issued with the patent for what would become the first Royal portable typewriter.
That fact alone is extraordinarily interesting – because the typewriter itself did not appear on the market until late September 1926, more than four years later.
What happened in the interim? Well, Remington’s first portable happened, that’s what happened, Remington produced the first four-bank portable at the end of 1920, just a month or so before Hess and Myers applied the patent for their Royal portable.
Ed B.Hess
Lewis C.Myers
Massive sales of the Corona 3 immediately after World War I – 81,000 in 1919 and another 91,000 in 1920 – had finally made all the other major US typewriter makers sit up and take notice. A vast and flourishing market for portables was opening up before their very eyes. And Corona was not just dominating it – Corona was really the only player in it.
First Underwood responded, in late January 1919, digging out Lee Spear Burridge’s brilliant design dating from the year of his death, 1915, and making its own three-bank, but one which didn’t rely on a folding carriage for its compactness.
Remington, meanwhile, had a team led by John Henry Barr and including Arthur J. Briggs working feverishly on what would emerge as a portable with a folding device of its own - of sorts: a typebasket which lifted into position for typing.
Until now, we’ve all assumed Royal just sat back and followed these developments. Indeed, it has been suggested that Hess and Myers, smarting from what is perceived to have been a market failure with the Royal flatbed, had decided to concentrate their efforts on standard-sized machines (the Model 10 was launched in 1914).
Not so, it transpires. Hess and Myers were far from content to let Corona, Underwood and Remington have the portable market to themselves. They, too, were working on a portable.
Trouble is, Royal’s four-bank concept, a portable with all the features of a standard-sized machine, was just a little too close for comfort to what Remington had produced in 1920. Remington simply got in ahead of Hess and Myers.
Still, when the Royal portable did reach the market in late 1926, it was, in shape and size, significantly different again from the Remington. Importantly, it had no folding devices, yet was much bigger than the Underwood 3. But small, flat, compact portables had remained in vogue in the early 1920s.
Hess and Myers obviously decided to bide their time. This gave them breathing space to work on their portable. But the basics for it had been laid down in 1921. In their specifications, Hess and Myers had written:
“The object of this invention is to provide  a small, compact, light and portable typewriting machine containing a complement of the essential parts of a standard, full-sized machine for ordinary writing, in which the writing is always visible, and which shall be at the same time strong, durable and easy to operate and in other respects efficient.
“In carrying out our invention, we obtain these objects by embodying in the new machine as many as possible of the valuable and thoroughly tested features of the Royal typewriting machine, making such alterations as to adapt them to a portable machine of the kind above referred to.
“We employ sheet metal and drawn stock to a very large extent in the construction of the machine, in order to make the mechanism both strong and durable as well as light and compact. We use the full number of keys in the keyboard, arranged in four banks, as in most standard machines; efficient mechanism is provided for shifting and locking the platen for upper and lower case printing; devices are used for "back-spacing" when desired; efficient line lock devices are used; the margin stops are adjustable as heretofore, and means is provided for releasing the margin stops at any desired point in the travel of the carriage; the ribbon is automatically vibrated and fed from one spool to another, and means is used to shift the ribbon- winding mechanism from one spool to the other.
“When a bicrome ribbon is employed, it may be shifted to print in either colour or the ribbon may be entirely disconnected from the winding mechanism. The most approved mechanism for feeding the paper to the platen is used, and novel mechanism is employed for controlling the feed of the paper so that the printing may be done with either single or double spaces,
“The new machine also embodies other desirable features common to the best machines in use as well as others which contribute to the ease of operation arid the performance of the best quality of work.”
Amazingly intricate detail is contained in the 34 pages of the Hess and Myers
Royal portable patent of 1922
It can be seen from the original patent drawings that Hess and Myers made minor modifications to their portable over the ensuing five years. The carriage lever became longer and was positioned further back beside the platen, the top section retained the sloped edges but became a different shape, and the shift keys moved back from being down either side the spacebar. The margin release also moved to the left side. It appears the paper plate was to be one piece going under the platen, and to have a gauge set into it. There were no doubt many other obscure technical changes, but this is essentially the portable that Royal produced in 1926.
The big question in 1926, of course, was how Royal, having given Corona, Underwood and Remington such a big start in the portable market, was going to be competitive. It was a slow start in 1927, but the next year Royal sold 50,000 of the Model 0s, in 1929 58,000 and in 1930 136,000. By 1947, close to 1.4 million Royal portables had been sold, making Royal the market leader going into the 1950s. Royal had certainly caught up fast.
More significantly for typewriter collectors and historians, however, was that the Hess-Myers Royal design was enormously influential. Almost immediately after its release, Corona brought out its four-bank, something it had been working on for nine years. Underwood quickly followed suit, then Remington, too, went larger and boxier. By the mid-1930s, US portable typewriters were out on their own in design; they had left the small, flat, compact lightweights well behind them.
But how did Royal make up so much lost ground so quickly? The answer to that question is contained in one name: George Edmund Smith.
George Ed Smith’s marketing strategies are entertainingly outlined in Bruce Bliven Jr’s 1954 The Wonderful Writing Machine, commissioned by Royal to mark its 50th anniversary.
Smith, born on January 1, 1879, in Tainter, Dunn County, Wisconsin, went from a Chicago typewriter salesman in 1900 to a Royal company accountant in 1910 to being the company’s vice-president in 1914, aged just 35. By 1920, he was also first vice-president of the Bankers’ Union for Foreign Commerce and Finance, a New York director of the Asia Banking Corporation and a director and past president of the American Manufacturing Export Association. At age 41, he was already a very rich man. By March 1929, the newspapers were calling him a multi-millionaire.
But after masterminding the launch of the Royal portable on the market in 1926, Smith’s fall from grace was even quicker than his rise to fame and fortune had been.
In 1924 Smith started having an affair with tall, slim blond called Helen C. Meade. Smith’s wife found out about it and in March 1929 counter-sued the couple, seeking $500,000 from Meade for “stealing” her husband.
The adverse publicity of Mrs Mary E. Smith’s alienation suit resulted in Smith being immediately fired by Royal from his $50,000-a-year job as company president. Within a year he was divorced, out of work and being looked after by a nurse, Mary E.Burky, and two young German servants, Kent and Dorothy Horstmann, in Hempstead, Nassau, New York. Smith did marry Helen, leaving all he had left to her when he died at 28 Wildwood Drive, Kennilworth, Great Neck, Nassau, on March 3, 1936, aged just 57. He’d gained a new wife but presumably lost a very large slice of the fortune he’d amassed from annual earnings, including royalties, of $200,000, and his Royal company stock holdings worth $1.25 million, not to mention his mansion on Cedar Drive, Great Neck.
Hess and Myers outlived him. Hess died, aged 83, in 1941 and Myers, aged 84, 10 years later.
Smith had not only lived the high life while he could: his marketing genius in launching the Royal portable led to him becoming regarded in the US as something of a master salesman, a guru. One publication wrote, “The author [Smith] does not base his judgment on theories alone, either, for he has come right up through selling from a road salesman’s job to the presidency of the Royal Typewriter Company, and he is a former president of the Salesmanship Club of New York City.”
It no doubt helped Smith’s success that in the Royal portable typewriter, he had one excellent product to sell. Will Davis describes it as “a well engineered product from the start … High quality from the outset ensured that the Royal portables would be held in high esteem for many years.”
As British typewriter historian Richard Milton points out, it was also so tough it could withstand almost anything – as proved by Smith’s airdrops. Richard writes, “Perhaps being late to market assisted the Royal design team for, with its 1926 portable,  the designers had learned from their competitors to arrive at the basic format and design that would stay with portable typewriters  for the next 50 years. Almost every one of the designers' decisions was confirmed by the Underwood four-bank portable launched in the same year and looking uncannily similar.” 
It has been especially pleasing for me to track down the original patents for Burridge’s Underwood 3, Barr’s Remington portable and now the Hess and Myers Royal portable.
I remain intrigued by what I call the “14-year cycle” of advances in portable typewriter design. First the Blickensderfer 5 of 1893, then 14 years later, in 1907, the Standard Folding (which tuned into the Corona 3). Then 14 years after that, in 1921, the Remington and, as it now turns out, the Royal portables. Another 14 years down the track (1935) and the Hermes Featherweight emerged. Finally, after another 14 years (1949), the ultimate portable, the Olivetti Lettera 22, was launched (followed 14 years later, in 1963, by the Lettera 32). And what of 1977? Or 1991? Umm …
*This sequence excludes the Underwood 3, which was distinctly a one-off and not a design followed by other manufacturers. But then I suppose the same could be said of the Blick!
Herman Price Collection
Martin Collection, above and below
Richard Milton Collection


Rob Bowker said...

Mr Smith's antics almost make you think the typewriter was incidental to the marketing genius. But we still love those colours! Thanks for the enlightening rundown.

trent reker said...

your informative posts are really wonderful. imagine a computer lasting "from kindergarten through college."

my royal portables (favorite is the 1935 deluxe) are practically eternal, rivaling the great monuments created many millennia before.

i'll see your pyramid and raise you a remington model 1.

Ken Coghlan said...

Awesome and very informative article. Gives me a whole new respect for Royal Portables. Can you imagine watching typewriters fall from the sky? Must have been an amazing thing to see, let alone seeing them function properly directly afterwards.

Cameron said...

Fascinating history & post. I am struck by the similarities in design between these Royal portables and the larger Model 10; same sort of lines surrounding the ribbon spools.

Robert Messenger said...

Thank you Rob, Trent, Ken and Cameron.
Rob, also a thanks for the tip-off about the Facit.
Cameron, that's an excellent observation. Hess and Myers do emphasise in their patent that they want to "embody in the new machine as many as possible of the valuable and thoroughly tested features of the Royal typewriting machine [ie 10], making such alterations as to adapt them to a portable machine".
By the way, did you ever get my email about your Underwood?
Trent, excellent words.
Ken, I'm relieved you saw the light side of taking typewriters on honeymoons!

Anonymous said...

My maternal grandfather was George Ed Smith's nephew. Since George Ed Smith was friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, he was at George's estate quite often (present at the nearly constant parties there). That's where my grandfather met F. Scott and his wife, back in about 1923. Boy, did my grandfather have stories to tell about all of that!