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Saturday, 2 June 2012

Litton's Typewriter Empire: Its Rise and Fall

I am often asked about Litton Industries’ control of the Royal, Imperial, Adler and Triumph typewriter brands. Though this is relatively recent typewriter history, the exact sequence of events, their immediate impact and their full long-term implications for the typewriter industry are somewhat shrouded, and thus tend to these days intrigue typewriter collectors.
Litton’s business machinations, for whatever reason they were put in place at the time, have ensured that, even after a mere half-century, the path is quite hard to follow.
In many previous posts, such as those concerning the history of Triumph and Cole Steel typewriters, I have touched on the details of Litton’s takeovers. But evidence which emerged during a 1975-76 United States Court of Appeal case involving industrial relations at Royal’s US factories throws a little further light on the way Litton operated.
Let me say from the onset that it is a nightmare trying to fully untangle and expose Litton’s complete worldwide web of typewriter concerns.  We know that from the end of the 1960s, when it first became embroiled in industrial troubles at its US typewriter factories, Litton, in a non-too-veiled threat, told workers it had “at its disposal” typewriter plants in Germany, Japan, Holland and England.
While we also know many tens of thousands of portable typewriters were made for Litton in Japan, either by Nakajima or Silver-Seiko, we still don’t know for sure the years in which these partnerships existed and exactly who made what for whom and when.
Take, for example, these two almost identical Litton Royals, a 201 and a 203: same colour, the only discernible difference being the 203 has a ribbon colour selection switch, a touch control switch and a tabulator key. But the 201 was made by Nakajima for Triumph-Adler; the 203 by Nakajima for Royal-Imperial International. Confusing? That’s an understatement,
So first, here’s the easy part: some background on Litton Industries. The company was founded not by Sir Charles Litton, the “Phantom” character played by David Niven (below) in the early Pink Panther movies, but by plain old Charlie Litton senior (though that little moustache above a toothy smile means they do look vaguely alike!).
Charles Vincent Litton (below) was born in San Francisco on March 13, 1904. As a boy he experimented with radio technology at his home in Redwood City. Litton learned machining in the California School of Mechanical Arts of San Francisco and then attended Stanford University, from which he graduated with an BA in mechanical engineering in 1924 and electrical engineering in 1925.
In the 1920s he experimented with new techniques and materials for building vacuum tubes and built the first practical glass blowing lathe. He worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories from 1925-27, then moved back to California to work for the Federal Telegraph Company, heading tube engineering. When Federal was taken over and moved to New Jersey. Litton stayed in California. In 1932 he founded Litton Engineering Laboratories with his own savings. He held 65 patents on various high-tech innovations. At Frederick Terman's request, Litton helped Stanford build a tube research lab, and recruit David Packard to it.
During World War II, Litton took part in the design and production of microwave tubes used in communications and radar equipment. In 1941 he formed a partnership called Industrial and Commercial Electronics with Philip Scofield and Ralph Shermund.
Litton Industries was incorporated in 1947 to manufacture vacuum tubes and the machinery used to produce them. It was a rapidly growing concern, but lacked the necessary ready capital to sustain its growth. So Litton decided to divide to conquer. On August 3, 1952, he split off the glass lathe products, which became solely owned by Litton Engineering Laboratories. On November 4, 1953, Litton sold for $1.05 million in cash (with a $300,000 down payment, obtained from Wells Fargo Bank) the vacuum tube manufacturing portion to Electro Dynamics Corporation, which had been founded earlier in 1953 by Charles Bates "Tex" Thornton (below). Thornton got the rest of the money from Lehman Brothers and Clark Dodge.
In 1954, Electro Dynamics bought the rights to the name Litton Industries. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions orchestrated by Thornton, Beverly Hills-based Litton became a huge international conglomerate with a wide range of products.
Litton died in November 1972 in Carson City, Nevada, but was outlived by Litton Engineering Laboratories in Grass Valley.
Tex Thornton was born in Goree, Texas, on July 22, 1913.  After serving in World War II, he joined Ford Motor Company but left in 1948 to work for Hughes Aircraft. Thornton died in Los Angeles on November 24, 1981, but not before his “take no backward step … buy more companies” approach to business success had completely changed the face of the already floundering typewriter industry in the mid- to late-1960s.
Wim Van Rompuy Collection
In 1963, Litton’s business and equipment arm (Litton Business Systems) began to embrace typewriters when it acquired American office equipment firm Cole Steel, which was importing German-designed ABC typewriters made in the Messa-Maquinas de Escrever SARL factory at Mem Martins  outside Lisbon in Portugal. From 1967, Lipton had Royal and Imperial Safaris and Sabres, plus a Cole Vanguard, made there, as well as such models as the Imperial 2002, based on a Portuguese design.
Royal Safari, Shannon L.Johnson Collection
Royal Sabre, Alan Seaver Collection
Cole Vanguard, Shannon L.Johnson Collection
Imperial 2002, Robert Messenger Collection
In December 1964, Litton Industries' stockholders approved the acquisition of Royal McBee. The deal, worth $30 million in inflated common Litton stock, became final in March 1965 – Royal at the time had an understated book value of $18.5 million, despite revenue of $113.6 million in 1964. Litton changed the name of Royal McBee back to the Royal Typewriter Company. In 1967, the assets of Royal McBee were merged into Litton Business Systems and reorganised into five divisions: Royal Typewriter, Roytype Consumer Products, Roytype Supplies, McBee Systems and RMB.
Thornton, however, had no intention of ploughing many more millions into research and development to make the product more competitive, instead setting out on a course of buying more typewriter brands in order to meld designs, technologies and product lines.
In October 1966, Litton announced it would acquire Imperial through its Royal Typewriter division, creating Royal-Imperial International. Imperial appears to have made its last independently-designed portable typewriter, the Messenger, in Hull in 1964.
The first Imperial portable to emerge under Litton’s control was the plastic Model 1000, which owes its mechanics to Halberg in Holland, with what is probably an American-designed casing. This was also made as a Royal Quiet De Luxe, Royalite and the Royal Skylark, and first appeared in 1965.
In 1968, Imperial produced a Concord, the design of which, like the Model 1000, suggests a connection with the “Euro Portable Family”, especially those branches of it in France (Japy-Beaucourt) and on the Iberian Peninsula. The keys and case confirm the Concord is, indeed, a duplicate of the Beaucourt Message/Japy Gazelle.
Imperial Concord
Beaucourt (Japy) Message
Certainly, through its many and various acquisitions, Litton’s tentacles were reaching far.
On January 3, 1969, Litton Industries purchased Triumph-Adler, bringing under its umbrella 118,000 typewriter employees worldwide, all within the one conglomerate. At this point, it placed Royal-Imperial International under the Triumph-Adler wing, basing Royal-Imperial International in Frankfurt, Adler’s hometown, but having machines such as Royal and Imperial typewriters and calculators made in Japan.
The reasons for this remain unclear. However, the exercise began to weigh on Litton, because Royal’s typewriter production and sales woes in the US eventually sent Triumph-Adler into the red, leaving the whole Litton typewriter enterprise seriously exposed.
The "Made in Western Germany" claim is dubious to say the least
Almost immediately after the Triumph-Adler acquisition, the US government, believing the favourable publicity about Litton’s growing typewriter empire, filed an anti-trust suit against Litton, accusing it of creating a monopoly. The US Federal Trade Commission ruled in March 1973 that Litton had violated Section 7 of the Clayton Act and had to divest itself of Triumph-Adler. But Litton appealed and, in a rare reversal, the FTC issued a ruling on March 4, 1975, stating that Litton could keep Triumph-Adler
On January 7 of that same year, the Royal Typewriter Company, an unincorporated division under president Robert F.Stewart, went up against the US National Labor Relations Board and the Allied Industrial Workers of America in an unfair labour practice proceeding in the United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit.  The matter was decided on March 31, 1976, and a rehearing was denied on April 29, 1976. The judges were Senior Circuit Judge Harvey M. Johnsen and circuit judges Roy Laverne Stephenson and William Hedgcock Webster.
Royal's Springfield factory
Litton was found to have committed certain unfair labour practices in connection with contract negotiations at Royal's Springfield, Missouri, manual portable and electric typewriter plant, following a dispute starting in December 1968. The plant employed 1091 workers.
After a strike, Royal announced on March 28, 1969, it would transfer production of electric portables (the Apollo) to its main typewriter plant at Hartford, Connecticut, and on April 23 it announced the permanent closure of the Springfield plant, citing “excess capacity and price deterioration”. The Royal plant and equipment were sold but two plants continued to be operated by Litton divisions in the Springfield area.
At the time of the industrial action, Litton told workers that it had typewriter plants at its disposal in Germany (Adler in Frankfurt), Japan (Silver-Seiko in Kashiwazaki, Niigata and Nakajima ALL in Sakaki, Nagano) , Holland (the old Halberg factory in Leiden, seen below), England (Imperial’s factories in Leicester and Hull) and West Hartford and Newington, Connecticut.
Royal's Leiden factory in Holland
The Roytype division factory in West Hartford
After Litton took over Triumph-Adler, it was  expected that “the new line of German typewriters” would be transferred from Frankfurt and made in Springfield, but the Federal Trade Commission ruling temporarily prevented this from happening. Despite this ruling being reversed, the transfer to the US appears not to have taken place. Instead, production of almost all Litton typewriters became centred on Japan.

A Nakajima Royal Firebird
From 1973, virtually all, if not all, Litton Industries portable typewriters were being made in Japan. As we have seen from a previous post, on Smith-Corona-Marchant, the cost of the production of portable typewriters in Japan was way below that which SCM, or any other brand, could manage in Britain, Holland or Portugal. SCM elected to fight Brother in the US courts on the anti-dumping laws, claiming Brother typewriters were being sold below cost price. But Litton took another approach – it went down the “if you can’t beat them, join them” path. By doing this, and having portable typewriters produced in massive bulk in Japan, Litton could market them even below the cost of a Brother, and certainly below Olivetti.
In October 1977, Australian consumer magazine Choice evaluated 59 portable manual typewriters.
The suggested retail price of Brothers ranged from $89.50 (M700) to $185,50 (M762TR); Adlers from $99.95 (Tippa) to $228 (Gabriele 35); Hermes from $99.50 for a plastic Baby (Olivetti Lettera 82, made in Brazil) to $295 for a 3000; Olivettis from $135 for a Lettera 32 to $210 for a Studio 46; Olympias from $119 for a Traveller De Luxe to $335 for an SM9; and SCMs from $75 for a cut price Corsair to $259 for a Classic 12. A Maritsa 11 cost $99 and a Maritsa 22 $119.
Silver-Seiko Royal
Compare these figures with the Litton models - $85 for a Royal or Imperial 201 to $109 for a Royal or Imperial 204. The magazine actually got its Royal 201 for $63! The Japanese could put a Nakajima Chevron on the market for $59.50, a Nakajima Kmart for $58,86, a Silver-Seiko Sears Achiever for $79.99 and a Silver-Seiko Silverette for $79.
To rub salt into these wounds, Choice ranked the Royals up there beside the Brothers, Olivettis and Olympias as among “the best ones for quality of typing”.
Nakajima Royal 200
Will Davis on his Portable Typewriter Reference Site suggests Litton’s production in Japan started as early as 1965 – certainly Nakajima started making portable typewriters in May 1965, and Silver-Seiko the following year. Given these were English language keyboard machines, they were no doubt almost exclusively for export. Will says Litton’s arrangement with Silver-Seiko lasted until 1974. He suggests Nakajima, which had had a similar arrangement with Olympia, started making Royals when Litton no longer owned Royal, but as this was not until 1979, I think it unlikely. My estimate would be that Nakajima, as well as Silver-Seiko, was making Royals and Imperials (and later Triumphs and Adlers) from at least 1970-71. Wilf Beeching in Century of the Typewriter dates the first Japanese Imperials from 1967.
Nakajima Imperial 200
It is interesting to note that Dutch typewriter production continued into this late 1960s period. As for Litton-owned Imperial, it seems to have maintained operations at least in Leicester if not Hull until 1974.
In 1979 Triumph-Adler, financially weakened by its attachment to Royal, was taken over by Volkswagen AG and in April 1986, Olivetti purchased Triumph-Adler and Royal (including Imperial) from Volkswagen. In September 2004, Royal became a private American company again, known as Royal Consumer Information Products Inc


maschinengeschrieben said...

Very informative article - brings some light into the dark of Litton history. Thanks!

Rob Bowker said...

Mind boggling. I sit and look at my pre-war Royals, my late Tippa and Imperial siblings. Little did they know. Great bit of research, Robert, and thanks for sharing it.

Uriel said...

Excellent post. I like the factory´s photos.

notagain said...

WOW! This is the post I've been waiting for, and I knew you were the one to tackle it. I'd love to have watched as you traced the path. Thanks for doing this one. I also liked the comparison with all the prices.

Bill M said...

Thank you for the excellent post. I don't know how you do it, but I really like all the information you post. This one on Royal is sure to become one of my favorites.

Scott Kernaghan said...

Once again, excellent research. I'm guessing you're amassing material for a book here... Surely?

Many of the people that worked in these manufacturing plants must be around still. Individuals on their first jobs, admin staff, designers etcetera surely still have memories and knowledge about these places. I'd love to hear from them.

This is also very interesting, given that we are seeing the computer industry stagnate in a pool of cheaply manufactured clones, rip-offs and generic re-badged models. While massive companies flounder with under-funded research and development.

History seems to repeat again and again in the corporate world, while we pay company directors millions to make these mistakes.

sye said...

Hi, I just purchased an Imperial 200 almost exactly like the one in the picture, do you know where I can get more information about this model? Like when was it made and where? Thanks!

Robert Messenger said...

Hi Sye. If you read the post you will see it was made by Nakajima in Japan,
could be any time between the mid 60s and late 70s. This blog has plenty of details about Nakajima typewriters.

wakewaterblue said...

So I have just purchased an Imperial 2002. Can we establish exactly what years these were produced? I can see on your research this may have been late 60's but if anyone knows the exact dates that would be great thanks

Robert Messenger said...

May have been?

Fred said...

I've got a Royal 203 - based on your article I can guess this would have been made between 1969 and 1977 but do you happen to have an exact year (or can you narrow it down a bit)?

Robert Messenger said...

Sorry Fred, there's no way of knowing with Silver-Seiko serial numbers. My guess would be closer to 1974 than 1969. It's probably one of the later Silver-Seiko Royals, I'd say. If you look at my recent Imperial posts (part 4), you will see Silver-Seiko stopped making typewriters for Litton around 1974. Nakajima took over after that.

Robert Messenger said...

Actually, now that I look at the Imperial post again, that Royal 203 in my Litton post is a Nakajima, so it's 1974 or later.

Lou Ann said...

My father worked at Royal McBee in Springfield Mo. From what I understand two men dropped dead carrying out barrels from that plant. My father died at the age of 40 from pancreatic cancer. I have often wondered if working at that plant had anything to do with his premature death.