Friday, October 22, 2010

(empo-tymshft) Smith Corona was not a beer

I spent Friday at the Training Day sponsored by the Southern California Chapter of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP). It was football-themed, so I wore my Washington Redskins shirt. And was from Jodi Walker, who discussed the many different ways that people communicate today. While she didn't spent a lot of time talking about the information overload issues that Louis Gray recently mentioned, she did talk about the generational differences in communication tools that were used.

And in the course of that conversation, she mentioned Smith Corona.

Now the people who primarily use SMS, rather than e-mail, to communicate may not have heard of Smith Corona. But I am very familiar with the company, for Smith Corona is a company. In fact, they manufactured a product that I took with me to college, and that was important to me - even more important than my boombox.

You see, in college I had to write a lot of papers, and I used my Smith Corona to do this. In fact, I even used my Smith Corona to create papers for others, which allowed me to make a little money on the side.

But even before I left college, the Smith Corona's days were numbered. The college that I attended, Reed College, had a thesis requirement, and I didn't relish using my Smith Corona to create a 100-plus page thesis.

For the Smith Corona, you see, was a typewriter. A fairly advanced typewriter for its day - not quite the Selectric, but still pretty nice. If you made a mistake while typing and caught it soon enough, you could use white ink to type over your mistake. But if you were on page 4 of your paper and found an error on page 2, it was a little more difficult to fix. And if you were on page 6 of your paper and discovered that you needed to insert or delete a paragraph on page 3, you had a lot of work ahead of you.

I could have typed my thesis, but I instead chose to use more advanced technology - namely, nroff on the college's PDP-11/70. (Today I can't remember whether I used the -mm or -ms macros.) This allowed me to create an editable text file, and to put commands in that file that allowed me my words and generate my thesis on a printer. And if I needed to make a change, I could electronically make the change and reprint the thesis.

Several years later I was in the working world, using tools such as Microsoft Word and FullWrite Professional to create 100-plus page user manuals, and my Smith Corona began to gather dust.

As did a lot of other Smith Coronas, as this 1995 New York Times article showed:

The Smith Corona Corporation, whose portable typewriters were an essential tool for generations of high school and college students, filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday, a victim of the computer revolution.

The company said it had decided to seek bankruptcy court protection in Delaware to stabilize its operations, obtain additional financing and carry out a restructuring plan.

Nearly five years later, Smith Corona filed for bankruptcy protection again. At that time, it became clear how the once-dominant brand had withered away:

The company stopped manufacturing products in 1997 and now has them made by third parties. It has about 40 employees in New York, California, Puerto Rico and the Netherlands.

Smith Corona is still a going concern in 2010 - its website is here. However, these days the only thing that they sell is typewriter/word processor ribbons.
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