Adapt And Prosper

A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.  ~ Chinese proverb

At a library fundraiser I attended this weekend, one of the re-enactors told me an interesting fact about antique sewing machines.  She said that Singer machines dated 1940-1945 are rare and highly collectible, because the company became largely an armaments manufacturer during World War II.  The conversation reminded of an article I recently came across, about another American company that survived, thrived and changed society by adapting to similar conditions.  It’s an interesting illustration of the power of entrepreneurial thinking – I hope you enjoy reading this excerpt.

How American industry changed post-Civil War American society

excerpt from America Inc: The 400-year history of American capitalism by Bhu Srinivasan. 

The best-known brands of the early Gilded Age were machine makers themselves. And for companies and their machines, adaptability seemed to be as vital to survival as it was for natural beings. For one company in the midst of an especially large revenue drop-off, salvation was found in a machine designed for the English language.

A Change in industry

In the years after the Civil War, even as the economy boomed, E. Remington & Sons saw its fortunes decline. The company made guns. Soldiers needed them and then, at war’s end, they didn’t. Based in the small town of Ilion, New York, Remington was one of many well-known gunmakers in the North. Following in the footsteps of Eli Whitney — who after his endless frustration in monetizing his cotton gin turned his mechanical genius to gun making — manufacturers in New England, including Samuel Colt, Smith & Wesson, and Remington gave the Union Army a decided advantage in arms. To meet the demands of war, the gunmakers became especially skilled machinists, using the latest in tooling techniques to make precision weapons. Seeing some synergy, an inventor approached E. Remington & Sons with a functional prototype of a new kind of machine for the written word.

Rather than propelling bullets through the air, the typewriter fired letters at paper. Developing the machine had been a long process. As with many inventions, a fortunate series of events needed to converge to create momentum for the final breakthrough. In this case, three men became inspired by an article about a theoretical writing machine in 1867. After repeated trial and error, they found an investor by demonstrating a functional prototype. After some frustration, two of the initial founders left, leaving the third, C. Latham Sholes, to develop the successful permutation: Each key, when pressed, caused a corresponding inked hammer to imprint the character on a piece of paper.

Up to that point, unlike printed works like newspapers, for which a typesetter set the individual letters by hand for the printing press, business correspondence had remained handwritten, prone to error, misinterpretation, and inefficiency. Seeing an opportunity to completely alter business communication, Remington took the prototype and, with its machinists and toolmakers, perfected the typewriter for market. Introduced in 1875, followed by a much bigger launch at the Centennial Celebrations in 1876, the Remington typewriter soon set the standard in offices across America, and Remington became a brand rather than a family manufacturer’s name.

It was to “the pen what the sewing machine is to the needle,” held a contemporary magazine. In the mid-1870s American sewing machine manufacturers, led by the Singer Manufacturing Company, were selling over 500,000 machines per year — a remarkable number considering that the overwhelming majority were for commercial use. While the sewing machine’s ease of use and contributions to efficiency were immediately obvious, the typewriter presented an obstacle: Few knew how to use it — making it inefficient compared with the pen due to its learning curve — and it wasn’t clear if typing was a skill that just anyone could develop.

By 1880 specialized typing schools had begun to offer training. Remarkably, even though the typewriter was destined for the office environment, a place where very few women had roles, the position of typist was open to both men and women from the very beginning. The profession drew in hundreds of women in major cities. With good typists in New York City making as much as $15 to $20 per week — nearly $1,000 per year — the pay was higher than that of many blue-collar men and that of women schoolteachers with years of education. “The excellent feature of this new profession for women,” read an account in a literary journal in the 1880s, was that “any bright girl in from three to six months may obtain sufficient facility with the typewriter to make herself valuable in an office.” As the telegraph office once had done in more limited form, the Remington became the machine that brought thousands of women into the modern office setting.    

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