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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Famous Texas Typists

by Clay Coppedge

If the little community of Valley Springs in rural Llano County is known for anything it's known as the birthplace of James Field Smathers, inventor of the electric typewriter. Smathers was born on a farm in Valley Springs in 1888 and got his early education there in a one-room schoolhouse. He enrolled at Texas Christian University in 1904 and left the state in 1908 to work as a typist, accountant, and credit manager for a firm in Kansas City, Missouri.

Smathers spent enough time with typewriters to recognize a need for faster and easier typing. He believed that electricity could make that happen. Others, including Thomas Edison, had the same idea but none of the first models were practical. Smathers worked on his idea for more than three years before receiving a patent for it in 1913. He improved that model, then shelved it to serve his country in World War I.

In 1920 he obtained an extension of his early patent and caught the attention of the Northeast Electric Company in Rochester, New York, which put Smathers' 1925 electric typewriter into production. In 1930 a Northeast Electric subsidiary, Electric Typewriters, Inc., came out with the Electromatic. The International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) bought the company in 1933, thus beginning the IBM Office Products Division.

The Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania awarded Smathers the Edward Longstreth Medal" in 1927 for ingenuity in the invention of the electric typewriter." In 1945, the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences awarded him a fellowship for his invention of a mechanism for proportional spacing. Back in Texas, TCU recognized Smathers as a "distinguished alumnus" in 1966, a year before his death.
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The electric typewriter made it possible to type faster but it did nothing to fix the typist's mistakes. The carbon-filled ribbons on the new electric models made it impossible to correct errors with an eraser, a situation that vexed typists everywhere. A Texas woman named Betty Nesmith Graham figured out a solution.

Graham was born in Dallas in 1924 and dropped out of high school to attend secretarial school. By the early 1950s she was working as an executive secretary for W.W. Overton, the Chairman of the Board of the Texas Bank and Trust. She liked her job but she didn't like having to retype entire pages because of a single error on the new electric typewriters. Graham found her inspiration in art, her first love.

"With lettering, an artist never corrects by erasing, but always paints over the error," she said in a later interview. "So I decided to use what artists use. I put some tempera water-based paint in a bottle and took my watercolor brush to the office. I used that to correct my mistakes."

Graham began selling it in 1956 as "Mistake Out," producing and bottling it from her home. Her son Michael and his friends pitched in by helping her fill the bottles. In 1958, she renamed a new improved product "Liquid Paper." Just as importantly she applied for a patent and trademark the following year and thus reaped the benefits and royalties from what became one of the most popular office products of the 20th century.

In 1979, she sold Liquid Paper to the Gillette Corporation for $47.5 million, plus a royalty on every bottle sold until the year 2000. She died in 1980, leaving half her fortune to her son and half to philanthropic organizations.

Her son, Michael Nesmith, was the lead guitarist for the Monkees in the 1960s and a co-star of the television series of the same name. He apparently inherited a flair for innovation from his mother. Post-Monkees, he helped pioneer the music video format and created one of the first American TV shows dedicated to music videos.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" October 11, 2023 column

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