Magazine article Management Review

Technology, Tenacity, and Training

Magazine article Management Review

Technology, Tenacity, and Training

Article excerpt


Consider the common typewriter. Although this machine and its word-processing offspring are indespensable office tools, this was not always so. The typewriter's early history is instructive, for the path it traveled to the marketplace was difficult and exceedingly long.

The first patent for an "artificial machine...for the impressing...of letters" was issued in 1714 in Great Britain. Over a century later, the first such American patent was granted. For a variety of reasons, neither of these inventions went anywhere.

Much later, in 1867, Milwaukee's Christopher Sholes--working with two partners--developed the forerunner of the modern office typewriter. After five more years and 30 experimental models, this invention was reengineered to be more user-friendly and--equally important--manufacturable. Yet no company seemed willing to produce such an impractical new contraption. Luckily, gunmaker E. Remington & Sons, desperate to find new products and markets in the post-Civil War era, finally agreed to manufacture a few machines--but only if the inventors would absorb all financial risk. Even this cautious commitment would not have come about but for the tenacious championship and deft salesmanship of Sholes' entrepreneurial partners. Last year Cynthia Monaco described their struggles in the magazine American Heritage of Invention & Technology.

More than 150 years elapsed between the invention of the typewriter and the first, limited production of a much-improved machine. But this was far from the last hurdle; although the product finally had moved from laboratory to factory, it simply had no market. Social customs of the mid-1870s militated against mechanically produced letters replacing handwritten ones. The machine remained essentially a novelty, appealing only to the curious, despite major promotional efforts. Even after the purchase of one by the internationally celebrated Mark Twain, the typewriter apparently had no future. Its inventors had depleted their savings, and Remington was on the verge of collapse. It wasn't until the 1880s that the typewriter finally achieved acceptance--20 years after Sholes developed it.


Studying the slow-motion introduction of the typewriter, we note certain key elements: innovation, championship, risk, market feedback, adaptation, promotion--and tenacity. An invention has no economic weight without a practical purpose, and unless this purpose is understood by potential users, it has no market. The typewriter was a weighty invention that eventually created great social change. It helped many women leave the world of domestic work and enter the business community; it created economic change through its effect on productivity; and it influenced the direction of computer design.

Useful products stem from good ideas, effectively harnessed and exploited. The problem is not the lack of technology but the gap in the knowledge of how to make technology useful to potential customers. A successful, marketable idea may be a simple one. For example, 3M's Post-it(TM) self-stick notepaper quickly has become an indispensable office tool for informal, prompt communication. The story of its development is widely known: A technologist developed a poorly behaving adhesive in the late 1960s. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.