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The History of the Folding Corona

The Standard Folding Typewriter and its successor, the Corona No.3, were the must-have, high-tech gadgets of the early 1900s. They were the first portable typewriters to feature type bars and print that was visible to the user—both key selling points of expensive, office-oriented typewriters of the turn of the century. The little folding typewriters were relatively affordable, simple to use, elegantly designed, and built for any adventure. Launched in 1908, they were extremely successful and came to represent one of the most important chapters in the history of technology.

To appreciate the Standard Folding Typewriter, it is helpful to understand the years leading up to its launch. In the two decades following the introduction of the first commercially successful typewriter in 1874, there were a wide variety of entrants to the typewriter market. Everyone wanted a stake in the growing industry. Indeed, fortunes were won and lost in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, but the most successful companies manufactured large, desktop typewriters. Portable typewriters were primarily index typewriters, which required users to select a single letter—usually from a wheel—and then imprint that letter before moving to the next. Though considerably cheaper than desktop models, portable typewriters were inefficient since they lacked keyboards.

Sensing an opportunity to bring a better portable typewriter to the market, George Blickensderfer launched the Blickensderfer No. 5 at Chicago World’s Fair in 1893—about two decades after the first commercially-successful typewriter hit the market. The No. 5 was the first full-keyboard, portable typewriter. It was a brilliant machine and enjoyed modest success. However, it differed significantly from the industry leaders: it employed a type wheel and ink roller to print characters onto a page instead of type bars and a ribbon. The Blickensderfer Company framed this as an advantage, because it let users change type styles and languages on the fly. In practice, however, the No. 5 was not as smooth as the high-end typewriters that businessmen had come to appreciate. It is also worth noting that Blickensderfer’s typewriters often had an unusual DHIATENSOR keyboard instead of a QWERTY keyboard, which only served to confuse those users who had become accustomed to the dominant QWERTY arrangement that is still in use today.

In 1902, a New Yorker named Franklin (Frank) Sebastian Rose began working on his own portable typewriter design. Significantly, his typewriter design included a full keyboard—like Blickensderfer’s typewriters—and type bars that enabled the machine to function in a manner similar to the day’s best-selling typewriters. It was the best of both worlds: the portability of a Blickensderfer typewriter coupled with the smooth mechanics and type bars of a high-end office typewriter.

Rose’s first step beyond the initial design stage was to apply for patents. Typewriter companies were notoriously litigious, so securing intellectual property was essential to building a successful business. Despite serious illness, he applied for and was granted the patents to protect his designs. The final necessary patent was issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1903. Unfortunately, Rose passed away a little more than a year later, but thankfully his idea lived on.

Within a year and a half of Frank’s passing, his son George secured funding to bring his father’s portable typewriter to market. With the legal assistance and financial backing of Marshman Williams Hazen, a prominent Wall Street attorney, George formed the Rose Typewriter Company in 1906. Given that Hazen provided so much capital—several million dollars when adjusted for inflation—he became the president of the new company. Within a month of formally starting the new company, Hazen interviewed and hired a young Swiss engineer named Otto Peterman as a drill press operator. Peterman would become a central figure in the evolution of the company. Rose and Peterman spent 1907 perfecting prototypes, leasing factory space, and hiring employees.

In March 1908, production of the Rose Typewriter Company’s first portable typewriter finally commenced at a loft factory in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. The machine was officially named the Standard Folding Type-Bar Visible Writing Typewriter. Though a lengthy name, it accurately described the key selling points of the new portable and identified how it differed from Blickensderfer’s typewriters. In the first year of production, the company produced about a thousand typewriters.

What exactly happened next has been the subject of some confusion. Many accounts claim that New York State Senator Benn Conger noticed a young lady using a new Standard Folding Typewriter on a train, and he was so intrigued that he resolved to acquire whatever company manufactured such clever typewriters. In fact, the principal investor in the Rose Typewriter Company—Wall Street attorney Marshman Hazen—fell ill and wanted to divest of his interest in the company. Rose needed someone else to take Hazen’s leadership role, so Rose established a relationship with Senator Benn Conger through a mutual friend, William Grant Rhodes, who was an associate of Hazen. Rhodes and Conger shared Groton, New York as a hometown, and the Conger family had been involved with the manufacturing of Crandall typewriters in Groton. Rhodes may have recognized the manufacturing potential in Groton and the Conger family’s interest in reentering the manufacturing business. A trade publication announced the sale of the Rose Typewriter Company and characterized the buyers as “men of almost unlimited wealth and wide influence.” Indeed, the consortium of investors contributed an enormous sum to the business venture.

During the summer of 1909, Conger and his well-heel associates formed the Standard Typewriter Company and acquired the Rose Typewriter Company—along, of course, with all of its intellectual property. While it may seem surprising that Rose cashed out after only a year of production, his stake was worth nearly $5 million when adjusted for inflation. It seems likely that Rose wanted to ensure his widowed mother would live comfortably, and it is also possible that Rose wanted to divest prior to getting married later in the same year. Even after his sale of his company, there is evidence that Rose remained involved with the company, and he continued filing for additional typewriter-related patents.

Contemporary observers noted that it was interesting the name of the new company was the Standard Typewriter Company instead of the Standard Folding Typewriter Company, which would have reflected the name of its popular machine. There was speculation that the name choice suggested the new owners’ intent to broaden their product line to include larger typewriters—or, at least, non-folding typewriters. In fact, patents indicate the company did explore creating a larger typewriter to produce alongside its folding portable. However, while that may well have been the reasoning behind the new name, the Standard Typewriter Company continued manufacturing only folding typewriters for the next fifteen years.

Upon acquiring the typewriter startup, Conger assumed the role of president of the Standard Typewriter Company and began transitioning its manufacturing operations more than 200 miles from New York City to his hometown of Groton over the course of late 1909 and early 1910. In the meantime, production in Manhattan continued while the new factory was being outfitted in Groton. The company set up shop in a 78,600 square-foot, Conger-owned building that previously housed the Groton Carriage Works. Surely there was excitement and optimism stirring in the town of Groton upon the arrival of a high-tech typewriter company to replace the old, shuttered carriage factory.

Incremental changes were made to the Standard Folding Typewriter when its manufacturing shifted to Groton. The No. 2 model began production around this time—in November 1910—and included both shift keys on the left side of the keyboard instead of one on each side, as the No. 1 model featured. In addition, folding arms were switched from aluminum to steel, and a ribbon vibrator was added. The updated machine sold very well, and a trade publication reported the factory was “literally swamped with orders for the clever little machine.” Perhaps the flood of orders wasn’t too surprising, as sales offices were popping up all around the country and abroad, including one with an office on Broadway in the heart of Times Square. Output had to be doubled to keep up with increasing demand; the factory was operating around the clock, six days a week.

In the meantime, Otto Peterman, the Swiss engineer hired by Hazen in 1907, began prototyping and patenting a No. 3 model as soon as the No. 2 launched. The No. 3 included substantial changes compared to the relatively subtle improvements between the No. 1 and No. 2 models. Instead of an unpainted aluminum body, the new No. 3 was painted in a beautiful, glossy black paint and given a sleek, rounded body. It also included an improved escapement, a new ball bearing carriage, and an improved paper table and paper fingers. It was a stunning, well-engineered typewriter.

Prior to launch, however, the company realized that it was encountering an issue with sales abroad. The name of its product—the Standard Folding Typewriter—did not translate well in some foreign markets. Keeping the English name in foreign markets wasn’t working, either, because it proved too difficult to pronounce. Moreover, the name itself was somewhat confusing even in English. The concept of a “standard” typewriter may have evoked images of desktop typewriters used in offices. Turning to the drawing board, the company drew from Latin roots and settled on the name “Corona”—meaning crown—and used this new name for sales everywhere. Thus, the company’s third iteration of its portable typewriter became officially known as the Corona No. 3. However, instead of a clean break from its old name, the Corona No. 3 included “Standard Folding Typewriter” in parenthesis beneath a prominent Corona logo on the face of the machine—apparently to assuage concerns that customers may not recognize the updated machines.

Launched in February 1912, the Corona No. 3 was an instant hit. Sales immediately soared. The factory in Groton was inundated with orders. In the No. 3’s first year, production exceeded the company’s first four years combined. Two years later, in May 1914, the No. 3 was selling so well that the Standard Typewriter Company decided to fully embrace the Corona name; it rebranded as the Corona Typewriter Company. By 1916, annual sales had doubled since the launch of the No. 3, and more than 27,000 units were sold that year. Business was booming, and the world couldn’t get enough of the little folding typewriters. The outbreak of World War I further accelerated demand. The British and French armies—requiring small, portable typewriters for field communications—placed substantial orders for Corona No. 3 typewriters, and between 1917-1919, the company produced approximately 175,000 units—a staggering number in comparison to any other manufacturer.

The No. 3’s success surely would have attracted competitors to enter the portable typewriter market, but the companies best positioned to design a competing product—namely, Remington and Underwood—were engaged in manufacturing efforts for the War. Corona essentially had the portable typewriter market cornered from 1908 through the early 1920s. These were the glory days of the Standard Folding Typewriter and the Corona No. 3.

In October 1920, the Remington Typewriter Company finally began producing its first portable, and it was a four-bank (i.e., four-row keyboard) model that sold very well. Corona did not have a four-bank offering at the time. In addition, the Underwood Typewriter Company began selling a three-bank portable in in 1920, which was even more of a direct competitor to the Corona No. 3. After churning out nearly half a million Corona No. 3 typewriters since 1912, it was time for Corona to innovate and evolve its product. In October 1922, Corona introduced an “Improved Model 3” featuring an enlarged frame that made room for dual shift keys on the right side of the keyboard as well. Prior to this change, a touch typist did not have a key on which to rest his right pinky finger unless he purchased a separately-sold “rest key.” The new design was certainly an improvement, but competitors were already eating into Corona’s share of the portable typewriter market.

It turned out that the Improved Model 3 wasn’t enough of a change to keep up with consumer preferences, so Corona launched a completely new four-bank, non-folding typewriter in March 1924, and production of the Improved Model 3 declined. However, Corona’s line of folding typewriters managed to live on.

Perhaps sensing diversification as an imperative for future success, Corona merged in 1926 with another successful typewriter manufacturer—L.C. Smith & Brothers, which was an industry leader in office typewriters. The name of the new company was L.C. Smith & Corona Typewriters, Inc. Smith-Corona eventually grew into one of the most well-known companies in the world, and it continued producing typewriters and word processors into the late 1980s. Interestingly, the company still exists today, though it only makes thermal labels.

In the year following the merger, L.C. Smith & Corona began producing a “Corona Special,” which was essentially the Improved Model 3 with colorful design variations, including the bold options of green, blue, and red. Additional variations allowed for “dead keys” which were useful for a number of foreign languages. However, the four-bank, non-folding Corona 4 continued as the company’s best-selling portable into the late 1920s and the company introduced even nicer portables during the 1930s. The Corona 4 was offered in a dozen beautiful colors, and it was only $10 more expensive than the folding Corona. It is not difficult to understand why most customers opted for the Corona 4 over the folding Corona by the 1930s. Production of folding Coronas continued declining.

When war broke out in Europe in the fall of 1939, the world began buckling down for another world war. Supply chains were strained, and factories began shifting toward wartime manufacturing needs. The folding Corona typewriters finally ceased production in 1941, and the final folding Coronas were assembled from parts by a company in Philadelphia. After an incredible thirty-three year run that spanned the first five decades of the twentieth century, the story of the most successful manual typewriter in history finally came to an end.

In retrospect, the Standard Folding and Corona No. 3 typewriters were embraced by consumers because the machines were simple to use, portable, and featured a standard keyboard with visible type. They were the forerunners to countless other portable typewriters produced in the twentieth century. In fact, one could argue that Frank Rose’s portable typewriter was the starting point for many modern gadgets like laptops and perhaps even smartphones. Rose understood the potential in having personal writing machines in the hands of consumers. Indeed, Rose was a visionary ahead of his time, and the success of his folding typewriters stands as a testament to his brilliance.

Acknowledgements & Resources:

Robert Messenger, OzTypewriter Blog, accessible here.

Richard Milton, The Portable Typewriters Website, accessible here.

Ed Neuert, Unfolding the Early Corona, ETCetera Nos. 106 &107, Fall/Winter 2014-15, accessible here.

Darryl Rehr, The Man Who Created the Corona 3, ETCetera No. 11, June 1990, accessible here.

Paul Lippman, Collect Folding Coronas, ETCetera No. 4, July 1988, accessible here.

Steven Braggs, Retrowow Blog, accessible here.

The Typewriter Database, accessible here.

Various Facebook posts in the Antique Typewriter Collectors Group, accessible here.

The History of the Corona, published by Smith-Corona, circa 1991.