Updated: Mar 24, 2021
The kitchen blender has a lot to answer for. These days there are plenty of experiments with what you can cram into the jug and then blur into a fine emulsion – not all of them entirely edible. It’s the ideal lockdown toy, but whilst it might permit all sorts of interesting smoothies it would be a slightly odd mind which decided to try and make one up out of egg white and titanium dioxide. Doesn’t sound like it would delight the taste buds – but then again it might have other uses, not least as a source of innovation.
I enjoy writing. Not least because if I make mistakes there’s a simple set of keystrokes to erase them and I can start all over again. But it wasn’t always so simple. I’ve still got my typewriter on which I first started trying to bash words out – and gave up because of the unequal struggle between me and the tangled levers and mis-typed manuscripts.
But it wasn’t just amateurs like me – professional secretaries had the same challenge and they were usually measured (and often paid) by the number of words per minute (wpm) they could type. Accurately. Make a mistake – and you had to go back and start again, loading another sheet of paper and retyping everything you’ve done before you made the mistake. The only safe way was to slow down- but that meant your wpm was way down and your pay packet consequently much lighter at the end of the week.
Welcome to the 1950s world of office life – and specifically to that of Betty Graham. A single mother, working hard in the Dallas headquarters of Texas Bank and Trust trying to earn enough to keep her and her son Michael going. She’s done well, has risen to be executive secretary to the chairman of the board. A grand-sounding title but she still has to carry out that most essential of secretarial duties – typing. And even though they sent her to secretarial school to improve her skills she’s not too good at it. Typing (or to be more precise, correcting the mistakes she’s made by re-typing) takes a big chunk of her time and a lot of her emotional energy. The shape of her day can be plotted not just by the sheer number of screwed up balls of paper in her bin but also by the degree of compression as she’s balled them up tighter and tighter in her increasing frustration.
And lately things have got worse; in an attempt to increase productivity, the bank has introduced electric typewriters. Replacing the clunky mechanical levers with an electrical system should mean faster typing, always assuming that the right key has been pressed. Unfortunately for Betty (and many other typists like her) being able to hit the keys faster just means she makes more mistakes. Faster. It used to be that she spent most of her time typing, now much more of it is going on fixing her mistakes. No point in trying to rub them out, the fancy new carbon ribbon in her new machine just meant she’ll end up smearing ink all over the page. Better to turn the roller, rip the sheet out, crumple it in her hand, start again.
At this rate she’s probably thinking that she’ll never get home in time to fix dinner for Michael, thank God he was old enough to fend for himself, though he’d be rummaging through the icebox, opening packages and leaving them out on the table as he made his after-school snack.
If only there was a way to cover up the mistakes, somehow magically clean the paper and type over it once again, this time correctly. After all, when she was painting – when did she ever get the time these days? –she’d not spend ages rubbing out or throwing away the canvas so she could start again. She’d just paint over what she’d done wrong, fix it, move on.
Interesting idea, and like all good ideas it stayed with her, running round and round her head as she clocked off from work and hurried home.
Later that evening, the table cleared of dishes, Michael doing (she hoped) his homework, she began to play. Mixed up some egg white and a little of her precious white tempera paint in the kitchen blender. Played around until the consistency felt right, then dipped her smallest water colour brush into the mixture and painted carefully over a line of typing on the polite letter informing her that her phone bill was overdue for payment. The black key strokes faded beneath the white, the page became blank again ready for someone to type a new line on it. She began to see the possibilities in her idea; it was like a miniature time machine. With her magic mixture she could paint her way back to the moment before she made a mistake and start all over again.
Mid-afternoon the next day and she was back where she usually was, a pile of typing still to do before she could leave. The mistakes piling up, her wastepaper bin already close to overflowing with ruined sheets of half-typed letters. Worth a try, she thought, taking the nail varnish pot which she’d filled with her mixture from her handbag. It didn’t take her long to make another mistake, her fingers overstepping themselves as she tried to type faster. But this time she carefully wound the roller up a few notches, painted over the mistake and put the paper to one side to let it dry. Put another sheet in and started a new letter. After a couple of minutes she picked up the mistaken page – and saw her mis-typed words erased, the letter ready for her to try again.
By the end of the week she was convinced. The idea worked, she could make mistakes as often as she wanted, paint over them and retype – no-one seemed to notice, her pages were as good as new. She could finish her pile of work early, even manage to leave on time to get home for a celebratory meal with Michael.
Which ought to have been the happy end to the story for Bette Nesmith Graham, inventor of Liquid Paper, the correction fluid known and loved by generations of typists and an indispensable staple of stationery cupboards around the world until the word processor finally moved typewriters out of the office. But the course of innovation rarely runs smooth and she had a few hurdles to overcome along the way.
The idea had real potential – that much was clear. But it needed a lot of work to turn that potential into something more consistent. She anticipated the idea of early prototyping and pivoting long before the concept of ‘lean start-up’ and minimum viable product were around. She filled empty bottles of nail varnish and began to share them with colleagues at work; they loved her ‘paint out’ fluid since it made their lives so much easier. Her bosses when they found out about her experiments were not so enthusiastic but she persevered and over five years became convinced that she had a product that would sell. So she began marketing it as ‘Mistake Out’ fluid in 1956. She thought about a patent to protect her idea but the $400 fee for doing so was beyond what her weekly wage packet would permit; she’d need to sell a few bottles before she could do that.
One of the first challenges was the formulation – how to perfect the recipe so it was reproduceable and had the right mixture of quick drying but good hiding properties. She wrote to potential customers to explain that ‘our lab is working on a faster drying solution’; the ‘lab’ in question being her kitchen table, the equipment her trusty blender and the chemistry specialist Michael’s high school chemistry teacher.
She worked hard at developing the market, sending out samples far and wide and knocking on the doors of stationery wholesalers right across Texas, using her precious ‘spare’ time at weekends. And she recruited a staff to help her in the factory as demand picked up – in the form of teenage Michael and his school friends who worked for $1/hour in her garage filling old nail polish pots from larger ketchup-style dispensers, fixing labels by hand and cutting the tips of the brushes at an angle to help the spread of the precious fluid on to paper.
Unfortunately this meant she was pretty tired and not always able to give her full attention to her day job. Which is how she came to make a mistake which she neglected to use her product on. She accidentally finished off a letter she was typing with the affiliation ‘The Mistake-Out Company’ – and when her boss came to sign it he found out. She was promptly fired and so became a full-time entrepreneur in 1958. With nothing now to lose she gave her innovation her full attention, registered a patent and changed the company name to the ‘Liquid Paper Company’.
Her hard work paid off. She’d managed to build an enthusiastic user base amongst secretaries who increasingly asked their bosses to buy the fluid. And all that door knocking trying to persuade stationery suppliers to stock her product meant that they could meet this rapidly growing demand. She managed to secure major clients like IBM and General Electric and the business began to grow.
As so often with innovation, her ideas soon spawned a series of imitators. In 1958 TippEx correction paper was patented in Germany but the convenience of the liquid and brush alternative offered by Liquid Paper soon had TippEx offering their own version in 1965. Innovation moved to look at dispensers – brushes and pens and other ways of delivering the fluid to the surface. And there were improvements to the core product idea; for example Wite-Out dates to 1966, when Edwin Johanknecht was working in an insurance company. He noticed that the correction fluid he was using didn’t work well on photocopies, having a tendency to smudge. So together with a friend George Kloosterhouse who worked waterproofing cellars and other brickwork they developed their own correction fluid, introduced as “Wite-Out WO-1 Erasing Liquid”.
By 1967 sales of Liquid Paper were in excess of one million units per year and being delivered from an automated production plant; by 1975 she had outgrown these facilities and moved to a huge headquarters operation in Dallas. In 1979 over 25 million bottles were being made and she employed over 200 people. At this high point she decided to sell the (by now very profitable) business to the Gillette Corporation for $47.5million; sadly she died just six months later.
With the imminent arrival of word processors you might have thought she was getting out of the business at the right time; no-one would need correction fluid in a world of electronic typing. But you’d be wrong; the product category is still doing well and the market continues to grow. Bic, which makes Wite-Out and Tipp-Ex, reported in 2019 that correction products increased in share from 5 to 6 to 9 percent of the global stationery market. In part this is explained by the fact that there are many other uses to which the product can be put.
Liquid Paper and its lookalikes are still used to cover mistakes in handwritten schoolwork. And it’s an essential tool in the hands of the forger, professional or otherwise, enabling swift photocopiable amendments to official documents. And beyond correction it has a wide user base; a feature in the Atlantic Monthly reported a thriving user base deploying correction fluid in covering up stains on wedding dresses, retouching cracked floor tiles, preventing solder flowing to intricate places in jewellery making, and enabling blacksmiths to mould complex metal shapes. Not bad for a product originally brewed up in a kitchen blender.
(One last piece of the legacy is perhaps worth mentioning. Innovation must be in the family blood; Michael (taking his mother’s maiden name of Nesmith) grew up, became an actor and musician and rather famous as the tall lanky bass player in ‘The Monkees’. But although successful he was frustrated at the show’s manufactured image and branched out on his own, writing and performing songs. With his inheritance from the company he’d helped his mother to found he was able to branch out into record production and founded his own label. His big innovation there was around combining audio and video production, putting short films together featuring his own songs and then those of friends. The idea caught on and he sold it to Nickelodeon who launched a series called ‘Pop clips’ which he fronted. They eventually sold this successful format to Time Warner/Amex who developed it into the MTV network).
You can find a podcast version of this blog here.