1995: The year the future began
Even as 1995 unfolded, it became clear that the year would be regarded as a hinge moment, as an important transitory time near the end of the millennium.
As I note in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, that the domestic terrorist bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the acquittal of O. J. Simpson at what was widely called the “Trial of the Century” gave 1995 an immediate “cast of exceptionality.”
The year offered evidence as well that the Internet and World Wide Web were entering mainstream consciousness. Amazon.com opened for business online 20 years ago this month. Netscape Communications Corporation, a 16-month-old startup and maker of the very popular Navigator Web browser, went public in August 1995, demonstrating in electrifying fashion the money-making potential of the online world.
The online dating service Match.com got going in 1995. So, too, did the predecessors to Craigslist and eBay. Microsoft introduced the first version of its Web browser, Internet Explorer, in 1995. The New York Times made its first toe-dipping forays into cyberspace that year, too.
There was other, more humble evidence that 1995 was a tipping point — evidence offered 20 years ago today when Smith Corona Corporation, the 113-year-old maker of typewriters, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors.
Smith Corona was the last prominent, U.S.-based manufacturer of typewriters, and its bankruptcy confirmed the sure passing of a dated technology. By 1995, more than half of American adults were using computers at home or in the workplace and the typewriter was becoming a relic, if often fondly remembered. Smith Corona, whose portable computers once were an essential to high school and college students, had fallen victim to the computer revolution, as the New York Times observed.
That Smith Corona was a distressed company had been apparent for some time. In May 1995, the company that also made word processing machines and had tentatively entered the computer market in the early 1990s announced deep cuts in its work force. By the time of its bankruptcy in 1995, it was largely an afterthought in corporate America. As the Los Angeles Times noted then:
“Few follow its fortunes on Wall Street any more; it dropped out of the office-equipment industry trade association a few years ago; and its claim to be the sole remaining U.S. maker of portable typewriters rings hollow.”
Smith Corona was unable to adapt to the competition from personal computers. And it was a company that did not understand “how fast change would come,” as Forbes magazine observed in 2000, when Smith Corona again entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
“Things might have been different had the company found the courage to shuck off its legacy,” Forbes said then. “A quick look at the archives would have yielded a precedent to justify switching businesses. Before they started their typewriter company in 1886, the Smith brothers – Lyman, Wilbert, Monroe and Hulbert – had been gunsmiths.”
The typewriter had been invented in the 1860s and had a long association with American journalism. It became a clattering feature of U.S. newsrooms in the late 1890s, a time when young reporters were advised to buy a typewriter and learn to use it. Not until the late 1970s and 1980s, with the rise of computer technology, were typewriters supplanted in newsrooms.
The bankruptcy announcement 20 years ago produced a spasm or two of nostalgia. But even then, it was becoming evident that digital was the future, and that Smith Corona’s eclipse was a modest milestone in that transition.
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