Smathers, James Field (1888–1967)

By: Betty Donovan Knox

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: July 1, 1995

James Field Smathers, inventor of the electric typewriter, was born on a farm near Valley Spring, Texas, on February 12, 1888, the son of James Jefferson and Harriet Olenzo (Spinks) Smathers. After attending a one-room country school he entered Texas Christian University in 1904. He finished business school, taught shorthand and typing for a year, and in 1908 became a typist, accountant, and credit manager of a firm in Kansas City, Missouri. While doing the constant typing required by his position, he realized the need for some means to increase the speed and decrease the fatigue of typing, and the use of electric power seemed to him the obvious device. For more than three years he worked on the application of electric power to typewriters and by the fall of 1912 had completed a working model and applied for a patent, which was issued the next year. He continued to develop his idea until in September 1914 he perfected an electric typewriter that performed perfectly. In the early 1920s he obtained an extension of his early patent because of the delay in his work caused by his overseas military service during World War I. In 1923 the Northeast Electric Company of Rochester, New York, entered into a royalty contract with Smathers for the production of electric typewriters. However, private industrial acceptance of the concept of an electrically powered typewriter did not come until 1930, when Electric Typewriters, Inc., a subsidiary of Northeast Electric Company, put the Electromatic model on the market. This company was purchased by the International Business Machines Corporation in 1933, a step which marked the beginning of the IBM Office Products Division. The Franklin Institute of the state of Pennsylvania awarded Smathers the Edward Longstreth Medal "for ingenuity in the invention of the electric typewriter." In 1938 he joined the Rochester staff of IBM as a consultant and worked in development engineering at Poughkeepsie until his retirement in 1953. In 1945 the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences awarded him a fellowship for the invention of an escapement for spacing typewriter characters variably according to their widths. An honorary award in 1966 by the alumni association of Texas Christian University recognized Smathers as a "distinguished alumnus." He died on August 7, 1967, in Poughkeepsie, New York, and was buried in Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, Mildred Eloise Gill Smathers, a son, and a daughter.

Austin American-Statesman, August 10, 1967.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Betty Donovan Knox, “Smathers, James Field,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995