14 April 2012

Smith-Corona 5TE: The First Electric Typewriter

Smith-Corona 5TE, electric typewriter with cursive type

I've wanted this model for a while. The first one I sought arrived broken (in a most unlikely place which I could not repair) and I returned it and these are heavy and not cheap to ship. I was hesitant to buy another especially as they did not show up that often in a working condition (or at all).

The 5TE was the first electric portable. Electric typewriters were made quite early in typewriter history (some understrike machines were electric), however, they were very large and modified standards and electrical plugs and the like were not standard, so it would be very hard to make and sell such expensive heavy machines which would be rather specific to a locality. It would be very hard to sell many I suspect.

The 5TE of course changed that. Not only was it electric, it was based on the best typewriter design ever (it is a modified Silent-Super), and it is a joy to type on. It was intended to be bought by richer people to replace desktops with something just as good or better but also more portable. I imagine these were found in offices of people who made a lot of money and for rich students (sounds odd to say "rich student"). Not only are they portable (if heavy) and full featured, they work great.

From the serial number and design, it is likely from the year 1960.

I bought this on chance after finding it on eBay. The seller had a type example of it (which is always a good sign) and it seems to be good and it was not too far away.

When it arrived, I was expecting disappointment (always expect the worst, that way all surprises are pleasant), but not only was it as described, it had a fresh ribbon and the case had its key and was in great condition. It came the same time the Corona Standard flattop came. The Corona Standard was from the time of the Great Depression and the 5TE was from the time of great prosperity. Both are excellent typewriters and they are related as the previous post pointed out.

I did not particularly desire yet another cursive typewriter, but it was one of the few 5TEs which would possibly be good for what I wanted (probable good typewriter and seller...not much is worse than a good typewriter and a bad seller. It is best not to have such people ship typewriters if only to save the typewriter.). The cursive option does reveal that they thought this design through. The line spacing, the keys, and the ribbon selector are all fit for cursive. The descenders will not overlap in single spacing (which mechanically is not single space, as it does what I would call a double space). The type is very nice too, and of course it types very fast and consistently.

I may keep this one by my desk for ready typing. The typewriter desk which is in most photos of my typewriters is right next to me at my computer desk, so I can type on either easily. To photograph the typewriter, I need more light, so I wheel it a couple feet into the kitchen. I forgot to unplug this one when I went to move it.

Electricity in typewriters...what will they think of next? Next thing you know, they'll be putting TV sets in.


  1. I have the same typewriter and mine is in script too! Obviously, to speak to the touch on an electric typewriter is less useful than a manual. Each key is as easy (or difficult) to use as the next. The work that is done is very nice. It's consistently dark and very even. No doubt, that is owing to the electrification of the typebars. Under the Smith-Corona badge there is another badge which says the "Electric". I think think that the typeface is really retro and charming. Great find!

    1. Actually, the key design does matter. The issue is not just pressing, but how it feels and reacts. The curve of the force necessary, the distance, the audible and tactile feedback, etc all matter.

      To type well, the key (of any device) must not require pressing into a immovable surface. Most computer keyboards have rubber dome switches which require one to press the key all the way down to be sure of a successful press. A good mechanical keyboard on the other hand actuates before bottoming out, and a good mechanical design for typing will have some change in the key and possibly a sound so one can type surely without bottoming out all the keys.

      My daisywheel typewriter has a very bad keyboard for typing. The design has almost no tactile feedback at all. The 5TE has a much better switch design for typing.

  2. I also have a 1960's 5TE in cursive, in crinkle white. It's the only electric typewriter I allow myself to own (:

    1. I have an Electra 120, Sterling Automatic 12 and an XL1900. Electrics are typewriters too and they can be quite interesting and useful.

      However, I have found post-typebar designs to return too slowly. They type fast and have good output, but returning is too slow. I prefer manual carriage return. The 5TE is a perfect machine.