British Tech Company Brought Down by #TimesUp
Have you noticed that articles about writing are often illustrated with photos of vintage typewriters — like my Imperial Model 50 above. They evoke a feeling of nostalgia for days gone by when a garreted writer picked out their masterpiece key by key.
At the end of the late 1800s the portable typewriter was seen as THE disruptive technology of its day. The writer no longer had to be alone and stuck in their garret — with a PORTABLE typewriter they could write anywhere anytime. And businesses no longer needed rooms full of massive desk-bound typing machines. They could put portables where they needed them. Sound familiar? There are more surprising similarities to what’s happening today in the story of the Imperial Typewrite Company of Leicester, UK.
Founded by a migrant
The founder of Imperial Typewriters was Hidalgo Moya who was born in 1863 in Missouri, USA. The son of a Mexican father and American mother, he worked for the US company Remington Typewriters. From 1881 he lived in England, a typewriter tech hub at the time, both as their representative and to keep an eye on what the other companies were up to. By 1904 Moya had left Remington to go solo and filed a patent:
1904 US Patent. Type Writing Machine. ‘Be it known that I, HIDALGO MOYA, (commonly known as DALGO MOYA,) inventor, a citizen of the United States, residing at 67 Western road, Leicester, in the county of Leicester, England, have invented certain new and useful Improvements Relating to Type-Writing Machines, of which the following is a specification…’
The “new and useful improvements” was an easy way to change the basket of type heads and the key boards for different languages. Today we call that localization. That was the start of the Moya Typewriter Company which, in 1908, changed its name to The Imperial Typewriter Company.
The must have gadget
Imperial’s innovation was well received and by 1922 it was a Listed Exhibitor at the prestigious British Industries Fair:
Manufacturers of Imperial Standard Typewriter with instantly changeable typebars and keyboard. Special keyboards made for engineers, chemists, etc., in all languages. (Stand No. K.82)
And again in 2029:
“Imperial” Standard typewriters, also Portable Typewriters. Models fitted with interchangeable carriages, platens and type units of 96 characters. Special keyboards for all languages. (Stationery Section — Stand Nos. R2 and R.156)
While Moya’s business was booming, he was not well. After a heart attack he was left paralysed and went to live in Pasadena where the climate was better. As well as his typewriter patent, he also filed a patent for an airship and co-authored a book on ‘Violin Tone and Violin Makers’. Typewriters were his first love though and he always wanted to go back to Leicester. In 1927 he died.
Riding the tech wave
There were other clever engineers who took over such as Arthur Pateman, who designed my Model 50, keeping alive Moya’s vision for interchangeability. It was a workhorse, built like a tank and revolutionized communication from the front line of the Second World War which earned it the nickname “the war model”. Times were changing and in the post war years Imperial started to produce sleeker and more fashionable portable typewriters including electric ones. By 1960 the company had expanded from its Leicester base and it had premises in Hull with an annual profit of over half a million pounds.
Along with the good times, the sixties brought in a new force in the market — cheap foreign imports — loved by the public as much as they were hated by domestic manufacturers. Global companies sought out places where labour was cheap and they could make products for less undercutting market prices. Typewriters weren’t the only sector hit and in the UK as sales of domestically produced items fell, workers were laid off and those who stayed in work had their wages squeezed.
Blame it on the migrants
Leicester had a higher percentage of migrants than other places in the UK and, of course, the far right National Front blamed the rising unemployment on them. However, within the Asian community in Leicester, there were two distinct groups. There were the Asians who had come to Britain from the Asian sub-continent and there were Asians who had been expelled from Uganda by the despot Idi Amin. The background and experience of these East African Asians was unique. They were highly educated and had themselves played an important role in the British colonial machinery in Uganda.
Cheap workers wanted
So who was this foreign competition making cheap products? Meet Litton Industries of Delaware, USA, the second largest typewriter company in the world with controlling interests in Olympic business machines as well as Triumph and Adler typewriters. A typewriter company that was almost too big to fail. On its quest for ever cheaper labour it spotted the high percentage of Asian workers in Leicester. In 1966 Litton bought Imperial Typewriters paying £1.9 million — just the property assets alone were valued at £1.7 million.
Out with the old
The factory machinery and equipment was upgraded — it stopped making Imperial typewriters and started assembling other models. The number of employees doubled from 1,900 in 1968 to 3,800 in 1972. Until 1968 the workforce had been white but under the new regime in Leicester 1,100 employees out of 1,600 (69%) were Asian. Within the Asian recruits, women were preferred because not only were they cheaper, they were considered more passive and easier to control.
Ramp up production
Within a short time productivity tripled. In return agreed bonuses were cut and conditions were constantly downgraded. Only for the Asian workers though. The old conditions remained for the white workers. With high unemployment it was easy for employees who spoke out to be threatened with dismissal but the East African Asians knew racial discrimination when they saw it and made a complaint to the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU).
Some are more equal than others
The union refused to back them inferring that their complaints were not legitimate. Their reaction showed the Asian community that the union felt that it was their role to support the status quo including keeping people of colour in their place. The Asian workers asked for their own representation in the Union who could tackle the issues they were facing like washing time, tea breaks, lunch breaks and toilet breaks. The Union used archaic rules and regulations to prevent them from being properly represented.
May Day 1974
On 1st May 1974 workers from the British United Shoe Machinery, the Bentley Group, the General Electric Company and 39 Asian workers from section 61 of the Imperial factory went on strike. The workers of the first three factories soon went back to work. Not so the Imperial workers — most of the original 39 stayed out and they attracted another 500. Within a few days production at the Imperial Factory had fallen by half. During their interaction with the Unions the Asian workers found out that they were being underpaid bonuses for targets agreed in 1972 that would have meant an extra 4 pounds a week for every worker. That was it.
Woman the barricades!
The union refused to recognize the Asian worker’s strike as valid so the strikers worked out their own ways to protest. Asian women set up pickets near the factory entrances where between 50 and 200 people continuously made what was called “a fearful howling and hollering” whenever someone crossed the picket line. The women made such a noise that it echoed down the streets debunking the myth that Asian women were quiet and passive.
Nine days after the start of the strike, 75 of the original strikers were sacked but they refused to accept the paperwork and sent it back to management. As well as that they sent their list of demands but again the union refused to recognize them. Because the strike was unofficial, none of the striking workers could get social security and the hardship was immense. But the sense of community held firm. The picketing was maintained and grievance meetings were held regularly.
Reds under the beds
In an attempt to discredit the striking workers, rumours went round that they were being funded by Chinese Communist money. The reality was that they were being supported by people like the Birmingham Sikh Temple who contributed £125, the Southall Indian Workers Associaiotn, £50; the Birmingham Anti-Racist Committee £14; the European Immigrant Workers Action Committee, £12 and the Edinburgh Women’s Conference, £40.
In an attempt to break the strike the Imperial factory was closed for two weeks’ summer holiday. But the struggle went on with the strikers maintaining momentum by meeting regularly for lectures, discussion groups and concerts. They continued to try to get the Union to support them and called far and wide for support.
Litton industries took the decision to close down the Imperial factory rather than make even the smallest concession to the Asian workers. Most likely their business model only worked if the workers were on exploitative wages — so they took it elsewhere.
The unique twist of the Imperial Typewriter story is the empowerment of the East African Asian women. They knew their rights and were prepared to stand up for them even though many Asians would have thought it unacceptable for women to stand on a picket line and shout. The women used their positions in the community as mothers and wives to mobilize and focus on getting their rights. In the past many had supported their husbands while on strike but this time it was their turn.
More Imperial moments
We need more Imperial moments. While today we love our cheap tech we largely choose to ignore the conditions of the workers who make it for us. Isn’t the clock ticking on that approach? Like the East African Asian women, some of those exploited workers will be aware of their situation and it’s just a matter of time before they stand up for their rights. We can’t claim ignorance any more. Isn’t it time that we took responsibility for what we own and the impact it has? Yes, it might cost more but the benefit will be that you can rest assured that the people who made it received a fair wage for their labour.
An unhappy ending
In 2011 the Imperial Typewriter Building was raided by the police follow a Channel 4 documentary, Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, which had found many of the clothes businesses located there were using illegal labour from the Indian sub-continent. We can only hope that those stuck in such conditions can learn from the East African Asians and be empowered to stand up to their oppressors.