Single mother and secretary Bette Nesmith Graham conquered fear to create a revolutionary office invention
BY WHITNEY PANDIL-EATON
She stood outside the Texas Bank and Trust high-rise building in downtown Dallas one mild southern winter day, watching brush stroke after brush stroke as the artists slowly transformed the bank’s exterior windows into a painted festive scene for the upcoming Christmas holidays.
Then, it clicked.
Her lifelong passion for the arts—combined with a healthy dose of perseverance—saved her career.
Perseverance had served Bette Clair McMurray well. She used it to pursue her GED after dropping out of school at age 17 to attend secretarial school and marry her high school sweetheart, Warren Nesmith. It was perseverance’s cousin, grit, that helped her raise their infant son, Michael, while Nesmith served overseas as a soldier in World War II. Now, creative determination would save her job.
The clack, clack, clack sound of typewriters was ubiquitous in offices during the 1950s.
During this time, many offices transitioned from manual typewriters to electric typewriters. While electric typewriters helped to automate many processes increasing efficiency, the messy carbon-film ribbons and sensitive key triggers resulted in more typos. An eraser could be used to fix the mistake, but the carbon ink would smear, necessitating the remaking of the document for a single error.
In her more than 10 years as a secretary, Bette Nesmith Graham had propelled herself to a high professional level, serving as the executive secretary for the chairman of the Texas Bank and Trust. Although highly skilled overall, her typing proficiency was subpar, a fact made worse by the transition from manual to electric typewriters.
As a single mother—Bette and Warren divorced in 1946—she couldn’t afford to lose the primary means of support for herself and her son.
“I didn’t have a fellow at the time, so I had to do it by myself,” Nesmith Graham said in an interview later in life. “I had to appreciate that as a woman I was strong, complete, adequate.”
Recalling her observation of the bank window painters, one day Nesmith Graham brought a small jar of white, water-based tempura paint into the office and began using it to cover up typos with a watercolor brush. It worked so well, it is said, her employers seldom noticed.
Nesmith Graham quietly used her liquid creation for a time until other secretaries in the office took notice and flooded her with requests for their own bottles of the wonder fluid.
Encouraged by the positive response, Nesmith Graham took a second job, working nights at her north Dallas home filling orders for other secretaries in the area. During that time, she worked alongside her son’s chemistry teacher and an industrial polymer chemist to perfect the formula for what would initially be called “Mistake Out.”
Despite the increasing demand for her correcting fluid, her secretarial salary of $300 per month meant Nesmith Graham was unable to afford the $400 patent application fee in 1956.
Her son, Michael—who later gained fame in the pop group the Monkees—recalled in an interview that his mother would frequently “burst into tears of panic.”
“I was struggling against mediocrity,” Nesmith Graham said. “I felt that I was special, that I had something special to give. But I didn’t know what that was going to be.”
For the entire story, go to uspto.gov/learning-and-resources/journeys-innovation.