IBM Reinvented the Typewriter With the Selectric 50 Years Ago

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On July 31, 1961 -- fifty years ago this coming weekend -- IBM's groundbreaking new typewriter went on sale. The IBM Selectric reinvented the typewriter by introducing the typeball, a spherical metal object mounted inside of the machine that would rotate and pivot with each keystroke before slamming into a ribbon that inked the page. The typeball replaced a series of individual typebars, known collectively as the basket, that made maintenance difficult and limited speed; if you typed too fast, the bars would jam together.

But it was more than that. The Selectric was designed by Eliot Noyes, a U.S. architect, industrial designer and curator at the Museum of Modern Art who had worked under Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Apple-like in its simplicity, the original Selectric was without unnecessary parts; it's the ultimate example of the form follows function principle that guided modern architecture and defined the Bauhaus under Gropius.

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As word of the Selectric's superiority spread, sales of this line of typewriters accelerated until they eventually captured 75 percent of the U.S. market. Over the 23 years that the Selectric was IBM's primary typewriter, the company continued to improve upon Noyes' legendary design, releasing the Selectric II in 1971 and the Selectric III in the 1980s.

The Selectric II used the same typing elements found in the first typewriter, but was outfitted with a dual pitch option that allowed its operator to switch between 10 and 12 characters per inch. The Correction Selectric II, a modification to the second model, was released in 1973. It held one of two correction ribbons that the company started selling: one, called "lift-off tape," was adhesive and would attempt to pull the ink from the page; the other, "cover-up tape," punched white ink over the letters requiring correction.

In addition to the standard iterations of the original model, IBM introduced the Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter in 1964 and the Magnetic Card Selectric Typewriter in 1969. These two units featured a magnetic storage devices, making them among the first machines to provide word processing capability.

By the time the Selectric III came out, though, the rest of the industry had caught up with IBM and the machines started to fall out of use. The company introduced a 96-character model and attempted to rebrand its line, but nothing stuck. In 1984, the Wheelwriter replaced the Selectric as IBM's primary model. The Wheelwriter had advanced word processing features and electric memory and allowed for multiple typefaces; the Selectric, after more than two decades, couldn't keep up.

That's not to say that you can no longer find the Selectric. This is a machine beloved by its owners, who go out of their way to find replacement parts to keep things in working order. Humorist P.J. O'Rourke famously uses a Selectric typewriter, refusing to punch out his pithy satire on a more modern word processor. So, too, does David Sedaris. Hunter S. Thompson used the Selectric. And Isaac Asimov kept four of them scattered around various apartments so he would always have one nearby.

As a kid, I kept a Selectric in my room in a special case designed for travel. Growing up, we always had a family PC. I typed out homework assignments using Microsoft Word and was computer-savvy from a young age. But, every once in a while, I would pull out that Selectric, roll a clean sheet of paper through its rollers, and bang out a few paragraphs. There's something alluring about being so close to your work, about watching the push of a button set off a chain of mechanical events that leads to a single character appearing on the page -- even today.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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