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Dead medium: the IBM Selectric Typewriter
From: (David Morton)
Source(s): C. E. DeLoca and S. J. Kalow, *The Romance Division: A Different Side of IBM* (Wykoff, NJ: D&K Book Co., Inc., 1991)

(((Most people know IBM for two of its products: the personal computer and the Selectric typewriter. The Selectric is now out of production and, according to author Sam Kalow, IBM has dropped parts and service for these models. Surviving examples are many, and they are often highly prized by their owners. How do you deal with the task of filling out forms in the computer age? You dust off your old typewriter.... David Morton)))

pages 74-83

"The announcement of the IBM Selectric typewriter in July 1961 initiated what turned out to be the ET (later OP) Division's most popular product. Except for the IBM Personal Computer, the Selectric was used by more people and sold more units than any other IBM machine. Almost everybody is familiar with this product as the 'golf ball' typewriter. The single element which holds the embossed characters for printing is about the size and the embossing reminiscent of the dimples of a golf ball.

"The inspiration for using a single printing element rather than traditional typebars came from H. S. "Bud" Beattie. Beattie was the manager of ET engineering in 1961. In 1946 he had invented a high-speed, single-element printer to be used in data-processing applications and was always motivated to utilize this technology in a typewriter. (...) Today, high-speed printers, such as laser or ink jet technology, use the Selectric as the minimum standard for 'correspondence' or 'letter' quality. (...)

"The ribbon on the Selectric was specially designed to fit into a cartridge so that the user did not have to touch the ribbon itself. The ribbon moves back and forth as part of the print mechanism, and the user can easily change ribbons as well as print elements. Thus, with colored ribbons, and plate writing ribbons, the typist selects the quality and color of the impression. In addition, the print mechanism has a lever to control the force with which the element strikes the platen to accommodate carbon copies and prepare stencils. (...)

"The excitement generated by the Selectric extended beyond the ETD sales force to all its customers. People would crowd around the machine being demonstrated, amazed by the rapidly rotating and tilting print mechanism. Unlike the well-known type-bar action, it was hard to understand how the Selectric worked. For example, if two keys are pressed simultaneously or almost simultaneously on a typebar machine, electric or manual, it is likely that the bars, in moving toward the paper, will strike each other, either jamming or producing uneven print.

"With the Selectric, however, only one key can be pressed at a time, and if there is only a momentary lag, the machine prints the characters in sequence; there cannot be an overstrike since there is only the single printing element. This feature was highlighted as a memory or stroke storage.

"The ability to have several fonts on the same page, or different-colored impressions, was recognized by many typists as a capability beyond that of any typewriter they had seen or used before.

"The customer excitement about the Selectric translated to high sales. (...) This machine was one of the first examples of manufacturing automation and helped keep the cost down and the quality high.

"The Selectric is a classic example of technology driving the market versus utilizing a technology to satisfy a known market requirement. Customers were not clamoring for a typewriter without type bars or one that had no moving carriage. Likewise, while ribbon changing was considered a nuisance, operators had become accustomed to soiled fingers, and sometimes clothing, when replacing a worn-out ribbon with a new one.

"And who ever heard of a typed letter containing two different type styles and even different colors of type? (...) So innovative and dramatic was the single element technology that once secretaries and their bosses had viewed the Selectric in operation, the machine became the definitive product of choice. (...)

"The Selectric was a superb piece of mechanical engineering with thousands of finely machined parts working together. The major investment was tooling up for the unique parts, and no competitor was willing to challenge either IBM's patents or its manufacturing capability. The Selectric remained a unique product for over a decade. (...)

"The Selectric printing mechanism also appealed to the data processing side of IBM. Modified typebar electric typewriters were used as input/output writers on computer consoles. In most cases fan-fold or continuous-form paper was used. However, the moving carriage of the typebar machines could cause the paper to get out of alignment or tear. ETD made pin-feed platens to better hold the paper in place, but the stationary carriage of the Selectric eliminated the problem of the paper's being dragged back and forth.

"The Selectric was also developed into a terminal for remote access to a data-processing system, the Models 2740 and 2741.

"The Selectric announcement, with its new single element technology, was an advertiser's delight. While IBM typebar machines, models "A," "B," and "C," had been highlighted in print ads featuring ease, speed, and quality, there really wasn't that much to shout about. The Selectric changed all that, and ETD's Advertising Department and its agency, Benton & Bowles, dramatized in words and pictures the unique and revolutionary characteristics of the Selectric. (...) ETD virtually built an entire business around a typewriter that put the image on the page with something resembling the shape of a golf ball. (...)

"The design of the entire Selectric product also lent itself to creative depiction and description in the print and TV ads that were developed. The lack of a moving carriage on the Selectric allowed famed industrial designer Elliot Noyes to create a cover design for the machine that was sculptured, flowing, functional, and totally integrated == one that had never before been seen on a typewriter. Part of the enormous appeal of the Selectric can be attributed to its advanced appearance. (...) The Selectric technology was the inspiration for further development of automatic and, ultimately, electronic typewriters."

David Morton (

IEEE Center for the History of Electrical Engineering