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IBM Selectric II Typewriter

Today's blogger is Mary Inchauste, Design Arts Society Board member and Associate Principal at CSO Architects, Inc.

Right near the entrance to the new Contemporary Design gallery, proudly displayed is an electric typewriter, a big blue IBM Selectric II.

The original Selectric was introduced in July 1961, and changed the way offices functioned until the advent of the personal computer. The industrial design is credited to Eliot Noyes. The Selectric II entered the market in 1971 with additional features.

Eliot Fette Noyes, designer (American, 1910- 1977), The IBM Corporation, manufacturer IBM Selectric II Typewriter, 1971 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Lee and Dorothy Alig, 2011.283

Eliot Fette Noyes, designer (American, 1910- 1977), The IBM Corporation, manufacturer; IBM Selectric II Typewriter, 1971; Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Lee and Dorothy Alig, 2011.283

I had to smile as I noticed it in the case, remembering the ones my Dad had in his dental office. It was a big deal, and cost a lot. As Dad recalls, people thought he was crazy spending that kind of money. At the time, there were no effective office copier, no word processors. The Selectric Typewriters had many ingenious features that opened up a whole world of possibilities in a small office and saved lots of time (efficiency!) for his staff of one.

Manual typewriters used fixed keys, which moved up to strike the carbon and paper to make each letter. Some practice and skill was necessary to get the fingers to push the keys hard enough to make a good imprint, and rhythm to hit the keys in a way that didn’t jumble the flying letter arms. The paper carriage moved across the machine and, to start another line, one pulled the lever (advancing the paper one line) and then pushed it to the right to start position. Only one typeface and type size was available with no way to change it. You had either a pica or elite type size, one typeface.

For a good typist, the manual typewriter worked fine for letters and manuscripts, but not so great for forms and other kinds of documents, as needed in a dental practice. For me, the manual typewriter was a significant challenge. I was terrible on the keys – it was tough to get consistent pressure on the letters. I made lots of mistakes, so had to either start over or try the challenge of erasing tape and white out. Despite my efforts to learn to spell, I made lots of spelling mistakes also, with no easy way to quickly correct them.

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The innovative typewriters by IBM were electric, so mastering the key stokes was so much easier. The type was positioned on a “ball” with four rows of 22 letters. The mechanism moved the ball, rotating and raising it to the letter matching your key stroke, then “throwing” the ball against the ribbon and paper. Every letter had the same pressure and looked the same. The ball moved across the paper which remained stationary. At the end of a line, just hit the return key, no worries about not getting paper in the right place, and faster!

The type balls were interchangeable, opening up the flood gates for users’ creativity! Type “balls” are available in pica or elite size, italic, different fonts and also with foreign language alphabets, scientific characters … endless possibilities! Eventually, Dad had six type balls and I remember typing high school math and science reports using the scientific symbols. One had a conversion chart (looking like a keyboard) showing “A” key = which scientific symbol. Sounds tedious today, but a big deal then. One could type a paragraph in italics or increase the type size, such as a heading, very easily in the same page. These type balls were genius!

Another great feature was the erase key. Prior typing errors had to be corrected by manually moving the paper back to position of the error letter, inserting a white erase paper and typing the wrong letter to be covered by the white carbon. The carriage would still advance, so you had to realign the paper again and type the new letter. Or use the liquid white out, wait for it to dry and try to line up the text to retype. Either way, mistakes were pretty glaring. Usually it was best to just start over on a new piece of paper. Blah! With the IBM Selectric, you could just back space to the letter or word that needed to be changed, and press the erase key. Type the wrong letter and it would bring up a white erasing ribbon, remove/cover the error and not advance the ball. Then type the correct letter. Easy!

My third favorite feature was the memory. Depending on the models, the IBM Selectric could save text and reproduce it. The typewriter Dad had in the late ’60s could save whole documents, up to a limited number of characters, about two pages. Type your document, then insert another piece of paper and it would type out an exact copy from memory.

The whole story of the IBM Selectric II is pretty amazing and highlights the impact that good industrial design has on our lives. If you want to learn more, there is a wealth of information available online. Check it out!

Filed under: Design, Guest Bloggers, Technology

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