Computer History Snippet of the Week: The IBM Selectric II

Today, we type away with ease on mechanical keyboards and light-up touch screens. But one of the key forerunners to those tools—the typewriter—enjoyed a major upgrade in the 1960s that became the forerunner to much of the input technology we have today.

Selectric Ball

Before the IBM Selectric, you could type with a typewiter, but you could not type in different fonts or undo mistakes. Additionally, because keys on the edges had longer arms and more distance to travel to the page, you had to hit those keys harder than other keys to get those letters to print legibly. Typing was slow by modern standards, and the limitations of the machines resulted in typos, verbosity, and smudgy letters.

The IBM Selectric II changed all that, largely with the help of the funny-looking ball you see above. Because each letter on that ball was roughly the same distance from the manipulator arm at the center, typists could produce any letter clearly with the same amount of key pressure. Additionally, typists could change out the balls to get different fonts or even different special characters; in fact, this feature of the Selectric paved the way for APL, the topic of our last computer history installment, to become a fixture in computer programming at the time.

selectric changing

The Selectric balls came in sets to give typists different font choices:

selectric ball set

Phil Patton shares an excellent account of the rise of the IBM Selectric for The Design Observer.

My favorite tidbits from that article (parentheses contain my comments):

(of the Selectric’s predecessor) To promote the machine, IBM returned to the publicity techniques of the typewriter’s early days by hiring a champion typist, Margaret Hamma, who set new speed records. Hamma traveled the country, typing up to 150 words per minute with cups of water balanced on the backs of her hands to show how little effort the machine took.

The machine was made available in many different colors; companies could even customize them. Ettore Sottsass’s 1969 plastic Valentine for Olivetti is rightly celebrated for its pop red, but it was the Selectric that broke from black, gray and beige office machines. (This was in 1971, five years before Apple was founded, and 27 years before the release of the colorful iMac G3—lest you think colorful computers were Apple’s idea.) [The Selectric II] established the idea that office equipment could have an automobile’s panache.

IBM also shares a categorical account of events here, starting with the release of the Selectric in 1961 and stretching to the Selectric III in the ’80s.

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