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IBM Selectric Typewriter (wikipedia.org)
34 points by CaptainZapp on March 20, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 34 comments

My father was a typewriter repairman, and his specialty was fixing the Selectric. It was quite lucrative -- these things were expensive enough to be worth repairing and were as important to companies as Internet is now. When I was 10, however, we were watching the Super Bowl and the infamous Apple 1984 advertisement came on TV. My dad immediately realized he was doomed. He went out and bought the Mac on the first day it was available. We brought it home. I plugged it in, turned it on, and my faster saw WYSIWYG for the first time in the text editor. The first words out of his mouth were "oh, shit." I went to print the document and it didn't work -- the initial batch of printer cables were incorrect. When we got the new printer cable from the store the next week, my dad decided to change professions and focused on real estate.

My parents tell me that when I was young I said I wanted to be a typewriter repairman when I grew up. Unfortunately I was born in 1982, probably at least 30 years too late for that.

> I went to print the document and it didn't work

Some things never change.

Wasn't the original Mac quite a bit more expensive than a Selectric? Seems interesting that he saw the potential.

Similar - I was an early adopter of "desktop publishing". I was in the printing business and part of doing printing was doing typesetting. For that we had dedicated machines with terminals and large floppy drives which output on photographic paper which needed to be processed chemically. The first machine I bought (Itek) used light shining through a plastic font. Each font cost $40 (iirc) and for each variation (say, bold, once again iirc) you needed a different plastic piece.

Anyway in along with the first mac a bit later came the laserwriter and customers started using that for camera ready copy (canarie in the coal mine was only 300dpi way below photographic quality). Later linotype built a rip that could interface a Mac 512k (iirc) with the linotype (about 1985). I spent almost 6 figures on a linotype and became a service bureau. The minute I saw that you could draw a box on a Mac around type (with traditional systems you needed to essentially program this) I knew what would happen. That said I was in my 20's most others in my business didn't see it the same way since they were older.

Parent commenter - what was the age of your father at the time he had this revelation?

My aunt was a linotype operator in the 1950s. One day I visited her at work and she typed my name into a slug. The machine was amazing. It was something like 8 feet tall, maybe more, with a gazillion moving parts. Typing was fairly slow compared to a typewriter, but every time a letter was pressed, I could hear the cast being selected and moving down to its place in the line. Finally she pressed a lever and the line went off to be case in lead. A few seconds (cant remember the speed) later the lead slug with my name on it appeared.

Your comment then forked me to find (on linkedin) the salesman who sold me that machine. Of all things he now works at Kodak it seems.

I remember those hot type machines never owned one it was before my time.

Someone could probably make a novelty linotype app duplicating the process and the noise the machine made.


What was the printer? It certainly wasn't producing letter-quality output.

As I recall, the original ImageWriter printer was much better than the other dot matrix printers at the time largely due to the Mac software. The Mac Screen was 72DPI and the ImageWriter was 72DPI. This was real WYSIWYG.

Additionally nearly all of the other dot matrix printing was done based on low quality build in fonts. Send some text to output with control codes and you got output. The Mac basically painted pixel on the printer, so what ever font or image you had on the screen was accurately rendered.

Prior to the Mac/ImageWriter combination most of the letter quality (meaning good enough for business correspondence) printing I had seen was done via typewriters wired up to computers. Afterward, many businesses decided the Mac/ImageWriter was good enough for many purposes.

Edit: oh, I forgot there were also Daisy Wheel printers https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daisy_wheel_printer

It was the ImageWriter dot-matrix printer that was released around the same time as the original mac. The pins in the printer cable were in the wrong place.

A couple years ago, while working toward a creative writing/publishing MFA, I found an IBM Selectric II on Craigslist. I'd done all my writing on computers up to that point, but I loved the idea of using a typewriter for first drafts. There was something romantic about the idea. It seemed like a more intimate way to write.

Its owner was a retiree moving to Florida. He'd bought it in the late 60s to write his dissertation but hadn't used it since. It had sat in a corner of his office under its original dust cover for forty years, though he'd had it serviced a few months earlier.

The first thing I noticed was the weight of the thing when I carried it out to my car. It's a tank. The second thing I noticed was the sound it made when I brought it home and switched it on. There was no mistake I was dealing with a piece of machinery, humming, waiting for me to get to work. It looked great, too.

As soon as I sat down to write, I worried that it would bother my neighbors. My apartment walls were thin enough that I could hear anything louder than a cough, so when I discovered that typing each letter was like firing a cannon, it was clear that late-night writing sessions were out of the picture unless I wanted to make enemies.

But I was right about using it for first drafts. On the computer, it's easy to second-guess myself, go back, change things, and re-write too much before the story is even finished. A first draft is supposed to be the shitty, rough, inconsistent sketch of a thing, and my Selectric forces me to press onward. It's awesome. Each key press is satisfying, each carriage return is a mechanical thunk that lets me know I'm making progress. Watching pages stack up on the desk next to it is a reward itself.

I still do my rewrites and edits on my computer, copying from the typed pages, but I'm so happy that I have this monster machine to keep me honest and get the first versions of stories down.

There was something romantic about the idea. It seemed like a more intimate way to write.

I wonder if, a couple decades from now, we'll all be using some kind of neural interface to interact with computers and someone will be writing (using only the power of their mind)< "There was something romantic about the idea of using a QUERTY keyboard and a machine with a 'monitor.' It seemed like a more intimate way to write."

I follow a similar process--and to emulate the fabulous keyfeel when I'm revising, I have a Unicomp Customizer. I know the mechanism's not the same but it keeps some of the tactile satisfaction of the first draft.

Just bought myself a Seletric II off of Ebay a couple weeks ago. The thing is magnificent. The only electrical component is the motor running the driveshaft, otherwise all of the operations are mechanical. For example, pressing a key makes the type head pitch and yaw to the proper character, then lifts and slams it against the paper, all within a few dozen milliseconds, and that whole process is done with just levers and pulleys (clutching off the driveshaft, too, I'm sure). There's even a buffer mechanism, so that if you hit a key while the type mechanism is in the middle of printing the previous character, it's actually "stored" in this buffer until the print head is done with that cycle. AND, if the buffer is full (I believe it only stores one character), then all the keys are locked to prevent any mishaps.

And the maintainability of the thing is pretty nifty - you can take the cover off, and then lift and slide the guts up from the base[0] to stand upright with the bottom facing you. All by-design, since of course such mechanical objects require regular lubrication and other maintenance.

[0] See this video (I linked to 3:35, but the whole thing is cool): http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v...

The guts sliding out of the case was pretty common for typewriters. Most of the cases where nothing more than decorative shells while the actual mechanisms were built into a rectangular metal frame and pretty easy to get around in. Most of these things were fully mechanically linked and manufactured by hand.

My grandfather had a weekly Italian music radio program and every week he went through the same process. First he'd hand write his cues, then add in any commentary, and finally type up the entire thing double spaced so he could easily follow along. I have fond memories of helping him rip apart various type writers to fix them on Friday afternoons during they type up the notes phase.

The "buffer" is actually a narrow trough containing a row of bearings, with just enough slack to hold one key plunger. The next key can't push the balls aside until the previous one has raised enough that the mechanism won't have conflicting signals.

This device is worth a test run, just to know what it was like to type with the best of the best equipment 30 years ago.

Comparing it to other typewriters, imagine firing a gatling gun when you've been writing with revolvers. It feels like your words are typed ahead of when you think of them.

I used a Selectric with a copy machine for class projects and messing around, then my family got a mac ha ha.

>It feels like your words are typed ahead of when you think of them.

Best key feel ever.

It starts with a very light millimetre drop to place your finger. Then the tactile bump, and when that gives way, still near the top to the throw and exactly when the switch activates, it's so fast that it's almost like the key itself is pulling away from you. Then the resistance ramps up continuously, with no hard landing.

IBM did make a good attempt at electronic switches with good feel with their beam spring keyboards, but they were still not as good as the Selectric. Then eurocrats killed those, and the Model F and Model M that followed were a poor substitute, activating almost at the bottom of the throw and landing hard.

[typos corrected]

"Best keys feel ever."

Agreed. Noting also that the sound, if you were a good touch typist, was like a background beat that somehow added to creativity. Or if you were simply doing drone work seemed to lull you to be at peace with the process.

If you weren't careful you'd pick it up with your finger on the triggers and spray the room with letters.

I worked at IBM in 1987. My group's secretary was AMAZING! I remember walking up to her one day. She could talk to me in English, chat to her girlfriend on the phone in Spanish and type a hundred words a minute on the Selectric through her dictation headphone simultaneously and not miss a beat. Simply amazing!

I wrote my papers in college with one of these, then used them in my first job in a newspaper newsroom. I'll never forget the noise of 100 typewriters hammering away before the deadline. A modern newsroom seems like a tomb in comparison.

Using a typewriter was like taking photos with a film camera. Each page required such an investment that you worked really hard to get it right the first time. Then on the second draft, since you had to retype everything anyway, you were a lot more likely to completely recast a passage that needed it, instead of just moving words around a bit. I think typewriters made me a better writer.

I wonder if the designers of the Model M keyboard used the Selectric as an inspiration.

Seems like the "golfball" would make a pretty cool novelty shifter.

There is nothing like a Selectric's keyboard. Bought one in the early 2000s, disconnected from the internet for a year, moved out into the woods and typed on nothing but the Selectric. Never did get around to writing the great American novel though.

Oh and this is pretty nifty. http://hackaday.com/2012/06/13/turning-an-ibm-selectric-into...

I always wondered if back in the days of typewriters there was a similar conversation going as there's today about keyboards.

Where there the IBM, Apple 2, Das keyboard fans?

My favorite text editor font (Letter Gothic) was originally designed for the Selectric.

http://www.fontshop.com/fonts/downloads/monotype/letter_goth... (that link isn't the monospaced variant, don't get it, but a good visual representation)

I learned to type on a Selectric in high school a few years back (maybe more than a few, actually).

The thing I remember about them, besides the hum, is the smell -- a warm machine oil scent.

I should probably get one of these while they're still commonly available in working condition.

We had one at home when I was in high school. Loved that thing. Abandoned it when we got a PC, but we got a printer that worked the same way. It was a big step up from dot matrix output, back before laser printers and inkjets.

I learned how to type on one of these in high school. Ah, the good old days...

I always thought the way the golf ball moved, at speed, was pure magic.

This is why I like my Das Keyboard so much. :)

The first computer I learned to program, an IBM 1130, had a Selectric as the console.

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