It’s Selectric! IBM’s Classic Typewriter Turns Fifty

Posted by  | Wednesday, July 27, 2011

In 1966, IBM announced the Selectric Composer, an advanced model that sold for $4400, or more than $30,000 in 2011 dollars. It came with fifty typefaces–and allowed typists to create typeset-quality justified text. One minor downside: You had to type everything twice. (The typewriter calculated how many characters would fit on each line on the first pass, then inserted the appropriate amount of space on the second one.) An even fancier model announced at the same time, the Magnetic Tape Selectric Composer, came as close to performing word processing as was possible at the time. It cost $21,000, or $146,000 in 2011 dollars. (Today, that would buy you more than 200 ThinkPads.)

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32 Comments For This Post

  1. Steve Wildstrom Says:

    The Selectric even had a brief life as a computer terminal. When I was using the Michigan Terminal system (an early time-sharing OS) on an IBM System/360 in the late 1960s, I;d try to find a Selectric-based IBM 2741 terminal. It was vastly easier to work on than the much more common Teletype Model 33, which required you to type in rhythm with some mechanical device. It also product much better looking output, although any serious printing was done on the monster system line printers.

  2. Jay Cadmus Says:

    Used one in my first job as a newspaper reporter in 1984 — it was a marvel compared to the Smith Corona I had used to type my college papers.

  3. mpjoyn Says:

    Here is a very nice "how it works" video on the workings of the Selectric ball:

  4. Janet Fernandes Says:

    Thanks for the video. Appreciated. Drag Racer V3

  5. Terryc Says:

    The executive's name on the last page is Linda not Lisa Sanford

  6. Marianne Says:

    Used to sneak into a friend's mother's office in college to type term papers on one of these. LOVED them. I thought the ability to change fonts with the Selectric ball was the living end.

  7. Janet Fernandes Says:

    Good to hear that.. Nice that you shared one of ur experience. Drag Racer V3

  8. Martin C Says:

    Thanks for confirming a serious anachronism in the first series of Mad Men–Selectrics in the Sterling Cooper offices in the summer of 1960, two years before their real-world commercial introduction. The Selectric was truly the one of the most pleasurable ways to perform the distinctly unpleasurable task of writing something. To me, the Selectric's secret weapon was a distinct back beat you could feel through the keyboard when typing. You'd get a minor beat as the typeball swiveled and launched towards the platen, a nice slam when it hit, and another minor beat as the ball retreated back to its ready position. And that's why I go for that Selectric music, any old way you choose it.

  9. Dennis Says:

    I started with IBM in 1978, as a Customer Engineer fixing selectrics and other IBM electric typewriters. I've always maintained they were themost brilliant purely mechanical machine ever designed. I managed over 2000 desktops in my skyscraper territory in Century City. I still have my tool case and tools, some parts, and the knowledge to fix these babies, ingrained in my memory forever (hard to forget after fixing thousands upon thouands of them). One note about element (typeball) versus typebar machines – all the typing speed records were set on the electric typebar machines, such as the IBM Model D. A skilled operator could have 10 keys in mid air perfectly timed to strike paper without hammer collision, where the element could only position one letter at a time, then return to rest position, to do it again. But, for the AVERAGE typist, the Selectric was a machine that helped increase speed and reduce errors. I still own one, but alas, it's never used.

  10. Jim B IBM OP-CE Says:

    Hey Dennis, I was a CE in Chicago Mid-town from 1973 – 1980. Then I started my own Sel. repair company. I still fix a few each year. Do you think you could still replace a escapement pawl spring on a D-4? Sound like fun? Jim B IBM OP-CE

  11. Roy Heremann Says:

    I stated with IBM in 1964 working on all the products in the typewriter line. I retired in 1992. I am looking for a hand cycling wheel. My only one was loaned to a friend and I haven's seen it since.
    If you have one, I would be very interested in purchasing it.

  12. Penny Says:

    A really superb typing machine, very easy to adjust margins and centre, once that golfball came in with the different typefaces and also the correctible ribbon facility, there was no stopping its popularity. I especially liked it because it didn't slip and slide on a worksurface, due to its weight which, though not heavy and clunky, held it firm on either a solid desk or typewriter table…yes sometimes as a temp you would get stuck with a typewriter on a wibbley wobbley little typing table, but if it was a selectric, it didn't move hardly at all. Amazing what some employers would try to get away with, back then (I'm talking mid-1970s on)….(though not at IBM of course!).

  13. Doris Walker Says:

    Thanks for this marvelous look back!

    Typewriters such as the Selectric are still used in some businesses where, believe it or not, original carbon copies of documents are legally required.

  14. Janet Fernandes Says:

    Good to here, that Selectric is still being used. Old is Gold. Angry Birds Game Online

  15. JRS Says:

    l have one that was used very little. Is there a market for it? If so post a message on this site and I will contact you. JR

  16. Carmen Permillion Says:

    Has it been fifty years??? Any way i'm not sure if that was the ad that my father responded to in 1965, but that's when he started as a customer service engineer for IBM and yes he is still repairing them. not for IBM anymore (he bought an typewriter repair busines in 1981.)….he can tell what's wrong with a selectric just by listening to it. (usually). he repairs about 6 -10 selectrics a month currently.. But i'm sure just as Dennis above said. It's ingrained in his head.

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    But comparing the LeaderHoyer account now with its appearance last year, there are a number of inconsistencies Angry Birds Online

  18. Janet Fernandes Says:

    Happy Birthday Selectric!!!!!!!!
    I kinda like the retro gadgets, & Selectric is one of them. However, i am using the G550 lappy which is a much advanced gadget from IBM. Drag Racer V3

  19. Janet Fernandes Says:

    Hey, this is just for ur info that IBM first launched Selectric then they launched Selectric II (dual Latin/Hebrew typeball and keyboard) and later they launched Selectric-based machines with data storage and there came many other models which replaced SELECTRIC. Racing Games

  20. Janet Fernandes Says:

    The design of Selectric is credited to influential American Eliot Noyes. Well done Eliot Noyes.
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  21. Janet Fernandes Says:

    Every gadget is replaced by advanced technology. Similarly IBM Wheelwriter in 1984 replaced Selectric with some advanced features. Cooking Games

  22. @Apogalacticon Says:

    Haha, does anyone here actually remember the selectric? I certainly didn't learn to type on one.
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  23. Janet Fernandes Says:

    Selectric is Passe now. We've got high end gadgets like iPad's and tablet PCs which do not require the effort of typing. It works with a finger touch. Cargames9

  24. carole Says:

    I have used an IBM Selectric III in my office since 1981; I intend to take it with me whenever I retire! The IBM Selectric is without a doubt the best typewriter ever; It has never broken down and only needs a yearly inspection and cleaning to perform just as it did when it was new. There are numerous times in my office when a typewriter is a necessity. I love my IBM.

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