A writer identified only as nm, over at the IBM Power Architecture zone editors' notebook, has responded to the fuss over the 25th anniversary of the IBM PC by writing a love letter to the IBM Selectric typewriter and Selectric Composer:
It's an interesting historical retrospective, and I'm not just saying that because they linked to me.
Also forgotten in all the hubbub, and also relegated to the “attic,” is the IBM Selectric—which would be celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, if anyone had remembered it. Er, and also if '45 years' were considered, you know, significant.
The Selectric was a wonderful machine, the pinnacle of typewriter development. I still miss its keyboard, which has never been bettered. The Selectric taught me how solid engineering sounds and feels, which has been useful to me ever since. (I bought my Honda Civic, a year-old floor model, because in some indefinable way it felt like a Selectric. It ran for fourteen years, until it was smashed to pieces in a hit-and-run while parked. Feeling like a Selectric is a good thing.)
In my social circle, the Selectric stuck around as long as mimeography did. There was never a better machine made for cutting a mimeo stencil. Its clean impression also took well to xerox reproduction. You could even photoreduce your typed copy without sacrificing too much readability. I can't recall anyone lusting after a different brand of typewriter. To get an idea of the Selectric's ubiquity, consider Courier, that typeface everyone uses for their manuscripts. Courier was originally a proprietary Selectric face.The typewriter begat the Composer:
The IBM Composer was indeed hard on the operator, and I was using the user-friendlier mid-70s model. Still, it had the astonishing property of allowing you to set reasonably professional type in a non-industrial setting. That was revolutionary: civilians could set type, and they could take the resulting repro to any printer that had an offset press. Flexibility! Power!
Then—forty years ago, in 1966—the Selectric Composer, which is really the machine responsible for giving the Selectric line its desktop-publishing reputation, upped the ante with its ability to produce justified, camera-ready copy using neither molten lead nor digital electronics (but that was sort of hard on the operator—for instance, for centered headings, each of the lines of type had to be centered by measuring carefully, doing some math, then advancing the carrier to just the right point on the page).
The machine wasn't exactly cheap, but small publications could afford one, which meant they could set their own type on their own schedule without paying for it by the column inch, and without waiting for the next business day to get their corrections made. To get a different font in a different type size, all you needed to do was change your type ball.
It's hard to remember now how few typefaces a small-town newspaper might have had in the days of linotype. You could put out a newspaper with two basic text faces (one of them smaller, for want ads and obits), a couple of display faces for ads and headlines (one serif, one not), and a little collection of ornaments and rule lines.
After offset printing came in, if you didn't want to go to a full-service type shop, you could use sticktype (a.k.a. Letraset, Chartpak, Zipatone, dry transfer lettering) for the fancy stuff. You rubbed pre-printed transferable lettering onto paper from a see-through plastic sheet. The technology is now the province of scrapbookers and modelmakers, and good riddance to it. The stuff cracked and peeled and got distorted during the transfer process. It shrank if exposed to heat. You were forever running out of essential letters. You had to be an expert to get it laid down straight, with correct spacing. In those days, being a professional graphic artist required some serious manual skills. If instead of hiring a graphic artist you did it yourself, it generally looked like crap.
The Selectric Composer meant that readers couldn't reliably estimate the budget of a piece of printed matter just by looking at its type. It put the means of production into the hands of a much wider range of people. One lone crazed weirdo with a collection of type balls, working from his or her kitchen table, could put together a publication whose professional appearance was limited only by its creator's care, intelligence, and sense of design.
The classic example is the first Whole Earth Catalog, which was put together by Stewart Brand and his cronies on a kitchen table, using a rented Composer. They never got the hang of the machine's two-step justification process, which was why the Whole Earth Catalog had that artsy flush-left, ragged-right column design. I remember how different that book felt when it came out. It had been produced by people who were intimate with their text, who were living with it. And there was so much text: a small fortune in typesetting charges, if they'd gone that route.
So, yeah, Selectrics changed the world. Printing technology is forever doing that. How many remember now that the era of the pulps, that wild flowering of the American dream machine, was birthed by the advent of linotypes, high-speed presses, and cheap wood-pulp paper?
But the biggest single distinction of the old IBM machines wasn't their superb engineering or their groundbreaking technological advances. Of all the repro systems I've ever come in contact with, IBM typewriters and composers were the ones their users loved. They were powerful and reliable and easy to use. You felt like they were on your side. I didn't see anything to equal the affection their users felt for them until the Macintosh came along.
It's hard to see those machines fade from memory. It makes me suspect I may be mortal as well. But in their day, they were grand.