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August 20, 2006

Back when IBM had balls
Posted by Teresa at 01:34 PM *

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:

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.

It's an interesting historical retrospective, and I'm not just saying that because they linked to me.

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:

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 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!

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.

Comments on Back when IBM had balls:
#1 ::: Mary R ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 01:57 PM:

Actually, scanners make typewriters useful again. A friend works for a professor who refuses to trust his manuscripts to a computer. He types the first draft, she scans it in to the computer. He makes his edits longhand on the printed version, she does them on the computer.

Seems to work fairly well. Of course, time isn't really a factor.

#2 ::: Steven Brust ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 02:02 PM:

Don't know if you ever got to use one, but the natural successor to the IBM Selectric (wrote my first 1 1/2 books on one of those) was the DEC VT-100 keyboard. I loved that thing with a passion usually reserved for Irish Wolfhouds and veteren boxer shorts.

#3 ::: Michael Walsh ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 02:06 PM:

This brings back memories...

When Steve Stiles nad I shared a house here in Baltimore, he had his studio on the third floor. Nonetheless, little bits of zipatone managed to migrate all over the house. Sharp, sticky bits of zipatone... ouch.

#4 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 02:07 PM:

My college roomie (well, the one I got along with best) owned one. He let me borrow it to type other people's papers, and I kept myself in beer money for a year or two transcribing sloppily-handwritten copy into clean, professor-friendly reports. I learned an awful lot about things like soil engineering (which I've since forgotten).

They were great machines.

#5 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 02:09 PM:

I feel that way -- I used a Selectric more than once, and VT102s, too, but never for anything actually personal -- about the IBM Space Saver II keyboard, which has a built-in trackpoint and no number pad.

Probably the best computer keyboard every made if you like trackpoints above mice; utterly discontinued, and painfully expensive. I have no idea what I'm going to do when the two I have depart from the land of functional.

#6 ::: Mike Kozlowski ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 02:27 PM:

I used a basic Selectric in my typing classes (in the early '90s, so you can tell that the ol' school district was highly up-to-date on their tech), and I thought it was just about the worst typing device I'd ever used. It was slow enough that I could miss letters when typing, as the keys would refuse to press if it was still processing the last key; it hummed and jumped around in this disturbing way that suggested it might electrocute you if it felt like it; and, worst, it had that anti-ergonomic sharp edge on the keyboard that took five years off my wrists.

But then, I've never cared for the high-pressure, high-click IBM style computer keyboards, either. Give me a scissor-switch notebook-style keyboard any day, the kind that lets your fingers glide lightly over the keyboard.

#7 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 02:32 PM:

I adored my Selectrics; I wrote four novels on two different machines. (I wrote my first published novel in longhand, in a spiral bound notebook.) I owned a basic Selectric, and then switched to the self-correcting one. Remember the little special backspace key and self-correcting tape? As Teresa says, the Selectric was a kinesthetic delight. I miss the feel of that typewriter to this day.

My first computer, back in 1982, was an IBM, and I know that one reason I chose the IBM, as opposed to the Mac and the Osborne, which appeared to be the other reasonable choices, was that I trusted IBM to make a good machine. No, I wouldn't want to give up my computer and go back to the typewriter, but yes, it was a lovely machine.

#8 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 02:47 PM:

In 1972 or 1973 the Carleton student publications jointly with the Alumni publication office bought a pair of Compugraphic typesetters -- a display setter, and a body setter (the body setter would buffer up to a line and do justification). They both produced daylight-safe cassettes of stabilization paper, which you then took across the hall into the darkroom and ran through the stabilization processor to make visible and stable enough to use for a week or two. But the pair of them ran over $10k, which might make it a bit more expensive than a Composer, and also some years later. It was an interesting piece of expanding local capabilities. I was in charge of maintenance; they'd ship me parts and talk me through the process on the phone, including taking the whole thing apart and replacing the motor buried in the middle. It worked!

There *was* at least one other typewriter people pined for. I can't now remember the brand, but it was available with micro-elite type (15 characters per inch) and was hence beloved among certain long-winded faneds. I remember that Fred [Levy] Haskell had one (this was pre-Levy). I can't now remember the brand. Hmmm; googling suggests IBM also had that available, but I don't remember faneds being that excited about it on IBMs. Maybe I'm crunching a decade down too far, and the IBMs with it weren't out yet.

The Selectric keyboard was tolerable, at least it was fairly precise, but it was rather heavy. I far preferred the IBM 026 keypunch -- made for much more highly-paid typists :-). That had a tremendously light, short-travel, and even more precise touch.

The *worst* keyboard ever was of course the ASR-33 teletype. Long travel, very heavy, and a mechanical interlock to prevent simultaneous key depression. I typed a LOT on that monster.

#9 ::: jane ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 02:49 PM:

Add me to the Selectric lovers. (I still have mine.) I must have written over 100 books on it and until about twelve years ago was still using it. I gave it up reluctantly for the computer.


#10 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 03:01 PM:

I miss them, too.

Here's a pretty one:

#11 ::: Janet Kegg ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 03:07 PM:

Thanks for the memories. The Selectric was indeed a lovely machine. I had one in my office at work until about a year ago. The last few years I used it to address an envelope once in a while.

One day I discovered it no longer worked without sticking stubbornly. It was under a service contract (we still have a couple of Selectrics around our offices) but I reluctantly decided it was time to let it go.

#12 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 03:43 PM:

And the Selectric was sufficiently popular that Remington built a typewriter using the IBM technology to keep up with the demand. They were square-cornered, rather than the Selectric's Italian-sports-car curves (though rather like the Selectric II) but the feel was essentially the same.

When I started Doing This for Money, I outran the electric portable I'd gone to college with, and for some time rented Remingtons from the local shop. Eventually a friend who was moving to word processors was a machine up, and I bought it. It had seen serious use -- the typewriter shop people kept asking me to have it chemically cleaned,* though I never did -- but never skipped a beat. (The only thing I missed was that the rentals had been correctors.)

And certainly I wish I still had it, for envelopes and other things that feed questionably through the HP. Though I have no idea where I'd put it.**

Eheu, fugaces.***

*Do not do this to your word processor. Serious death or injury may result.
**"On a pedestal" is picturesque but impractical.

#13 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 03:53 PM:

David Dyer-Bennet,

Surely not on paper tape? I spent two years as a teletype op in the Navy using those things; Bush v. Gore reminded me of the existence of chad for the first time since those Navy days.

#14 ::: David D. Levine ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 04:02 PM:

In my early days we had a Selectric that was built into a desk and rigged with servos so that it could be used as a computer output device (this was circa 1978 and the computer was a CP/M homebrew with a Z-80 processor and -- gosh wow! -- a whopping 64k of RAM). We used the same typewriter for manual typing and for printing final copies of papers. I have no idea where my father found this marvel.

During this time I used Zip-A-Tone and its competitors for display type. I got very, very good at piecing together bits of uncommon letters to fill in for the common letters that ran out (e.g. use an F and an L to make an E after the real E's were all gone).

#15 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 04:11 PM:

I had a roommate with a Selectric which was calle the Giant Green Toad. It got to where the keys were sticking and stuff, and he took in and had it cleaned. Worked much better afterwards.

#16 ::: John D. Berry ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 04:14 PM:

T --

You knew this one would get me, didn't you?

I was especially fond of the correcting Selectric, though its ability to correct wasn't much use if you were typing mimeo stencils. I made my living for a while in the 1970s at the keyboard of a Selectric, as a temporary typist. This led me, not to the IBM Composer, but directly to that epitome of cheap composition, the bright-blue Compugraphic phototypesetters. Just a couple of weeks ago, at TypeCon in Boston, on an end-of-con excursion to the Museum of Printing in North Andover, I found myself sitting at a Comp IV again, for the first time in at least 20 years, reminiscing about wearing out the little finger of my right hand hitting the Discretionary Hyphen key over and over again as I approached the end of a typeset line. (The correcting Selectric had given that finger a bit of practice, and perhaps strengthening, but nothing like the workout that the Comp IV gave it.)

I find it fascinating that the two books for which the poet and printer Clifford Burke is best known are Printing It: A Guide to Graphic Techniques for the Impecunious (1972), which was a manual of cheap production for those with access to a Composer and a xerox or a local offset printer, and Printing Poetry (1980) an exquisite letterpress book about hand-setting poetry and printing it on a hand press. The two books deal with the opposite ends of the self-printing technology, yet both are about putting the means of production into the hands of loving amateurs.

For a current look at Clifford Burke:

You might also be interested in an essay I wrote (originally as a column on about the techniques of creating typefaces for the Letraset rub-down lettering system:

For the about-to-go-to-press book Dot-font: Talking About Fonts (Mark Batty Publisher), I'm reprinting that as the lead-off essay, complete with brand-new photos of the process of cutting Rubylith stencils, which Dave Farey did for the book a few weeks ago since he had no decent old photos from the 1960s...

Much old tech, much new tech; much ado about tech...

And one quibble: no one who was actually familiar with typesetting would confuse a publication set on an IBM Composer with one set in real type, even phototype. The difference was instantly recognizable. But not to your average reader -- which was the point.


#17 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 04:22 PM:

Mike Kozlowski, I've clocked 100+ words per minute many times on a Selectric without jamming. I'm wondering whether you were used to a manual machine where the keys would forcefully bounce back up after striking. If so, you may not have learned to lift your fingers far enough after striking, so that the Selectric would register that key as still being depressed. One of my specialties back in my clerical temp days was high-speed copy typing, and there was nothing faster than a Selectric.

#18 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 04:27 PM:

John, of course you could tell. I'm trying to remember whether the Composer's repro was better or worse than 300 dpi laser printer output, and I just can't do it. I'll bet you know. Which is it?

#19 ::: Carl ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 04:28 PM:

I still have an old selectric II (a great machine, and so easy to maintain!) and, to paraphrase, Heston, "...cold, dead hands."

I prefer a computer for editing, but for simple composition and writing letters, it can't be beat.

#20 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 04:34 PM:

I haven't thrown out the Selectric yet, and I have a bag of typeballs, too. Jamming Selectrics? Both Asimov and and Anne McCaffrey swore by them as the only typewriters that could handle their speed.

I'd love to run across a Composer in working condition -- just to play with again.

TeleTypes (ASR/KSR 33/35) were rough on your fingers, but boy, did they teach you to type correctly -- if you messed the rhythm or didn't lift your fingers up far enough they key would apply precise reinforcement with its kickback (this may not have been a universal or even designed "feature"). And when did TV news stop using TeleType chatter as a background rhythm track?

The height of electro-mechanical computer interface were the last bunch of high-end mechanical cash registers that punched papertape as well two printed tapes (customers and audit).

The thing I miss most about not-quite-as-old-as-the-vt100 DEC keyboards is the "compose character" key. You didn't have access to all of Unicode, but every diacritical used in a latin alphabet was accessable with a couple of intuitively obvious keystrokes (the sequence <compose> <"> <o> would yield umlaut-o ).

My favorite old typesetting terminal was the modified VT20 from DEC circa the mid-70's. The basic VT20 was DEC's first own-design glass teletype (pre-VT100 pre-VT52), and its keyboard layout supported the command language used at the time. The screen was even recessed a couple of inches to minimize glare. But the modified one had a set of function keys with program addressable incandescent backlights to let you know what function keys could be used in the current context-- you could have your own private lightshow just by sending escape sequences to the keyboard. The PDP-11 system that used it ran the justification-and-hyphenation job in a batch queue because it took so long (hours per chapter of a manual).

Why yes, I am an old-fart geek. However did you guess?

Linkmeister: that's not chad -- that's the backup.

#21 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 04:39 PM:

I learned to type on a Selectric. God, they were beautiful. Their chunky-clunk noise satisfied me in a way that no computer ever will. And the hum when you turned them on--I felt like I had a Robot Minion.

#22 ::: PurpleGirl ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 04:39 PM:

I took typing classes in high school on a large manual machine. My first exposure to Selectrics came in college in various administration offices where I either hung out (the Student Affairs office) or worked (the Dean's office). My first job "out" of college (I still had 12 credits or so to finish) was typing mathematics on a Selectric. (Imagine typing mathematics with carbon paper and stencils because they were class notes which would later be printed, bound and sold). I used the IBM-approved mathematics ball and the Composer ball with yet more symbols on it. (IBM claimed the Composer ball wouldn't fit the regular Selectric, but it did.) Eventually I bought myself a dual-pitch, self-correcting Selectric which I loved. I miss the feel of that keyboard. I still choose keyboards by their size and Selectric-like feel. I wouldn't trade in working with a computer word-processor for making corrections and changes easier but the Selectric was great machine.

#23 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 04:46 PM:

I occasionally run into a Selectric at garage sales and in thrift shops, and wonder if it is worth "rescuing." But whether it is books, old wargames, or old office equipment, that is a really bad habit.

* * *

"I loved that thing with a passion usually reserved for Irish Wolfhounds and veteran boxer shorts."

Add an "s'" to the end of "veteran" and that sentence goes from funny to kinky.

#24 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 04:51 PM:

Now I'm about to show my youth: I never got to use a Selectric. I went straight from a manual typewriter (a Triumph Adler 25 -- it's still kicking around somewhere at my parents, I think, with a shiny spot worn on the left of the space bar) to a brief flirtation with an electronic typewriter (an Olivetti M70 that had an LCD and 8Kb of memory and could do justification and neat stuff) and then to an Amstrad PCW8256, the machine that really launched word processing for the masses in the UK.

I have fond memories of that Amstrad. Wrote my first salable stories on in (not to mention about three or four utterly unsalable novels). When I got it, with version 1.0 of the LocoScript dedicated word processing software, I learned the hard way that if you tried saving a file to a 170Kb 3" floppy disk (yes, 3.0 inches, not 3.5 inches -- Amstrad was eccentric that way) with insufficient free space it would crash and you'd get a pretty Space Invaders like display on the screen, and a trashed file. And there was no word count.

Hell, I began teaching myself BASIC, and then C, just so I could get a word count on my stories. (Fatal, career-diverting mistake, that.)

The keyboard on the PCW was everything that the IBM Selectric was not -- rubbery, rectangular keys jammed too close together, just enough tactile feedback to make you think you were drumming your fingers on the flank of a three-days-dead unrefrigerated trout.

But I still miss it. Because back in 1986 Amstrad had gotten the out-of-the-box experience right. All you had to do was fit a mains plug to the cable (a commonplace in British consumer goods back in the day -- plugs were an optional extra), plug it in, stick the boot disk in, and away it went.

And I bet you there's still a bunch of them out there ...

#26 ::: Mike Kozlowski ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 05:03 PM:

Teresa: I'm definitely not used to manual typewriters, but computer keyboards work even if you still have the previous key depressed, so that's probably what I was doing.

#27 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 05:03 PM:

John Houghton --

The compose key lives, at least as far as X11 keybindings goes. (I have it attached to the Windows keys, since they're otherwise not very useful...)

Not quite as much fun as current vim and a unicode terminal program, though - ctrl-V, u, four digits of hex, and *poof*, the character at that unicode code point. Too slow for regular typing but very handy for putting things like bullets into XSL.

#28 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 05:14 PM:

I loved Selectrics. When I was doing my Azapazine, I had one. Too bad it never worked when I had it -- I got it from a friend, and eventually passed it on to my sister, who might still have it. I spent happy times whaling away on the Selectric at the Red Cross office in Ft. Collins, while Mom worked.

It was swell watching the evolution. At the foreign language department at Georgia Southern, I used a correcting Selectric, and still had to correct Ditto the old-fashioned way, with the corner of a razor blade, until they got the Memory Writer.

The next step in the evolution of the Selectric. The missing link to the word processor. It had a whopping eight pages of storage space, so I could make a page and fix it until it was totally accurate... and then make a Ditto master with it. Bwahahaha!

After that, my next job was as a temp at University of Houston. They gave me some typing to do and asked if I wanted to type it or use the word processor. I said, show me how to use the word processor! A short while later, I was made permanent, and used the CPT system, with its noisy two-headed daisy-wheel printer (and the clunky plexiglass cover that was supposed to make it be quieter) the whole time. I still miss the interface.

It was on a correcting Selectric that I got the typing test score I more or less retired on. In a five-minute test, I timed out at 105 wpm, and corrected all but five errors (and had to change sheets at one point), so I had a 100 wpm score. I haven't had to take a typing test since, I just tell them about that one.

A cartoon exists in rough form on a scrap of paper that turns up from time to time, of a Selectric ball covered with question marks. "An element of doubt."

#29 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 05:24 PM:

though its ability to correct wasn't much use if you were typing mimeo stencils.

"Gentlemen, I would like you to look at the future."
"The future is a Remington Standard 2?"
"Ah, but you will notice the piping attached, and this set of controls."
"Hickey, you would attach piping and a set of controls to a rhubarb pie. What does this item do?"
"You see here a pressure tank, and here a supply of corflu. This tube leads to a spray nozzle just above the impact point of the typebars."
"You haven't."
"I have. Gentlemen, this is a stencil-correcting typewriter."
"All well and good, Hickey old man, but what about drying the corflu?"
"Well, I suppose one could lean forward and breathe heavily in the usual fashion."
"Sounds like a limping half-step into the future."
"The floor is open to suggestions."
"I suppose a small fan . . ."
"A heat ray."
"Egghead, you are cracked on one side. That, or you actually are a Martian, as several of us have long suspected."
"Follow me closely. A system of lenses above the typing point. Approximately here, the pencil-carbon arclight you will recall from the Adventure of the Disassociated Del Rey."
"I have tried mightily to forget that."
"Nonetheless. A switch, placed at sufficient distance to avoid accidental ignition, controls the arc. We'll worry about the clockwork adjustor later. Backspace, lower an actinic shield --"
"Where did that come from?"
"Hush, Arcot. Then press the trigger, a relay slams home, and the powerful light dries the corflu in a split instant. We'll want a momentary switch."
"Anyone would."
"Gentlemen, you realize what we have created here."
"The last time you said that, the federal authorities were nearly involved."
"This is -- the Mightiest Mimeo Machine."

--Owen Johnson, "The Lawrenceville Boys Go Dingo"

#30 ::: Dave Langford ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 05:32 PM:

Oh god. I typed whole fanzines, and whole books, on a Selectric and a Sperry-Remington and another Selectric, but that damned John M (for Model-T) Ford has pre-empted all the jokes. As usual.

#31 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 05:33 PM:

I used Selectrics back when I was a two-finger-typing journalist in the 70s. I found the correcting Selectric to be the most marvellous machine in the world (until I encountered the Wang word processor, at which point I shifted my allegiance).

#32 ::: Caro ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 05:52 PM:

One of the best things my parents did for their aspiring writer child was buying an Selectric typewriter to replace our old Royal Manual. That thing saw me through many a school paper, fan fic, a few zines and let my mother do the newsletter for her sewing guild.

#33 ::: RichM ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 05:56 PM:

I'm another one who learned touch-typing on a Selectric, in summer school during the 1970's. A classroom full of these humming and kerchunking from dozens of students laboring to make the associations between the letters and the blank keycaps was an awe-inspiring experience. I wish I could have had one for college instead of my Smith Corona manual (but it would have been pretty heavy to lug around).

Is it nostalgia, or just the sweet-smelling ditto fluid that brings this state of mind?

#34 ::: Lynn ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 06:19 PM:

My mother is 83 and still has her correcting Selectric and no desire to give it up.

#35 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 06:21 PM:

I spent my first advance check (well, the on-pub check) on a toast-brown Selectric which was my constant companion for ten years. It was like a tank (and weighed like one--I used to sit cross-legged with it in my lap to write, to the lasting resentment of my knees) and made a wonderful solid thunk when the ball hit the paper. I miss it.

#36 ::: Rich McAllister ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 06:41 PM:

David D. Levine: In my early days we had a Selectric that was built into a desk and rigged with servos so that it could be used as a computer output device

Sounds like an IBM 2741 terminal, which was the terminal I learned programming on in 1972. My phone number still ends in 2741.

Mike Kozlowski: computer keyboards work even if you still have the previous key depressed

That's called "key rollover", and I'm pretty sure real electromechanical Selectrics and Selectric IIs had it. I remember being told that it's impossible to type over about 60WPM on a keyboard without rollover.

Madeleine Robins: I used to sit cross-legged with it in my lap to write

I'm completely croggled.

and made a wonderful solid thunk when the ball hit the paper.

Actually most of the noise was the bottom of the ball contacting the positioning pin. There was a pattern of "teeth" and notches at the bottom of every Selectric golfball, which was not for decoration. As the ball came forward, one of the notches encountered the pin; as the ball came further forward the pin aligned with the top of the notch which set the rotation so that the right letter was exactly in front. This meant the rotation mechanism didn't actually have to be built or maintained with close tolerances (unlike those ASR/KSR-33's DDB mentioned above) which is one of the reasons Selectrics were so reliable. Every single time I had to deal with any Selectric-style mechanism mistyping, it was caused by trying to use a ball with one of the "teeth" broken off.

#37 ::: Chryss ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 06:52 PM:

Alas, alack a day, I am too young for the Composer, but not for Letraset. Oh my doG, I loved rub-down lettering. And, later, knowing about those made life a lot easier when you had to mock up gift bags that hadn't yet come back from the manufacturer, and you had a catalog photo shoot scheduled the next day.

Typesetting geeks! Typesetting geeks! I have found my people!

Side note: Michael Walsh, I too live in the Baltimore area, although I'm a newbie. Were you at Balticon?

#38 ::: Dave Kuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 07:12 PM:

I killed two Selectrics. Okay, not deliberately and I only wounded one. One was a regular Selectric and the circuitry burned out in it. The other was an MTST version that had two magnetic tape (MT) drives so you could record what you typed and replay it over and over to produce many, many copies.

Back then I had a typing speed of 143wpm without errors though I could go faster. When I wounded the MTST, about six cables inside it broke simultaneously. The repairman asked how it got broke and I gave him a truthful answer. He then asked how fast I could type, so I answered that as well. Turned out the MTST had been preset to handle up to 110wpm, so he reset it to 160 after replacing the cables or so he claimed.

By the way, before that I managed to also kill two manual typewriters. You really don't want to know how many computer keyboards I've been through even though I'm a lot slower now due to some arthritis in my hands. But yeah, I really liked those Selectrics.

#39 ::: meredith ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 07:18 PM:

I came from a Smith-Corona family, but I understand the nostalgia. Many was the night when the wee me woke up at 2 or 3am, only to be lulled back to sleep by the whirr-clackity-clack-kerCHING of either my mom writing her thesis or my sister writing her first novel, depending on who was staying up all night typing on the kitchen table that time around. :)

I learned to type on one of the two we had, and I particularly loved the process of switching out the black ribbon cartridge, putting in the correction cartridge, then back again. I think my right hand was twice as strong as the left after a while of that!

#40 ::: Avedon ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 08:37 PM:

Ah, the Selectric II, my first love. I was gonna write exactly what Jane wrote, but she already did.

It took me years to finally agree to switch off the click on my computer keyboard, and then only because I didn't want to wake that guy who was sleeping in the next room.

And it never, never, never crashed.

#41 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 08:51 PM:

I had a wonderful Selectric that I was given when I was in high school. It was grey powder coat and weiged half a ton.

My grandmother thought she was doing me a favor and traded it in on a portable Smith Corona, which I never liked. I still miss that Selectric, although I can't imagine going back to a typewriter for anything other than typing the odd envelope or label.

Word processing and graphics programs have enabled the visually tone-deaf to create all sorts of ghastly assaults upon the eye. Still, I wouldn't go back.

#42 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 09:20 PM:

Back in the day...

...I owned a 1973 Mustang sedan, one of the larger sportier "muscle" versions. This was the sort of thing guys drove to impress women. No, that wasn't why I bought it. I confess that I always felt a bit of a fake driving it, because I wasn't the type of person to drive that type of car. (I really should have kept my '64 Pontiac station wagon: reliability and functionality combined.)

Typing on my Selectric, though... now that felt not only like driving a sports car, but driving a sports car like an expert. Typeball roaring, I'd accelerate through mountains of print, smoothly swerving through tight turns of expression, narrowly dodging widows and orphans on the page, and coming to a skidding stop on a period.

A Selectric could make even a geek like me feel like a stud.

#43 ::: AlanF ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 10:22 PM:

"The Giant Green Toad", mentioned above, is still
alive and well. It is a wide-carriage Selectric 72,
with the rounded case. Looking at it from its own
level, it looks like, well, a giant green toad.

There are still two places in Los Angeles that lovingly
service and repair Selectrics, one in the Silver Lake
area, and one in Woodland Hills. I just had mine
repaired, cleaned, and lubricated and it works like new.

I use it regularly for envelopes, forms (especially
multi-part), and labels. Nothing else comes close.
As someone else said, " cold dead hands".

The main problem is finding film ribbons in the
little cassettes that are normally used for fabric

And don't get me started about my keypunch... :-)

#44 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 10:30 PM:

I learned to touch-type on the Selectric II, because that's what my high school had for the beginner typing class. (Not yet "keyboarding".)

I've used VT100s and IBM 3278s and still have a soft spot for keyboards that are heavy enough to be used to pound in tent stakes.

(Then there's the fact that I learned to use ed in college, because I could always get a DECwriter no matter how busy the computer center was.)

#45 ::: Nicole ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 11:04 PM:

Since we didn't have a Selectric, but one of those awful typewriters with the keys that would get stuck together, I have nothing to be nostalgic about.

However, Teresa is very correct about sticktype. I'm not going to get nostalgic about sticktype. For one thing, I still use the awful stuff--but we call 'em "rub-ons." Welcome to scrapbooking. This article about using rub-ons states that "placement can take a bit of practice and care." Uh-huh. Also, scrapbooking rub-ons are about twice the cost of the rub-on letters linked in the sticktype link, and the alphabetic ones come with less letters. But they're pretty.

#46 ::: moe99 ::: (view all by) ::: August 20, 2006, 11:43 PM:

funny, no one has yet mentioned 'kerning' (grin).

#47 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 12:30 AM:

Funny, no one has mentioned kerning.


The last time I upgraded my WP software (which was a long while ago) I was hunting around for the pair-kerning setting, could not locate it in the usual place, and (as it was upgrade software) the pretend-manual was no help.

So I went to the library and looked around for a manual. The first one noticed was a For Dummies book, which seemed as good as anything.

The author observed that the manufacturer had removed pair kerning from the software. He then went on for half a page about how wonderful this was, because he never used it and really didn't know what it was and so forth and so on.

I hadn't had much experience with the series, but realized then that when they said "For Dummies," they meant it.

I vaguely remember that there were IBM type elements (what they, and they alone, called the type balls) with ligatures, on the proportional-space models.

About the only time I do kerning now is in display type, which gets set in CorelDraw. It's relatively painless with a little Bezier-fu, and not very many letters are involved.

And in the realm of dry transfer, I have a bunch of them for lettering models, with an actual ballpoint burnisher, which helps a lot. Large signs get done on the computer, usually on 110# or label stock, but if you want, say, a weathered old advertisement on the side of a building, your options are dry transfer, decal, and hand-lettering, all of which have their place. (And color decals can be printed on inkjets.)

#48 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 02:39 AM:

I do not seem to have my link for it handy, but there's an outfit now selling ergo and regular keyboards built around the Northgate metal keyboard chassis. It's the best thing since the Selectric passed away, I think.

#49 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 03:13 AM:

The keyboard in question seems to be the Avant Stellar. It looks very cool. It costs $189, but then, this is the object you do most of your work with, and many people don't blink at $100 for a pointing device.

I have a "real" Northgate 102 -- they were a local company, and I bought it for my first PC -- that is no longer adequately functional, but there is a fellow ( who refurbishes them for $55 plus parts and shipping, and can convert them to USB. I probably ought to do that.

The only drawback to the Northgate is that, as they are made out of that stuff that things used to be made of . . . oh, yeah, metal, they are heavy, if you happen to type with the thing in your lap.

#50 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 05:11 AM:


Types "AVATAR"

Like that?

#51 ::: Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 06:00 AM:

If I ever think I have predictive powers, or even a good sense for trends, I can remind myself that I bought a Selectric in 1981.

#52 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 06:04 AM:

Yes, Charlie, there are still some Amstrad PCW8256s in active use; my aunt perpetrates her (unpublished and probably unpublishable) novels on one.

#53 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 07:04 AM:

Two things: for a start, Patricia is clearly the victim of typographic false memory syndrome, because the Freepers proved that IBM Selectrics didn't exist in 1973 - remember? Contrary to the assertions of the islamofascist liberal elite at IBM, whose website stated that they did throughout the entire controversy. But then they only made the things.

Charlie: aaah, PCW... I went from being a ZX Spectrum kid to PCW8256 teenage angst. It was actually quite surprising what you could make them do. As well as Locoscript (Locoscript, Locoscript, wherefore art thou my Locoscript..) there was another WP package called Protext that incorporated a great deal of programmability, and spawned a rather good spreadsheet called Rocket.

The cracker, though, was Stop Press! A mouse-driven, WIMP dtp package with tons of features (I remember vividly the one-click swap from the entirely clear editing screen to superimpose the chessboard of control icons), that could do most things Quark can now (well, except colour, and chunking out HTML).

One of the only problems with Stop was that it had a ragingly nonstandard file system. Stop files had filenames that only Stop understood. The operating system, and any other applications, saw instead an arbitrary filename of type PAGxxxx.PAG. Edit it and the file wouldn't load. I wrote a little Mallard Basic widget to help organise one's files in CP/M.

There was even a scanner. The optical read head was clipped onto the supplied dot matrix printer's head and the ribbon removed. Then the scanner application was fired up, and the original document inserted in the printer. The printer roller would then be activated and the doc drawn slowly through the printer as the head made a succession of scanning passes - you actually saw it read out live on screen. There was an OCR capability, which didn't work that well except on documents produced by the PCW's printer.

All in all, you could produce quite impressive publications on the thing, although it didn't do much else. And we loved it.

#54 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 07:12 AM:

Mind you, the 3 inch floppies used by absolutely no other pooter in the world except the Amstrad CPC464, which was as rare as hen's teeth and even less commonly found containing any data you might want to exchange with it, were a curse of the snake gods.

I say floppies. Actually they were more like "stiffs" - made of hard black plastic, not at all flexible like a 5.5" flopster.

#55 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 07:42 AM:

"for a start, Patricia is clearly the victim of typographic false memory syndrome"

Look, it's "Patricia" again! Speaking of false memory syndrome.

(Seriously, if we had a nickel for every time someone remembered Teresa's name as "Patricia," or conflated "Patrick and Teresa" into "Patricia," we'd have a big jar full of nickels.)

#56 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 07:47 AM:

My recollection is that there were two competing designs for a hard-cased floppy disk to replace the flexible case used for earlier versions. Most companies picked the 3.5-inch type which still lingers. Amstrad, and maybe a few other companies, picked the 3-inch. And Clive Sinclair brought out the Microdrive which used a loop of tape in a dinky plastic cartridge.

The 3.5-inch floppy lingers, but the bytes-per-buck ratio for flash-memory tech is around 200 times higher.

#57 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 08:39 AM:

Dave, I'm pretty sure 3" was a mutation confined to Amstrad. But then, I don't know the owner of this blog's name.

Teratrick, is it perhaps something to do with the fact you each have your own URL but they point at the same blog?

#58 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 08:42 AM:

I say floppies. Actually they were more like "stiffs" - made of hard black plastic, not at all flexible like a 5.5" flopster.

Weren't those five-and-a-quarters?

They were a big improvement over the 8-inchers which really were Floppies.

#59 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 09:21 AM:

Speaking of nostalgia, let's hear it for the IBM Model M keyboard. "The Model M is also remembered for its overall heavy and sturdy design, which allowed the keyboard to survive far longer periods of time, use, and abuse than practically any other personal computer component ever manufactured." I've still got one -- a 1991 model -- and while it's not terribly Mac compatible, I'm not bloody throwing it away. (Although the designed-for-mac Matias tactile pro feels similar -- despite not having a steel plate in the base.)

#60 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 09:27 AM:

As I recall, what happened was: Sony came up with a 3" floppy disk format in a stiff, rectangular plastic case that felt somewhat more rigid than the competing 3.5" format ... which ended up as the standard when various CP/M-86 vendors like ACT, and then IBM, plumped for it as a replacement for the 5.25" floppy.

Sony were left with a couple of million disks and several hundred thousand drives, and an idle factory. They were about to turn 'em into landfill when Alan Sugar turned up and offered to buy them for something like cost. The PCW took off like a rocket (selling 700,000 machines in the UK alone in two years flat, despite competition from the IBM PC and clones) and provided a market for the drives through 'til about 1990, by which point PC clones had gotten cheap enough that anybody with any sense could see the writing on the wall and would buy a PC rather than a PCW.

Hands up, anyone who worked with 8" floppies?

#61 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 10:07 AM:

In yer opinion, did Sugar hold back or promote the development of computing in Britain?

#62 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 10:24 AM:

Gee, I'm almost starting to flashback on my first days as a Locus minion in the early '80s! (Long after its start as a mimeoed fanzine, though, and by my time we never really collated on "Collating Nights". Good parties, though, sticking labels on magazines and such.)

#63 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 10:32 AM:

In yer opinion, did Sugar hold back or promote the development of computing in Britain?

Promoted. Immensely. Far more than that self-publicist Clive Sinclair ever did.

Sugar punched out computers that weren't bleeding edge, but that came with all the components you needed to get stuff done.

First the CPC 464. It was only a Z80 box, but it had a monitor and a tape drive, as shipped. Then the 6128, with 128K of RAM and a disk drive, built in, as standard, in 1985. It can with everything but the printer, and a real operating system -- CP/M 3.0 -- on floppy, for about £300, if I remember correctly (I was drooling over them as an impecunious student at the time). At that time, an Apple IIc system would set you back about £800 and an IBM PC would cost £2000. This really was the way into computing.

Then Amstrad brought out the Joyce (aka PCW series) which was the intro to business computing for a lot of people. I bought mine for word processing, but ended up doing a lot of data reduction in SuperCalc and visualization in DR Graph for the final year of my pharmacy degree, and by the time I upgraded to a PC in 1987 my PCW had a hard disk and was running CP/M the whole time (with Protext) and I'd taught myself some of the basics of programming on it.

Amstrad didn't get there first but they got there with a complete system that worked and that was simple enough to learn on and came with everything you needed to get started. They didn't need to include a BASIC interpreter and CP/M with the PCW machines -- in fact, it took an extra floppy and a manual, probably increasing the cost of goods by about £5-10 -- but they did.

It hit the sweet spot. I pity anyone trying to learn programming for the first time on Windows XP or OS/X.

#64 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 10:42 AM:

Ah, yes, 8" floppies. You got yer hard-sector and yer soft-sector floppies. (Soft-sector won that fight.) As I recall, Altairs came wtih 8" hard-sector, and when Altair Niven got upgraded, lo-these-many-years-ago, the floppy drives were replaced with soft-sector.

(Then there's single-density vs double-density. Let's not go there.)

I have two or three never-opened boxes of Dysan 5 1/4" floppies. They were 50 cents at my friendly neighborhood Office Depot's clearance table, a few years back.

#65 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 10:47 AM:

Charlie (#60): My hand is up.

The CPT let us have hidden files on those floppies. You just start the filename with a period. On the disk for the most obnoxious and demanding prof was a hidden file called ".fye" which consisted solely of the words, "F--- You, E----." (The latter censoring is of said prof's name.)

#66 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 10:50 AM:

8" floppies -- never used them on a personal machine, but the infrared spectrograph I help support in my first astronomy job (prior to grad school) used them in its data acquisition computer. I can no longer remember anymore what the hell kind of computer it was, though... This was back in the late 1980s, at a slightly odd place called The Aerospace Corporation.

#67 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 11:01 AM:

8 inch floppies?

At Cornell in 1981, where we learned to program on punch cards, we would have _killed_ for 8 inch floppies.

#68 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 11:06 AM:

Hey, when I were a lad, school was a bit behind home computing - if you were lucky you could book time on our Antikythera mechanism..

#69 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 11:07 AM:

I still think the scanner for the PCW was damned elegant.

#70 ::: debcha ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 11:31 AM:

8" floppies -- like Peter Erwin, I never used them on a personal machine, but I did use them for data acquisition on a piece of scientific apparatus. It was the late eighties, after my second year of engineering school, and I spent my summer babying a low-energy particle accelerator in the sub-basement of the physics building at the University of Toronto. The accelerator was approximately twice as old as I was - we had inherited it from Chalk River, one of Canada's federal nuclear research facilities - and it needed all the help it could get to run the nuclear astrophysics experiments that were on our slate. I spent a lot of time stripping apart and cleaning mercury vapour diffusion pumps.

Yes, I had cool summer jobs. :)

#71 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 11:57 AM:

Chalk River - the UK/Canadian contribution to the Manhattan project, and home to well-known Soviet agents Alan Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs..

If only those giant scientific instruments could talk.

#72 ::: Chris Suslowicz ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 12:41 PM:

In comment #8, David Dyer-Bennet wrote:
> There *was* at least one other typewriter people pined for. I can't now remember the brand, but it was available
> with micro-elite type (15 characters per inch) and was hence beloved among certain long-winded faneds.

Probably the VariTyper (later owned by Addressograph-Multigraph, I think), which had the type on 'brake shoe'-like semicircular plates (3 rows of character). That could handle between 6-point and (about) 18-point depending on style.

Truly nasty keyboard on the early models: depress key all the way until the hammer fires, then release and do the next. The 610 was 'electric clockwork' drive, which was also rather odd in use.

#73 ::: Lynn ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 01:26 PM:

I have a friend who used an IBM 850 word processor to write her dissertation who still has the 8" floppies. She also still mourns, some 25 or 30 years later, the touchpad it had instead of a mouse. It was rectangular, and she felt it was superior for document navigation.

#74 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 01:53 PM:

8 inch floppy-disks -- The first word-processor Audit Services bought was a CPT that used those.

We didn't get that until I'd been working for Audit for a couple of years, I really missed the IBM mag-card machines we had when I worked at Social Security. Retreating to a non-correcting Selectric after using the mag-card was painful.

#75 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 02:22 PM:

RE Sturdy PC Keyboards:

When I brought my original IBM PC in for recycling on Saturday . . . they left the keyboard in my back seat. Metal case, heavy keys that made a mechanical click, cable like an old spiral telephone handset cord.

It's still in its original box.

I figure there is a Reason for it being left behind. Perhaps I will someday be wise enough to know it.

#76 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 03:05 PM:

Charlie Stross: The first floppies I worked with were 8" b'stards with 128 K memory. My first wife's doctoral dissertation and first book were done on them on a Xerox 850 DWP.

#77 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 03:12 PM:

To Charlie and other IBM Model M, buckling-spring type keyboard fans, there's a company selling newer versions of them in USB (and in a Black-Gray configuration to match your modern case, or classic beige) for just $69:
The Customizer

I also saw a rumor on /. that they're working on a Mac version, but I can't find that post, now.

I still have my Model M, sort of. It's attached to the aged PC I gave my Mom. Still prefer that classic clack to any of the membrane boards I've tried.

#78 ::: Walter Jon Williams ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 04:49 PM:

I never cottoned to the Selectric. I typed too fast, for one thing--- the Selectric had some kind of tiny memory buffer, and when I got to typing really fast, and hit "return," the ball would return to the left margin still typing out the last few characters, which would fly across the page in reverse in an elegant but annoying arc.

I possessed two typewriters that I loved. One was an L.C. Smith & Corona office model from the 1930s. It had a heavy steel frame painted Army green, rubber feet, and ivory keys protected by some kind of yellowing early plastic. It was a manual, and required considerable muscle power to use, resulting in Popeye forearms. Still, I could type faster on it than on any keyboard before or since.

I finally had to give it up when I could no longer find spare parts. But it still sits in my garage, just in case I find another LC Smith from which I can cannibalize.

My last typewriter was an IBM Model 9, a contemporary of the Selectric. It could keep up with my typing, though when I hit "return," the slam of the long steel carriage would cause my whole desk to jump about an eighth of an inch to the right, causing a kind of "desk creep," as I on my wheeled office chair slowly followed the desk on its jolting progress. When the desk finally hit the wall, I'd have to do a reset on the whole system.

After beating another cheap plastic keyboard to death, about ten years ago I acquired an IBM keyboard. It is a post-chiclet keyboard. The frame is honest, heavy-duty steel, and the heavy-duty plastic keys have never faded or broken. It's never required an instant of maintenance. It will probably last longer than I will, and when I go, I want the keyboard there with me in my coffin, just in case I have any belated inspiration.

#79 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 04:54 PM:

I grew up on a Royal manual, model circa 1925. It was retired from my grandfather's workplace (USPS in Kansas) and was still around and working in the early 1970s. It had a stencil setting that was fun for a kid to play with, and we learned early about jammed keys. (Also about margin releases and how close to the bottom of the page you could type!) The little glass windows on the sides were fun too.

#80 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 05:32 PM:

Serendipity! There is a red Selectric in our workroom marked "take to warehouse." My cupidity is foiled only by the fact that I have no room in my office for such a wonder, and also that I ain't carting it to my car in this heat. (See also MacDonald, James D., "Heat Stress," op. cit.)

#81 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 05:53 PM:

Does anyone know where I can get an original Babbage debridement brush? (The Only Proper Badgers went extinct after the Great War.) It's not as large a problem since the four-hamster drive was replaced with an atmospheric engine. And fortunately, someone in the great long ago reframed the portrait miniature of Lady Ada displaying studded leather gaiters.

On the other wossname, an abacus is excellent for moving heavy furniture. (You probably already know its combat capabilities.)

#82 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 07:29 PM:

WJW: What you are describing as your keyboard does, indeed, sound suspiciously like an IBM "M" series.

Badgers optional.

#83 ::: Brendan ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 07:55 PM:

Selectric? Yuck. We had one of those in my office years ago, but the IBM Wheelwriter was far superior. You could swap out the type wheels for Pica or Elite. The keyboard action was superb. It had programmable memory, where I could save my fingers from typing the same thing all the time.

The Selectric was noisy as hell, and didn't have good key action, never felt right to me. The Wheelwriter was just as good on carbons as the Selectric, more quiet, and better in every way, IMHO.

#84 ::: Todd Larason ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 08:30 PM:

The 3.5" floppies-in-a-plastic-case that won were the Sony design. There were a wide variety of floppies in the 2.5"-4.0" range being promoted by various companies in the early '80s. The Amdek 3" looked like it was heading for victory for a while, with drives made by Hitachi, Matsushita, Maxell and Teac. I think this is the disk the Amstrad used, but I'm not sure on that.

Apple ended up selecting Sony's 3.5" floppy for the Macintosh; that seemed to me to be the turning point in that particular format war. Rumor has it that it was selected primarily because those drives could self-eject.

#85 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 09:04 PM:

Rumor has it that it was selected primarily because those drives could self-eject.

Although some models quit doing so as soon as they needed glasses.

#86 ::: Jordin Kare ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 10:13 PM:

Dave Kuzminski: I killed two Selectrics ... The other was an MTST version that had two magnetic tape (MT) drives so you could record what you typed and replay it over and over to produce many, many copies. ... When I wounded the MTST, about six cables inside it broke simultaneously.

The IBM Mag Tape typewriters were the only use I know of, ever, of *sprocketed* magnetic tape. The sprocket drive would advance the tape by one hole, and a solenoid would drive the tape head *sideways* across the tape to read or write the character code. That way they could build an entire digital tape unit with only one electronic part: the head amp. Everything else was done with relays.

(IBM really was a world unto itself for a long, long time. They did everything their own way, including running 2741 terminals at 134.5 baud because the synchronous speed of the Selectric mechanism was 13.45 characters/second; at 134.5 baud the motor clutch would never have to drop out between characters, which gave both the fastest typing and the least wear. They used EBCDIC character codes long after the rest of the world pretty much agreed on ASCII, and every system and terminal, it seemed, had a slightly different version of EBCDIC, with the differences seldom documented anywhere. "Obstacles to competitors? Who, us?")

(And I see I've already commented on Making Light here about both the MTST and the big Mergenthaler typesetter I once owned...)

#87 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2006, 11:54 PM:

DDB: There was a platoon of A/M machines (\slightly/ more advanced than yours, but certainly not cutting edge by 1977) around the corner from me at a do-it-yourself typeshop; I was the 2nd NESFan to learn their system, although I managed not to be involved with the last project done there (typesetting the SFWA grand-master anthology edited by Norton, first for Noreascon 3, then for Tor). And yes, Charlie, they used 8" floppies, like the desktop systems at the first computer company I worked at (1980ff).

Jim: I've never seen 5.25" stiffies, but I remember going through at least a box of that size floppy when I took 8086 assembler. (A certificate requirement -- I hated it when I took it but the knowledge has made debugging crufty old code a \lot/ easier. What do Javaheads these days \do/ when something goes wrong?)

I attached the filked lyrics for the first Boskone play using a Selectric with an Orator typeball and a Xerox (stepwise reduction only, but I could get very close to 50% in three stages, and the Selectric's film system was sharp enough that 3rd-generation copies were quite legible). The one problem they had was that the mechanism was directive, not just power-assist like most electrics; in theory somebody could pick up the field they threw off and determine what you were typing, if you didn't have a Tempest-certified version. (Which we didn't, after a while; some idiot dropped a new outlet from the nearest junction box, which happened to be the 277-volt circuit for the high-efficiency lighting.)

moe99: \Mention/ kerning? I \wrote/ a crude kerning add-on to the program I wrote to feed those A/M's pre-paginated text. I'd probably disavow that code now, as it was definitely a learning experience.

And Letraset -- imagine setting the scrolling text from the first ~2 Star Wars in Letraset. Somebody wanted a cheap subtitle effect (scrolling courtesy of a filmstrip projector -- remember those?) and I volunteered. I must have been younger and stupider than that once because I was a senior in college by then, but I don't know when.

During the last clubhouse cleanup, NESFA discovered a brayer (clear plastic species), and everyone was wondering what it was for until I explained. (Leslie would have remembered better than I, but she was out of the room.)

#88 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2006, 10:28 AM:

I remember when I was a kid my dad self-published a book and I helped out with the paste-up. Selectric typewriter with headlines in marking pen. Computer Lib, by Ted Nelson, 1974.

The paradoxical thing is that although it was about the future of computer publishing, the thing that made it special was it was handmade.

#89 ::: Alexey Merz ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2006, 12:20 PM:

I use an Endura Pro buckling spring keyboard on my Mac. It's a bit smaller than the Customizer, with the same clickety-good feel that gave the IBM Model M its its fanatical following. The only glitch for a Mac user is that Command and Option keys are reversed, a problem easily corrected by the Double Command key remapping utility.

#90 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2006, 12:52 PM:

Erik Nelson:
Computer Lib, by Ted Nelson, 1974.
Lovely book, great ideas. I think I still have a copy of it.

Somewhere here.

In one of these boxes.

Or maybe in one of those boxes over there.


#91 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2006, 01:32 PM:

"I remember when I was a kid my dad self-published a book and I helped out with the paste-up."

I remember seeing the huge-format first edition in ComputerLand in the late 70s.

I have a few copies of the Microsoft Press edition. I ordered a couple dozen and gave them out to co-workers, in hopes of inspiring them. Fat #@$%($%@$ chance. Phillistines.

#92 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2006, 02:37 PM:

When I was young, my grandmother let me play with the large old Smith-Corona manual, but I really learned to type on a Royal portable. My encounters with electric typewriters of any sort were always fraught: they sat there and hummed at me, seemingly in anticipation of eating my words alive.

I've used the usual wide variety of computer keyboards, but as far as I know not an IBM "M". I did, however, get to use one of the original Apollo keyboards for a couple of years, and the "M" sounds suspiciously similar: metal case, trackpad ...

I do like a keyboard with a good click, and am partial to the Unitek K-256 (apparently available only from Altex these days). When I got the laptop and was trying to get the Unitek to run with all the USB inputs, it wouldn't, until I'd purchased a frob from, a group of mildly deranged gentlemen who believe in the One True Lots-o'-Force Old-Style Keyboard. Of which they have some for sale.

#93 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2006, 04:28 PM:

Late to the question, but the first computer I worked with was an IBM S/34, which used 8" floppies. The company membership database was originally partially created on an IBM S/32 key-to-disk machine, which also used the 8" diskettes.

#94 ::: Scorpio ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2006, 05:38 PM:

I still remember how solid the touch of a selectric was, even thirty years after I last used one. The laptop I am on right now feels almost that good. It's a Gateway. :)

#95 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: August 22, 2006, 05:43 PM:

John Houghton@#90: Computer Lib, by Ted Nelson, 1974. Lovely book, great ideas. I think I still have a copy of it.

Somewhere here. In one of these boxes. Or maybe in one of those boxes over there. Somewhere.

Ha! I've been kvetching about my library in boxes, but my copy of Computer Lib is literally at arm's reach, in one of the few bookcases still at my command, keeping company with some tall art books.

Erik Nelson@#88: I was thinking of this book while I was reading this thread; nice to hear of your hand in it. My copy was a 1975 3rd printing, with the “stop the presses” insert with news of the MITS Altair computer.

#96 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 05:00 AM:

One thing I found, prowling through for stuff about colours, was some info about computer fonts, and which are commonplace, which not.

You can buy a printed font-sample card, showing the most common on PC, Mac, and Linux (derived from an on-lkine survey the site runs). Visible on the reduced resolution image available is the difference between the different versions of Courier on those systems.

On a PC (Windows, I assume), the Courier font is narrower than on a Mac or Linux system.

It's an interesting site, and if you're doing web design it's worth checking out, if only to avoid a few very obvious mistakes.

#97 ::: marc ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 02:19 PM:

They were not called type balls, they were spherical interchangable type elements

#98 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 02:26 PM:

What I hated about the Selectric elements was the little levers. The lever broke off a little too easily, and then the element was useless. (I had an Olivetti that used similar elements (in unchromed plastic) with a slide-lock on top; they seemed sturdier, or at least less subject to breakage.)

#99 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2006, 12:40 AM:

I only used a Selectric once, but I admired what other amateur publishers did with them. The pinnacle of the art as I recall was Jim Allan's "An Intorudction to Elvish," using I am sure at least 14 type balls.

#100 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2006, 01:21 AM:

They were not called type balls, they were spherical interchangable type elements

The cubical interchangeable type element was a noble concept, flawed only by occasional incidents of catastrophic self-disassembly. The Klein-surface ITE may have reached prototype, but the last communication before the hot cell disappeared was cryptic.

As noted above, that is indeed what IBM called them on public occasions (the anniversary of ancestor Pythagoras Slipstick & Flange Works, unveiling of the millionth THINK, DAMMIT sign, the 1968 San Francisco Love-In and Chard Festival).

For everyone else, they were type balls.

"Analysis . . . Spock?"
"My element seems to have jammed, Captain."
"Woah, I know what that's like. Sickbay."
"McCoy here."
"Bones, get up to the Bridge with some ice packs. And whatever you do, don't bring Chapel."

#101 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2006, 05:24 AM:

The cubical interchangeable type element was a noble concept, flawed only by occasional incidents of catastrophic self-disassembly.

The Puckle typewriter later attempted to develop this flaw into a feature.

#102 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2006, 08:46 PM:

Yeah, I too thought of "Computer Lib/Dream Machines" while reading this thread, as well as thinking of the "Whole Earth Catalog" that's probably still on my parents' bookshelf. I think those books may have represented the pinnacle of 1970s electro-mechanical self-publishing.

And I too remember the all-uppercase ASR-33 teletype, with its cylindrical non-changeable type element. The field tech who repaired my highschool's terminals said an ASR-33 had more moving parts than a car. We used to get in trouble for having chad fights in the computer room. A friend of mine wrote a Basic program to print human-readable text using the tape punch, which was my first exposure to a number of typographical concepts.

I never really had much exposure to electric typewriters; I learned to type on my father's ancient manual "portable" Underwood, which lived in a carrying case that was about 15" by 15" by 8" tall. Once or twice as a little kid I got to play around with the electric typewriter had access to at work, which could produce a variety of cool math symbols as well as letters and numbers.

#103 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 11:41 AM:

The best keyboard I ever used on anything was the one built in the Cambridge Computer Z88, otherwise known as Sir Clive Sinclair's Revenge. He took so much heat over the membrane keyboards he'd used that he decided to design the ultimate membrane keyboard for his laptop. He did. It's the closest thing to telepathy I've ever experienced: think about pressing the key and the letter appeared. (Of course, if you trained on Selectics as I did you had an ugly week of aaaaaaannnnnnndddddd before your central nervous system adapted.) I'd still be using it today but an electrical engineer who upgraded it to one meg (!WOW!) on the motherboard managed to also introduce a "drain the batteries overnight" feature and I can't afford to find a repair facility for it. Especially when my wife gives me hassles about using a Newton as a PDA.

And one of these days I'm going to pull the Canon Cat (3 hours useage) out of it's pristine box and see just how well it compares to the Z88 when you're just handling text. (I shouldn't have mentioned that last. Every once in awhile some berserk collector who saw my mention of the Cat on a Newton board via a Google search tries to buy it off of me. And they don't take no gracefully.)

Now if I could just find someone with an affordable Cykey chord keyboard: my Microwriter Agenda is starting to show it's age and I'd love to use the Cykey with a Palm or a Newton. (Why do I suddenly have the feeling that only Dave Langford, Charlie Stross, and Alex are going to be able to make any sense out of the past paragraph?)

#104 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2006, 11:43 AM:

Make that "this last paragraph?" Clearly I need to get some breakfast...

#105 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2006, 10:10 PM:

If anyone here is still craving a Selectric fix, I might as well mention that New York State government has a Correcting Selectric 2, a CS3, and three Wheelwriters up for sale (as a single lot) right now over on that big internet auction site. The five of them together are still at ten bucks. ("Working condition unknown", though they were probably under a service contract for most of their service life....)

The biggest obstacle is that they must be picked up in Albany, they won't ship them.

#106 ::: Jim ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 10:36 PM:

I collect IBM Typewriters. I have several of the typebar models (A, B, C, and D) then I have a Selectric I, II, and III (the II and III are correcting models. I also have some of the electronic Selectrics as I call them Model 65, 75, 85, and 95. I don't care to much for the newer Wheelwriters. I also have a couple of Xerox Memorywriters, with a small monochrome monitor attached to it, they use 5 1/4" diskettes, and have boot disks.

I also remember using 8" diskettes on a CPT word processor when I was in college during the mid 80's. The first IBM PC that I ever used was a PS/2 Model 25 with the monitor, cpu, and 2 3 1/2" disk drives built into one unit.

I also love the IBM Model M keyboards. I use them on all my PC's at home, and even have one at work. They are the best keyboard that where ever made. I don't know how many time I've knocked one of the desk, and they still keep clicking way.

#107 ::: Jim ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2006, 10:41 PM:

I forgot, I also have a IBM Memory 100 which has a looping magnetic belt on the right side of the typeriter to store your documents on, and play them back when need to. It doesn't work, but I found a retired IBM repairman just a few hours from where I live, to is going to try and beathe life back into it.

#108 ::: Alec ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2006, 03:44 PM:

I have an IBM Selectric II Correcting typewriter, bought around 1976. Haven't used it in over twenty years. It will power up, but won't type. I'm assuming it just needs oiling.

Anyone know if there's a market for selling such a machine?

#109 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2006, 04:09 PM:


Ebay knows all.

An elderly relative of mine passed away, and I've been doing rounds of sorting the non-nostalgic items. Ebay as a research tool has made the keep/ don't keep so much easier.

The cold truths of ebay also have helped me in organizing my own stuff. It's easier to donate stuff when you know that in the .0001% chance you'll need it again, 100 people will be happy to replace that stuff for $10 plus shipping.

#110 ::: Adam ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2006, 02:36 AM:

Calling them spherical type elements does have a point, because some of the earlier designs for text-printing at IBM used different shaped heads (there's a great book all about IBM's development of the computer which I can't remember the name of at the moment. They tried some crazy things in the 40s and 50s.


On 8" floppies:
About 4 years ago I worked at the Baylor College of Medicine, and the fellow in the next lab (electron microscopy) over from ours kept all of his data/records/billing in a dBase II database on 8" floppies. He was a strange duck... keep in mind, this was in 2002!

#111 ::: Mike ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2007, 07:34 PM:

Ah, the Selectric! The introduction of the Correcting Selectric II and it's resulting tidalwave of adoption by business opened the door to my career at IBM. I will never lose my affection for the mechanical contrivances that the engineers of Big Blue churned out. And servicing those behemoths of the office paid damn well too. Of course, after all the years of fixing some of the filthiest machinery while wearing a suit & tie, I could probably swap the drivetrain in my VW without getting dirty. I still put my hand in every now and then - still have my own Selectric. Can't change a rotate tape nearly as fast as I used to, but the hands still know what to do when I pull off the covers.

#112 ::: Brian Levy ::: (view all by) ::: February 26, 2008, 08:33 PM:

I remember the Selectrics starting with the early ones through the Selectric IIIs and IMHO they represented the best of typewriter designs for business use while I still like manuals for personal things. A couple of months ago a neighbor curbsided a II and I picked it up. Sadly it had been in a mild drizzle. She had a bag of ribbons and correcto tapes but no balls. Today I got the balls I won off eBay (some 28) and tried the unit out. Sadly, it needs some TLC. I'm going to try to find someone local to fix it if possible as I'd like to have it next to my Linux box for use. Not everything can be done easily on a computer still.

#113 ::: Spam deleted ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2008, 06:54 AM:

Spam from

#115 ::: David Goldfarb points out yet another spam probe ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2008, 05:17 AM:

...and an undeleted one up at 113.

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