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Happy Birthday IBM Selectric

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You’ve probably seen some of IBM’s communications and advertising this year, on TV, print and the Web, highlighting the fact that this is IBM’s Centennial year.

The IBM Selectric Typewriter, introduced in 1961, was an instant hit and sold more than 13 million units before it was retired in 1986. It has most recently been featured in the hit TV show, "Mad Men."

That means the company is 100 years old.

That’s a long time in real years, an eternity in Internet years.

But the celebrations continue, throughout 2011.  This month, we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the IBM Selectric Typewriter, which you’ve probably seen most recently featured on the secretarys’ desks in the hit AMC show, “Mad Men.”

But I remember seeing Selectrics while growing up in north Texas, where my father owned a small insurance company, where many of his associates used the IBM Selectric as their everyday workhorse.

I marveled when I would watch that small, round steel ball with the letters superimposed on it move so quickly, turning itself at lightning speed to leave the imprint of one letter after another on the sheet of paper.

Of course, a few years later, when I was in college, it was the very same IBM Selectric model that I learned how to touch type on — typing class, one of the single most valuable college classes I ever took, I used to joke.

The Flying Golf Ball

The IBM Selectric was an instant sensation when it debuted on July 31, 1961, and it remained the typewriter found on most office desks until the brand was retired 25 years later, in 1986.

The Selectric had 2,800 parts, most designed from scratch, and was a major undertaking even for IBM, which had been in the typewriting business since the 1930s and already a market leader.

With its flying golf ball head, the Selectric marked a radical change from prior typewriter design, and took IBM seven years to work out the manufacturing and design challenges before it went on sale.

The Selectric was a game changer in several ways:

  • Its unique “golf ball” head allowed typists’ fingers to fly across the keyboard at unprecedented speed. An expert typist could clock 90 words per minute versus 50 with a traditional electric typewriter.
  • The golf ball moved across the page, making it the first typewriter to eliminate carriage return and reducing its footprint on office desks.
  • Interchangeable golf balls equipped with different fonts, italics, scientific notations and other languages could easily be swapped in.
  • With magnetic tape for storing characters added in 1964, the Selectric became the first (albeit analog) word-processor device.

From Selectric To System/360

The Selectric also formed the basis for early computer terminals and paved the way for keyboards to emerge as the primary way for people to interact with computers, as opposed to pressing buttons or levers.

A modified Selectric could be plugged into IBM’s System/360 computer, enabling engineers and researchers to interact with their computers in new ways.

“The Selectric typewriter, from its design to its functionality, was an innovation leader for its time and revolutionized the way people recorded information,” said Linda Sanford, Senior Vice President, Enterprise Transformation, IBM, who was a development engineer on the Selectric. “Nearly two decades before computers were introduced, the Selectric laid the foundation for word-processing applications that boosted efficiency and productivity, and it inspired many user-friendly features in computers that we take for granted today.”

The Selectric has been highlighted as one of IBM’s top 100 milestones in the company’s century-long history. You can learn more about it here.

You can also go here to learn more about the U.S. postage stamp being released featuring the IBM Selectric.

UPDATE: My colleague Delaney wrote his own remembrance of the Selectric.  Be sure and watch the classic Selectric TV commercial he discovered on the YouTube!

Written by turbotodd

July 27, 2011 at 3:08 pm

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