The Sexy IBM Selectric Was the iPad of 1961

When historians talk about the IBM Selectric today, on its 50th birthday, they will likely focus on its remarkable, revolutionary mechanism, and the quality of the pages it produced. For the first time, a typewriter could have multiple fonts or a...

Aug 1 2011, 6:50pm

​Photo: 1961 Selectric / ​IBM

When historians talk about the IBM Selectric today, on its 50th birthday, they will likely focus on its remarkable, revolutionary mechanism, and the quality of the pages it produced. For the first time, a typewriter could have multiple fonts or a completely different typeface (Hebrew was among the options), thanks to a removable, golf-ball like element that twisted and rotated and danced across the page at lightning speed. 

Gone was the clunky – if satisfying to three-pack-a-day Hemmingways – carriage return thingy. It also used a ribbon housed in a cartridge, not unlike that used for audiotape, which made changing it a simple, un-messy affair. While the Blickensderfer, a typewriter-like machine from 1900, had pioneered the idea of multiple typefaces, the Selectric perfected it for a wide audience.

The widest, in fact: ultimately, the Selectric would capture 75 percent of the market. "Sales of [the Selectric] in the first 30 days exceeded the forecast for six months. We figured in our branch office that we'd sell 50 or 60 and sold 500 to 600," IBM salesman John Vinlove said. By 1986, more than 13 million Selectric typewriters had been sold. 

The Selectric, which would later include features like dual pitch and built-in correcting tape, heralded the start of desktop publishing, and became a cultural institution. Sure, a Philip Roth character would call it "smug, puritanical, workmanlike" compared to his old Olivetti portable, but it gave an idle Aaron Sorkin his start, and was the weapon of choice for Isaac Asimov, Hunter S. Thompson, David Sedaris, and Philip K. Dick. Yes, it's the typewriter that can be seen (anachronistically) on Mad Men.

The machine's remarkable analog-to-digital-to-analog system, which it used to convert keystrokes into ball movements, would also – little known fact – provide a template for early computer terminals. The Selectric's keyboard was the basis for the input on the revolutionary IBM System/360. A modified version of the Selectric, the IBM 2741 Terminal, was adapted to plug into the System/360, and allowed a wider range of engineers and researchers to begin talking to and interacting with their computers. 

One engineer, Bob Bemer, wanted the thing to carry the 64 characters required for ASCII, the standard he invented and that computer still use today, rather than the typewriter standard 44. That would have made the Selectric an easier computer input device. The response at IBM was negative, leaving engineers to build workarounds.

But in 100 years, historians may be talking less about the Selectric's mechanistic innovations and more about its radical look. In an era when machines were still machines, the sexy shape of the Selectric I and its descendants heralded a revolution in industrial design that provided a lasting, if often unheeded, lesson in technology. In 1961, Steve Jobs was six, and IBM was Apple.

Though its mechanism was inspired in part by a toy typewriter by Marx Toys (for which IBM purchased the patent), and Thomas Watson was once turned on by Olivetti's gorgeous typewriters, the Selectric's look was the work of Philip Noyes. An architect and industrial designer, Noyes served as IBM's consulting designer for 21 years, developed corporate America's first "house style," and commissioned many of the period's greatest architects, graphic designers and artists to put in time for Big Blue. "Good design is good business," he said.

The Selectric's outer shell and keys were designed to mirror the aesthetic of the golf-ball print element while enveloping the machine's inner geometry in a more organic shape. Noyes took his cues from the engineers and from Isamu Noguchi, whom he also hired to do work for IBM. Sex came to the office, and biomorphic design had met the machine.

Because he writes about it so well and warmly, I'll let critic Phil Patton take it away:

The Selectric was the centerpiece of Eliot Noyes's work as IBM's chief design consultant in the late 1950s. Interviewed in the '70s, Noyes related that his staff had shaped the Selectric using clay models and mirrored half-models, like those employed by the designers of cars and clipper ships. "We tried to emphasize the singleness and simpleness of form," he said, "by making the whole shape something like that of a stone so that you are aware of the continuity of the sides and under the machine and over the top."

To shape the outer shell, [Noyes's senior designer Allan] McCroskery had the engineers make a cast of the machine's inner mechanism. He designed a single form that barely cleared the machinery's edges. "I just drew the edges of that cast and made a Plexiglas template," he said. "We fit the entire kit and caboodle inside. That gave us the shape of the whole beast. It didn't take a lot of thought."

McCroskery added, "I did it like a car designer doing a car, but with old-fashioned modeling clay." Indeed, the Selectric's controlled curves suggest some of the best automobile design of the time — an era when new compacts such as the Italian-influenced Chevrolet Corvair and Ford Falcon were moving beyond the tail fin.

The keyboard sat gracefully sheltered in a harbor scooped out of body. It was situated lower and flatter than most keyboards. In her 1976 prose poem "12 O'Clock News," Elizabeth Bishop described her more traditional typewriter keyboard as a slope, an "escarpment." "The elaborate terracing of its southern glacis gleams faintly in the dim light, like fish scales. What endless labor those small, peculiarly shaped terraces represent!" The Selectric freed climbing fingers from this landscape and helped mark the migration of the keyboard from typewriter to personal computer.

Unlike the vintage round keys that now show up as cuff links and earrings, the Selectric's "squircle" keys, somewhere between a square and circle, echoed the rounded shape of its shell. (They also echoed shapes in architecture and products at the time, including Eero Saarinen's furniture for IBM's offices.) IBM ergonomists decreed in documents that "the plane of the keyboard shall be between 11 to 16 degrees off horizontal. Key tops shall be 9/16 inch in diameter." But they didn't dictate the form. Noting that "fingers aren't flat," McCroskery set the keys at different heights and gave their tops a gentle curve.

"We did it intuitively, with no research," he told me. "Then the engineers tested it for two years and came to the same conclusion, that it worked."

"Noyes wanted [the Selectric] to look like a piece of sculpture," McCroskery explained. "He said it should look as if it had been carved out of a block of marble. The other main thing Eliot kept emphasizing was that the design should be timeless." Saarinen famously spoke of furniture that would do away with the "slum of legs" in the office. The Selectric similarly did away with the slum of levers, the messy machinery of keys and carriage.

The forms of the Selectric can also be read as a mediation between the machine's impersonal straight lines and the human body's curvilinear ones. The Selectric also radiated a soothing presence in the rigid geometry of the office — an environment that was increasingly open to views from across the room. Unlike earlier typewriters set inside a desk or against a wall, the Selectric was designed with an eye to being viewed from 360 degrees. You can spot Selectrics in Mad Men, and they appear as transcendent as the vintage furniture or Don Draper's suits.

The machine was made available in many different colors; companies could even customize them. Ettore Sottsass's 1969 plastic Valentine for Olivetti is rightly celebrated for its pop red, but it was the Selectric that broke from black, gray and beige office machines. It established the idea that office equipment could have an automobile's panache. The type ball likely influenced the Eames-designed IBM pavilion at the 1964–65 New York World's Fair, a spherical structure with letters on its exterior.

* How the typing mechanism worked: