IBM Selectric Typewriter turns 50, yells at tablets to get off its lawn

Imagine all of the waiting rooms and typing classes it's seen in its half-century on earth. IBM this week is celebrating the 50th birthday of its best-selling Selectric line of office typewriters. First introduced in 1961, the line featured a rotating typeball that increased typing speed and could be changed for italics, symbols, and different fonts and languages. The typewriter also eschewed the traditional moving carriage, with the typeball and ribbon taking on the motion, reducing the unit's overall size and leaving more space on office desks for family photos and troll dolls. These innovations helped make the line nearly ubiquitous in offices spaces, and in 1964, the Selectric line offered up an early word processor capable of storing characters. IBM would go on to retire the line in 1986. Fittingly, the now defunct typewriter will be honored with its very own postage stamp.

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Design Icon Honored in New "Pioneers of American Industrial Design" Stamp Series from U.S. Postal Service

ARMONK, N.Y., July 27, 2011 /PRNewswire/ -- The IBM (NYSE: IBM) Selectric typewriter turns 50 on July 31, commemorating a design icon that revolutionized the day-to-day lives of office workers around the world. The Selectric's half-century birthday coincides with IBM's Centennial year and the release of a new U.S. postage stamp honoring the Selectric as an icon of design.


The IBM Selectric became an instant sensation upon its debut on July 31, 1961, and remained the typewriter found on most office desks until the brand was retired 25 years later, in 1986. With 2,800 parts, many designed from scratch, it was a major undertaking even for IBM, which had been in the typewriter business since the 1930s and was already a market leader. The Selectric marked a radical change from previous typewriter designs, and it took IBM seven years to work out the manufacturing and design challenges before it went on sale.

The Selectric typewriter was a game-changer in many 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.

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's elegant, curvaceous form was a hallmark of IBM's industrial design and product innovation. It was created by Eliot Noyes, the famed architect and industrial designer who served as IBM's consulting designer for 21 years. The Selectric is featured in the new "Pioneers of American Industrial Design" stamp series from the U.S. Postal Service, which cites Noyes as among 12 important industrial designers who helped shape the look of everyday American life in the 20th century. The stamp displays Noyes' name and an image of the typewriter.