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Selectric Typewriter's Legacy Endures in the Digital Age

IBM's Selectric began its life as a typewriter, but ended it as the first computer keyboard. In the interim, the stylish device became a favored tool of great American writers and dominated the desks of U.S. offices for decades. Like the Walkman or the iPhone, the Selectric merged aesthetic design and ease of use so well that it transcended its industrial origins to become a cultural artifact, appearing as the indicator of mid-20th century technology in everything from the TV show "Mad Men" to the movie "Se7en" to the Philip Roth book "The Anatomy Lesson."
/ Source: InnovationNewsDaily.com


IBM's Selectric began its life as a typewriter, but ended it as the first computer keyboard. In the interim, the stylish device became a favored tool of great American writers and dominated the desks of U.S. offices for decades. Like the Walkman or the iPhone, the Selectric merged aesthetic design and ease of use so well that it transcended its industrial origins to become a cultural artifact, appearing as the indicator of mid-20th century technology in everything from the TV show "Mad Men" to the movie "Se7en" to the Philip Roth book "The Anatomy Lesson."

The Selectric's ability to bridge the analog and digital ages came in part from innovations such as its unique "golf ball" head that reduced jamming and allowed typists to reach 90 words per minute as opposed to 50 on past electric typewriters. But it also married such achievements to a holistic design philosophy set out by Eliot Noyes, an architect and industrial designer who served as consulting design director to technology giant IBM for 21 years.

"He thought that great design, whether industrial design or architecture or graphics, was great if coupled with an innovation," said Lee Green, vice president of Brand Experience and Strategic Design at IBM. "The Selectric was about modern design, but it was also about innovation."

The typewriter's legacy still looks as strong as ever following its 50th anniversary this past Sunday, July 31.

Making a design for the ages

Noyes wanted a typewriter design that not only stood by itself, but also fit well into the office environment. To realize that vision, IBM engineers and designers took a "clean slate approach" that tossed out everything they knew about typewriters from the past 50 years. They created a typewriter that ended up having 2,800 parts, including many designed from scratch.

"It was the clean slate approach that allowed them to think differently," Green told InnovationNewsDaily. That's also a great tenet for moving forward."

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The "golf ball" head replaced the basket full of jam-prone typebars for each letter, because the typeball could simply rotate into a different position. The Selectric also moved the typeball across the page rather than requiring the paper carriage to move. Different typeballs could even be swapped for different fonts, italics, scientific notation and other languages.

IBM's 7-year-long creation effort paid off when the Selectric debuted on July 31, 1961. Sales for the typewriter hit 80,000 orders by the end of the first year, more than four times the amount the manufacturing facility had expected to make. The typewriter went on to become a fixture of American offices for the next 25 years.


A lasting love affair

The device also won the hearts of such American writers as Hunter S. Thompson, Katherine Anne Porter and Ralph Ellison, as well as playwright David Mamet and humorist David Sedaris. Isaac Asimov, one of the most celebrated science fiction authors, kept four Selectrics in different locations.

Selectric typewriters eventually began to give way to early personal computers, but their typing design made it natural for humans to use keyboards for interacting with computers, as opposed to pushing buttons or pulling levers. Green described people who used the Selectric typewriter as feeling "spoiled" when it came to using later typewriters or keyboards.

"The design has a buckling spring mechanism in the keyboard that creates just the right pressure when you push on the key, and the key returns at just the right pressure," Green said. "There's an audible noise, a sort of recognition that you've actually struck the key and it's actually registered."

The Selectric legacy has since lived on in the design philosophy pushed by Noyes and his team of artists, designers and architects, including Paul Rand, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen and Isamu Noguchi. IBM's younger designers still look to such examples when making smart, intelligent designs for the IBM brand.

"We've studied our history," Green said. "It's about design being purposeful and not just ornamental."

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