Julie Lasky | Essays

Happy Birthday, Handsome

Photo via CNET, courtesy IBM.

You might have noticed tribute after tribute pouring out recently to the IBM Selectric typewriter, which was launched 50 years ago tomorrow. Less fuss is being made over other half-centenarians like Life cereal, George Clooney, Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the rocket-propelled grenade — no surprise, given that none of these is a favorite tool of writers.

Writers, I must add, of a certain age — not too old to be pickled in images of Hemingway scribbling on his feet in Paris bars, or of Updike stabbing at the keyboard of a manual typewriter. Not too young to have cultivated literary dreams while staring at a computer monitor. These would mostly be writers who first met the Selectric in its natural environment — the office — where they began their careers as clerical assistants to publishers, literary agents, lawyers, or advertising executives.

My first fling with a Selectric was a summer romance. We met at a job in my college library typing index cards for the reference catalogue. I remember that it was blue and made me feel infallible with its flat field of crunching keys and backspace correction capabilities. After graduating, I had a two-year affair with a Selectric at a tiny book publishing company that no longer exists. Like many an upwardly mobile office drudge (then they were called assistants; today they’re interns), I performed self-abasing tasks with a smile (I was working! In New York!) and bided my time.

Returning to school to study literature, I made my first serious commitment to a Selectric. I bought a reconditioned model that was gray like a mushroom and excitable like a Pomeranian. Every time I hit the return key, the top sprang open and the motor stopped. I had to pause mid-sentence to slam the top back into place and restart the humming so that it sounded like clickety-clackety-clickety-clackety-THWANG-THWACK-whir. When I could no longer stand the interruptions, I staggered with the machine down the five flights of my Upper Upper West Side apartment building and around the corner to a repair shop on Broadway.

The fix was always temporary. It never occurred to me to buy another machine. This Selectric was my muse — a stolid, prickly, unreliable one whose top was likely to blow at any moment — but a partner. Will I ever think of the whiteness of Melville’s whale without envisioning the hulking silhouette of my temperamental fungus-colored companion?

As I type these sentences, I’m surrounded by supportive technology distributed across multiple components. Wires are everywhere. Yet I doubt I’ll look back 20-odd years to today and think of the toil and sport of writing as an endeavor I share with a machine. The memory will be of just me, alone with my words.

Posted in: Product Design

Comments [6]

I recently switched on my blue (!) Selectric for the first time in 26 years (since I bought my first Mac in 1985), and it worked instantly. The carbon ribbon could be crisper, but I can now type again in Courier 10 pitch and Letter Gothic 12 pitch. That purring sound is still there, as is the clunk when it hits the margin.
erik spiekermann

My dad had a Selectric II, and my mother a competing IBM model that was limited to a single font, but featured proportional spacing (!!!) I think I'll always associate their voices with Prestige Pica and Sans Serif, respectively.

The interchangeable fonts on the Selectric were definitely my gateway to typography, and before I became a nerdy adult who designed typefaces, I was a nerdy kid who collected Selectric "golf ball" typing elements. Two favorites:


I still have these in our office.
Jonathan Hoefler

No mention of Eliot Noyes?

Erik and Jonathan, the ingenuity of the golf ball element certainly impressed me, even in the days when I knew next to nothing about typography or industrial design. Even more impressive is the Star of David in the Olde English font Jonathan unearthed. That makes my day.

MCG, Design Observer published a long essay by Phil Patton in March that discusses Noyes's contribution to the Selectric: http://observatory.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry=25238
Julie Lasky

This got me thinking about my nostalgia for my Mac SE, which saw me through some of my earliest experiments in writing. Technology changes so fast these days that specific brands are associated with specific periods of time. For me, it's those early days of pre-OS X Apple.
An Xiao Mina

Great article Julie, thank you!
Anna Maria West

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