Why I think IBM Selectrics Are the Best Electric Typewriter Ever Made

If you know me, you know about my fondness for IBM Selectric typewriters.  I personally own several--everything from the Selectric I to the Selectric III. 
Why do I think the Selectric is the best electric typewriter?  Let me give you a few reasons.  Feel free to add some more of your own.
IBM designed the Selectric to run 8 hours per day, every day.  It was designed and made for business use.  After all, there are thousands still in use today.  Small, inexpensive, personal electrics won't hold up to that kind of use and certainly don't last as long.  Many of the Selectrics manufactured in the 1960s (and 70s and 80s) are still being used today.  Can you say that of any other business machine you have owned?
Made to be repaired easily by trained technicians.  The Selectric is a fully mechanical typewriter powered by a simple motor.  There are no computer chips or system boards to fail without any warning.  Although they are made up of thousands of parts most repairs could be done right in the office.
That Golf Ball!  I'm 44 years old and I learned to type on a Selectric in 1988.  I'm still hypnotized by the speed and sound a Selectric makes when it's running.  There's nothing else like it.
My dad worked on the IBM Assembly line back in the day in their Lexington plant so there's that connection that I have.  IBM employed a lot of people in Kentucky and many were working on the typewriter assembly line.  Unfortunately, there are no typewriters being made in the United States today.  What a shame!
I'm not alone in my love for the Selectric typewriter.  According to IBM's website, "Renowned writers who have depended on the Selectric include Hunter S. Thompson, John Irving, Isaac Asimov, David Mamet, Katherine Anne Porter, James Merrill, Ralph Ellison, Philip K. Dick and David Sedaris, among others"

1 comment

  • Dennis Harper

    I can speak to the quality of tech training at IBM. At age 21, I answered a sparsely worded ad in the NY Times. It only mentioned tech work at IBM in NYC and gave a phone number. The only corporate work experience I had to offer was part time college work loading trucks night shift at UPS, then as part time night supervisor but I had done many techy things as a hobbyist going back as far as I can remember. I think finishing a Renwal Cosmorama as a twelve year old is what really helped me at IBM.

    I called and was asked a single question aside from my name… Explain Ohms law?

    An odd question but I knew it well and was invited to the main NYC office on Madison Ave.
    I was given three days worth of written testing, some like those found in IQ tests, general knowledge and others with questions where there is no wrong answer. Then came practical tests. I remember a weird cube of their design that I needed to disassemble and reassemble while under a stopwatch. The darn thing had hidden springs to make it fly apart if you proceeded in haphazard fashion. They cleverly did not give you safety glasses as the springs did not come out, only parts just big enough to not hurt an eye. I later learned that one test eliminated 75% of potential hires.

    I expected questions about formal schooling and experience but I soon found out the only schooling that mattered was their schooling. The one
    thing about experience/school that interested them was I earned my pilots license three years earlier. I always wondered why a big corporation would hire a no experience kid. Only recently I learned company CEO Thomas J Watson Jr was a WW2 pilot and later as CEO issued a unwritten directive to give always preference to pilots when hiring. Something about how pilots solve surprise situations.

    I started with a class of about 20 guys. The training was primarily self directed. Each student had a desk with a fancy audio tape device timed to screen for microfilm and extremely granular written and illustrated manuals. We had two highly experienced instructors overlooking student progress.
    For me, I liked that we could take as much time as we liked to really learn the machines, Models C and D, the D Exec, then Selectrics and some basics on transcribing machines. All long we were introduced to IBM culture, customer relations and other topics.
    I remember fellow students being in a race to get to Lexington Kentucky where final exams were done and your salary doubles if you survive.

    I was the last in class to get to Lexington. My buddies did well but came back with sad tales of people from other locations dropping out and going home empty handed, like some of today’s reality shows.

    I finally got my airline ticket and hotel voucher for Lexington. The testing was all practical, meaning hands on. It took four days and one day for graduation and travel home.

    The basic testing was along the lines of changing an op shaft, element rotate and tilt ribbons, power rolls, typebars etc. Everyone can do those things but they threw in parts rarely changed and you had to do it fast. I remember doing shafts in something like 4 minutes, maybe less.

    I’ll always believe IBM machines were designed for IBM techs with customers being merely content afterthoughts.

    People lost points when it came to Day 4 when presented with surprise machines where they didn’t tell us what the fault was. This was really tough as we were never taught the odd traps these machine had for us. Plus it was random, so they guys that came back from Lexington earlier could only tip off a small percentage of the hundreds of little things they would do with these machines. The nastiest for me was when they backed out a screw in the typebar guide plate maybe one turn… just enough to cause one typebar to form a weak impression. That darn screw was in plain sight for all to see but they knew we were instantly going to dive deep inside looking for something, anything.

    On the evening of day two I noticed my roommate, a very nice fellow
    from Texas was checking out along with a few other students. I was surprised to learn they voluntarily dropped out. Apparently IBM didn’t
    flunk you out, they knew you’d flunk yourself out. It was a surprise to me and troubling since I had the toughest day ahead of me.

    In the end I was pretty sure I did OK, On graduation day, the tormentor (uh, test manager), congratulates everyone along with an appropriate speech. Names are called, you go up and get a certificate. I noticed my name was not called. Something’s wrong. They introduced the Division president who’s name I can’t recall. He said one student got a perfect score, something he said only two other persons managed in division history.
    So on this particular week I really got lucky. But the best part was
    back In New York where I (somewhat arrogantly) got to call in the bet I made with the school manager that I’d get a perfect score. Lunch was good that day.
    BTW, just to be clear, none of this compares to stuff like Navy Seal training but for training on mechanical systems it was the toughest in the country. Being an OPD IBMer in 1973 was as good as it gets.

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