When Typewriters Lose their Balls... (Jun 29, 2019, 4:40 pm)
The letter ball

A letter ball(aka printing element) belonging to an vintage IBM Selectric typewriter. What happened to the typewriter? Who cares? I happened upon this during on one of my regularly scheduled junk store expeditions. Upon seeing this detached relic on a shelf my mind was transported back to 1986 where I learned to type on one of those aforementioned typing machines in high school. It occurred to me that typing is undoubtedly the most used skill I took from high school. This class was a few years before desktop computers exploded onto the market and infiltrated all the workplaces. So, unless you aspired to do secretarial work or become a writer, typing wasn't a necessary skill to get through life--or so I thought. In those days I was most interested in electronics and thought maybe I would work at an electronics repair shop, install car stereos, or some shit like that. Whatever the case, I had no desire to become a secretary and I was convinced that writing was out of my league. In spite of this, I signed up for typing anyway thinking that it would be an easy elective.

There were about thirty IBM Selectric typewriters in this classroom occupied by two maybe three of us nerdy guys and dominated by about twenty-seven young women. Mentally, It wasn't a particularly taxing class but it was busy. There was no time for daydreaming of becoming a rock star or passing love notes. We all sat in unison, in the same forced state of perfect posture, and typed non-stop while following the lessons in our stand-up textbook. The spiral bound textbook unfolded in a way to stand upright with its' pages facing you while typing. We began with one firm rule, looking at the keyboard while typing was strictly prohibited. Our instructor would police the isles to catch wandering eyes and to make sure we were sitting uncomfortably as we were taught. She ruled the roost with the seriousness of a drill instructor while we systematically transformed into professional production typist. All thirty of those machines hammering together provided the background music which was reminiscent of industrial machinery. Because of my interest in electronics, I found rapid and precise movements of the letter ball fascinating and wondered what sort of mysterious electronic brain made it work. This was the first electric typewriter I had encountered, and it was was clearly more advanced than the antique, non-electric, Underwood Five that I'd played with at home. IBM began production of the Selectric typewriter in 1961 so those school typewriters were from new when I hung out with them.

For correcting the many typos we made we had White-Out which was available in a bottle to paint over our blunders or those nifty--watch your fingers--rectangular plastic transfer strips. I don't remember it being hard to fix typos as long as you caught them before hitting the carriage return which terminated the line and positioned the paper feed to the start of the next line. A bell would sound as you approached the mechanical right margin setting. Ding! When the bell rang you had to mentally decide if you had space for the rest of the word you were typing or needed to split it with a hyphen and finish the word on the following line. Keep in mind, we weren't allowed to even glance at the typewriter while typing. If you wanted to center a title on a page you simply centered the carrier on the paper and hit backspace once for every two characters to be typed; and don't forget to count those spaces as characters too! If I remember correctly centering the carrier meant counting spaces and maybe setting a tab stop to make it faster next go around. Always leave two spaces at the end of every sentence. This was a bizarre rule that later became known as a bad habit. And was it seven spaces to indent a paragraph or five? It's not like any of this stuff matters anymore. Anyway, as I sat there in 1986 typing my parts in that orchestra of IBM Selectrics I had no clue that typing would soon become a skill I used every day of the week. At the end of the course I predicted that I'd forget how to type within a year because the only typewriter I had access to was that damned old Underwood Five that liked to jam up if you tried typing faster than a hunt and pecker.

The very next year, in 1987, my parents, for reasons forgotten by me, bought an IBM PC clone which began my never-ending relationship with computers which has kept me typing on some machine another almost every day since then.