Substantial stuff.

As a child I played with a manual typewriter, loving the clacking, the fabulous bell that sounded when you whacked the return lever. You had to swing your whole arm to work the keys. They were pinkie crushers. Secretaries with manual typewriters must have had incredible muscles, under their nylon dresses. They could have crushed nuts between their fingers like movie martial arts heroes. Mad Men type men could not have realized this crunching potential, or they would have given these ladies a whole lot more room.

Chief McMillan taught typing. In his class, there were electric typewriters, small ones, in harvest gold and avocado. These required such a light touch, but still had the bell, which would ring with the push of a button. Chief would loudly chant the typing mantras, “a-s-d-f, j-k-l-;” and something or other about a fox. I loved that class, the chanting and the clacking and the ringing. It was probably the most useful class I ever took. I once had a very high score on a typing test required to get a state job, but was passed over because of being “too artsy”.

My parents bought me an electric typewriter when I graduated from high school. It was a Smith Corona, and came in a spiffy plastic suitcase. It was much loved for all 4 years of my undergrad career; so luxurious to be able to type in the comfort of my own dorm room.

As an intern at a woodland nature center, I met my first IBM Selectric. Near my tiny corner in the basement, the Selectric had its own desk. To create letters on the page, it had a mysterious ball, similar to the one in the planetarium that creates stars on the ceiling. Deliciously solid, heavy as hell. It took two strong men to move the Selectric, and maybe a few simple machines. It was reliable, and never had issues such as you would get with typewriters of a lesser pedigree. So sad for the TV detectives who had long relied on sticking key clues in ransom notes to find the bad guys. Most amazingly, it had a feature where you could back up and correct a letter. Honestly, this was a miracle. It could remember a whole letter, maybe even two. Back in the day it was hard to get a clean copy of any document. They were always gummed up with whiteout, or corrected with pencil, or retyped repeatedly. So imagine the epiphany, if you noticed your mistake quickly, like within a letter or two, the wondrous Selectric could correct it for you.

In grad school the computer lab was full of original Macintosh computers, with their tiny gray flickering screens and ram disks. The 10 or so dot matrix printers were deafening. In this room I realized I could get migraines. But tearing away the perforated edges of my dot matrix masterpieces was incredibly satisfying. There was also a laser printer, but it cost a bunch of money to use, and always got the ellipses wrong. My advisor was an ellipsis Nazi.

I saw an IBM Selectric through the window of a dusty insurance office today. A relic. I realize now that the Selectric was one of the last of the dinosaurs. Once upon a time, useful machines had a presence, they were behemoths, they were not disposable. Cars were made of steel and had deep voices. Computers took up whole buildings, punched holes in cards, acted directly on other objects. Devices didn’t go to coffee shops. You couldn’t slide them under the couch. The Selectric, like its kin, was a solid citizen, it owned the space it took up. It got the job done.


just in case you needed more about the IBM Selectric…


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