When I was a kid, I’d visit my grandmother at her office job. On the typing stand connected to her steel desk sat a grayish-green IBM Selectric II typewriter. I had never seen anything like it, and typing on it, even when I couldn’t yet type correctly, was great fun.
The Selectric wasn’t just a typewriter. It was a machine. It should have come with tank treads and a turret. Even the name was cool, something almost sci-fi.
The on/off button was on the right side of the keyboard, and as soon as you clicked it on, two things happened: The “element”—the spinning ball that nailed the letters to the paper—came alive with a twitch and a chirp, and the machine began to hum. As the metal parts grew warm, a light scent of lubricating oil arose from the opening in the cowl.
Typing on the Selectric was very easy and smooth compared to manual typewriters. If you were a fast typist, you could go like mad on a Selectric, until it sounded like a little machine gun. I don’t know if IBM trademarked that sound, but it could have, because nothing else sounded like the Selectric element, especially when it was tapping out three or four letters second.
Imagine an entire room emitting that racket. That was my typing class in high school: twenty-four sophomores hammering away. There were plenty of computers in other classrooms, but in Mrs. Casterlin’s typing class, the Selectric II ruled.
My mother, who worked as a legal secretary, insisted that I learn how to “touch type”: fingers on home row, eyes on the material you’re typing up and not looking at your hands, the keyboard, or the paper pressed against the platen.
At first, I hated it, because I simply wasn’t good at it. But by the middle of the marking period, something began to flow, eyes to brain to fingertips, and somehow I started typing. I eventually reached a speed of 92 words a minute. Like riding a bicycle, you never unlearn—you can always type once you know how. The immediate benefit was being able to type papers in high school and college, typing up my journalism assignments quickly. To this day, I type fast without looking.
The Selectric used what are called “whiffletree” linkages that performed a digital-to-analogue conversion: The linkages converted the pressing of a key to the analogue movement of the element. This is the reason why late-generation versions of the Selectric could be connected to a computer and used as a printer. The Selectric, thus, was a beautifully transitional device, a machine of oiled metal parts, designed using computerized technology, functioning with a digital-analogue system, and capable of being an out-put device for an actual computer.
Another detail about the Selectric that I never forgot was the “feel” of the keyboard. When the typewriter was off, the keys felt weirdly dead, like little stones. Turned on, the keys each had a lively tension—they pressed back against the fingertip. In my lifetime I have watched the keyboard transform, from those attached to the magnificent typewriters I poked at as a kid to the ultra-sensitive (way too sensitive) screen pads I can’t type on worth a damn. Supposedly, from the reports I read and hear, most people don’t know how to touch type and rather deploy some sort of self-customized pecking method developed for their iPhone or iPad.
I’m glad I’m just old enough to have experienced learning and then knowing the physicality of typing on the Selectric, and other typewriters, not on a computer or digital device. When you learn to do something so elemental to your profession, and to every job you’ve ever had, you don’t forget the experience of learning or forget the machine with which you learned, especially such a good one. Such a real one.