Thursday, September 22, 2022

Tossing the Selectric II

     I didn't keep many of the books lining my office off the third floor newsroom at 30 North Racine when I closed it up two weeks ago. But I held onto a few. Some I intended to read, like "Freak Kingdom," by Timothy Denevi, a 2018 look at Hunter S. Thompson's personal war against American fascism — which I did indeed begin a few days back, and am finding a truly excellent book that is sadly topical.
     Others were so odd I just couldn't part with them, like "Direct Line Distances" by Gary L. Patrick and Marilyn J. Modlin, which is exactly that: a book of tables of the mileage between various American cities. The plan is to ask my grandchildren, when they finally arrive and are sufficiently grown to consider the question, how such distances were determined before Mr. Google instantly served up the answer, and then display the book, to their amazement (okay, to their complete indifference). I just knew that if I got rid of it I could never find it again. (True. Plugging the title into Amazon and eBay comes up with nothing. Maybe I'm the only person to save a copy).
     The rest of the books I piled along the metal shelf off the newsroom where the few staffers who still had books were piling theirs, in advance of our move to a more stripped down, spartan newsroom at the Old Post Office, to be taken away by notional colleagues who have need for them. Most likely they'll be trashed quietly or, one hopes, donated. There's a Goodwill next door.
     Otherwise I mustered an uncharacteristic lack of sentiment toward the move. Maybe closing down my parents' house in Boulder last February helped me see such physical burdens with a clear eye. So much crap. Why hold onto it? For what? So even award plaques went into the trash. (For the lesser awards, that is; a few I kept, to be disposed of in some future culling). 
     I impressed myself by actually throwing away my IBM Selectric II with a minimum of interior drama. Yes, it was the machine of my youthful dreams — well, in blue, because it was prettier and rhymed, "a baby blue Selectric II." And it had that magical correcting button on the lower right corner of the keyboard, which would put the machine into the correcting mode, backing up the ball so your mistyped letter could be lifted off the page by white correcting tape, a marvel greeted by wide-eyed gratitude by anybody who'd spent years daubing Wite-Out on the page — too heavy a hand and it would leave a little puddle that the proper letter would be almost embossed in, drawing attention to your blunder instead of concealing it. Or by tucking a little white correcting square in and striking the key, which often took more dexterity than I could muster. Those little squares had a tendency to fall into the type basket and had to be fished out among the keys. 
     This Selectric was beige, and had been expropriated from my in-laws' basement. I didn't write columns on it—when I joined the paper we had those chunky ATEX terminals with their green cathode ray screens. But it was handy for typing envelopes and letters, before it broke some time in the early 21st century and was never repaired, though I remember once inquiring of the executive editor whether the paper would foot the bill for fixing the machine at one of the increasingly rare typewriter repair shops. 
     Transporting the heavy device home, to sit in my basement for another few years, seemed not just sentimental, but unhinged, maybe insane. I set it on my desk chair, gave it one long, lingering look.
     Before I pitched the machine, I did remove the typeball, the spherical aluminum element embossed with the letters of the alphabet. That's what made the Selectric so radical when it was introduced in 1961. All typewriters had a carriage that conveyed the paper, one letter at a time, past a fixed basket of type bars — hitting a bunch of keys all together so they jammed was a childish joy, for some reason.
     It was far more efficient for the type, spangled like stars in the celestial sphere around this cool metal golf ball, to move across the page instead. The element seemed the seat of wonder, and that I detached and kept, as a far more portable token. Kept for now anyway. I reserve the right to throw that away too at some future moment of clarity.
     Then I seized the typewriter with both hands—the thing is heavy—carried it over to one of the large trash cans in the kitchen and tipped it in. It landed with a loud and quite satisfying crash.


  1. Delighted with the mention of "Direct Line Distances." I still have a book listing the amortization amounts for various interest rates. I don't remember ever actually using it, but remember being surprised that it would list rates as low as 1, 2 and 3 percent and as high as 19 and 20 percent. Yes, we just ended a period of the so called unrealistically low rates and might be heading towards the Reaganite record rates. At one point, I spent a a few hours of slow time in putting together a formula for calculating amortization amounts, just before programs proliferated on the Internet that would calculate such amounts with just a couple key strokes and print tables with very little effort. Wait and see, we might yet bewail discarding typewriters if some natural or human event kills WIFI.


  2. Great read. I rejoiced when white out tape was introduced.

  3. One of my favorite non-violent criminal stories was the guy in NYC who had a jacket with an "IBM Factory Service" patch, a clipboard with official looking service orders, who used to go to huge typing pools in Manhattan in the 80s. pick up Selectrics from a few desks & leave the service orders, put them on his rolling cart & walk them out of the building to resell them, as the were about $1500 a piece new.
    As far as I know, he never got caught.

  4. To this day I'm am in awe of the developers of that typewriter that was released back in 1961. By simply pressing a key, so much happened in so little time. Rotating a ball to an exact location, striking the ribbon, positioning itself for the next letter before starting over. Watching that ball spin around was mesmerizing.

  5. I remember the Selectrics, they were a marvel. My mother did medical transcription in the 50s, 60s & 70s. She could fly on that thing. By coincidence, I pulled 4 old typewriters out of various spots in the garage yesterday, dusted them off and took pictures of them. Today I checked to see what worked and what didn't and put them on Freecycle for anyone who would like them--for any reason. Talk about father-in-law had an OLD electric Underwood--if you put it on top of a Selectric, it might crush it. It was like lifting a block of lead. Any heavier and I would have needed help.

  6. One other feature of the Selectrics that I have not seen mentioned here is hinted at on the typeball in Neil's photo: COURIER 12.

    That particular typeball produced text in 12-point Courier type (your basic typewriter font). You could swap it out at a moment's notice for a different typeface and different point size, anywhere from 6 to 14 points and lots of different faces, including foreign-language and symbolic faces. Try THAT with a typical typewriter.

    Needless to say, those typeballs are popular among collectors now (and Tom Hanks collects entire typewriters, though I think he'd gracefully decline a broken Selectric).

  7. There is an online "VOYAGE CALCULATOR"--an online tool for calculation of multiple sea-distances and voyage times (number of days at sea). The site can be found at More than four million distances. More than 4,000 seaports, organized by country. And if you change the vessel's speed (in knots), the travel times and number of days at sea automatically recalculate. A little too much information for a print edition.
    Goodwill might have accepted a donation of that IBM Selectric II at one time, but they are pretty picky these days. It's still the kind of vintage item that a Habitat ReStore would gladly accept. They don't pooh-pooh old technology...they welcome it. It's the go-to place for live-theater groups, and even movie people. A typewriter is a must-have for any stage play with back-in-the-day office scenes. Or newspaper city-room scenes. They often have the requisite desktop rotary phones, too.

    Keeping that cool metal golf ball was a nice sentimental's a token of pure the worn gear shift knob from my '66 VW Bug. I'm a terrible hoarder and pack rat. Are these valuable treasures for a future estate sale?'ll probably all be pitched from an upstairs window, into a dumpster in the backyard. Including the contents of eleven bookcases. Back up the truck.

    1. Habitat ReStore--excellent suggestion

    2. They are a treasure trove of needful and delightful things. You never know what you'll find. This week, I begin my ninth year of working at the fifth largest ReStore in the country.

  8. I learned to type on a Selectric of some variety, in a typing class full of the beasts. No correction tape that I recall, and I don't remember the protocol for mistakes. Maybe we used our own little white correction slips. They were already old tech in the early 1980s, but were still marvelous machines.


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