Home Row

IBM Selectric golf ball

IBM Selectric golf ball

My mom was an extremely fast touch-typist. I don’t know what her WPM was, but she could also turn her head to the side and read the copy while typing. I’ve never been able to do that for more than a few words. She also never looked at the keyboard because the F and J keys told her everything she needed to know.

When I was 8, we moved to Anchorage, where my dad began teaching music theory and composition at the University of Alaska Anchorage. To supplement that income, my mom worked in the registrar’s office for Anchorage Community College. The University and the College shared a campus, but they were actually different schools. ACC was more of a technical/vocational school, while UAA was more about theory and research.

My dad’s office, in Building K, had a heavy steel door and walls of painted concrete block. And after a short time, it was filled with stacks of books and papers. Everywhere. My dad is a stacker, like me, so it’s good that he doesn’t share workspace with others.

My mom’s office was little more than a triple-wide motor home on the other side of campus. A temporary structure for use while the schools built more concrete block buildings, I don’t think it ever had a name (Z? M? MM?). It had wood panel siding, painted dark red, and a ramp of plywood running up to the front door. Inside, the uneven carpeted flooring supported a small army of workers, filing papers, looking up grades, and typing. Always typing.

A blue IBM Correcting Selectric II was my mom’s model of choice. Actually, there was no choice, since everyone had a blue IBM Correcting Selectric II. She loved that typewriter. It was fast, accurate, and solid as a rock. Everything else about her office was rickety and temporary, but those blue Selectrics at every desk were solid and modern. Here’s a photo from fishbonedeco:

IBM Correcting Selectric II

IBM Correcting Selectric II

I spent a lot of time on campus after school or during the summers. I loved going because I usually hung out in my dad’s office, which also featured a blue IBM Correcting Selectric II. I don’t think my dad used it very much, but that was before the music department had a secretary, so the faculty had to occasionally do their own typing.

I loved that machine. When you turned it on, it hummed impatiently, waiting for you to get to work. I mean real work, like pressing-as-many-keys-at-once-to-see-if-you-can-jam-the-works work. IBM designers probably had children, though, because they’d built a machine that was impossible to jam. Which meant that, ultimately, I had to actually type.

We had another blue typewriter at home, but it was cheap, with a cheap plastic shell, and cheap little arms that swung wildly toward the paper, each letter striking with a different amount of force, and at a slightly different angle than its colleagues. It was easy to jam.

At work, the IBMs had a solid metal shell and a round element, covered with letters and numbers, that spun around efficiently and accurately. I remember staring at that thing while pressing a key as slowly and gently as possible, trying to figure out how it worked. But you couldn’t slow it down to really see what was going on. At some point it just fired off a shot and that was it. Bang, there’s your letter.

Oh, you didn’t want that letter? No problem. I’ll let Wikipedia explain:

The correction key (an extra key at the bottom right of the keyboard) backspaced the carriage by one space and also put the machine in a mode wherein the next character typed would use the correction tape instead of the normal ribbon, and furthermore would not advance the carriage. The typist would press (and release) the correction key and then re-type the erroneous character, either lifting it off of the page or (if using a fabric ribbon) covering it with white-out powder, then type the correct character. Any number of mistakes could be corrected this way, but the process was entirely manual, as the machine had no memory of the typed characters.

To an 8-year-old in 1978, that’s magic. Hell, to a 41-year-old it’s still pretty magical. Just the idea is magical. Even better, if you looked closely at the paper, you could still see the impression of the erased character.

Selectric correcting tape

Selectric correcting tape

My mom’s office eventually moved into a real concrete block building, carving out space from the cafeteria. Her Selectric went with her, of course, and it went with her again when she moved to the financial aid office at the opposite end of Building K from my dad. And it even went with her several years after that when the schools merged and she moved across campus into the sparkling new administration building. It was around that time that my dad, towing his Selectric, also moved across campus into the sparkling new arts building. Right next door.

Of course, everyone in my mom’s office got a computer with a green flickering display, or was it orange? She liked the “pooter” well enough, and it could do things like access the university database up in Fairbanks, but the pixels it sent over to the office printer came out slow, ugly, and faint. And it needed special paper with a strip of holes on either side.

As a teenager, I’d visit her office and she’d let me play with the Selectric she now rarely used. It still put down nice clean letters. On real paper. I’d sometimes flip up the plastic tab that held the element in place, and pull it out to get a closer look. It amazed me that all the necessary letters and numbers were on this one little ball. Years later, I learned that they sold replacement elements with different typefaces and alphabets.

I typed up some forgotten stories on my parents’ two Selectrics. Sometimes, I’d type a story at home on the cheap typewriter, and then take it to work to type it up permanently. I also typed homework on those machines. I think at one point we even brought a Selectric home, where it absolutely did not belong. That was weird.

I now type on an Apple Aluminum Keyboard, which I love because it’s solid metal. And even though I still look at the keyboard too often when typing, the F and J keys in the home row have raised bits that constantly remind me of the raised bits on those same keys on my mom and dad’s Selectrics. 25 years ago. At work.

Triggered by this at GOOD

Also see Mr. Martin’s Typewriter Museum

And definitely check out the IBM100

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4 thoughts on “Home Row

  1. MT says:

    This makes me homesick for the old Selectric we had in the dining room, on its own small table. I think it was beige. And for my dad’s old manual, which I carry with me from home to home, thinking i’ll one day get it fixed up and working again. I’m not sure what I’d do with it if it worked, but I’d love to hear the sound of the keys.

  2. Jane H-B says:

    I have a red self correcting Selectric III in my attic. It was the typewriter I had at my first job as a legal secretary in Boston. When the office moved to Wang word processors, I bought it for, I think, $350. It was, and still is, one of my finest purchases. My previous electric typewriter had been 1960s kitchen gold, some kind of generic model from Sears, and it had those long, claw-like metal keys that you could jam. When it was finally (mercifully) stolen from my apartment in Cambridge, it would no longer type the letter “e.” I imagined a ransom note from the thief: “Giv m th mon y or your typ writ r will di .” Poor thief.

  3. Eric P says:

    Thanks for the memory, Dave. I’m happy to have had the chance to type out some papers for school on my mothers typewriter too. I’m happier to have been at the tail-end of those times because it was a long-reach mechanism whose keys would get stuck if you went above a certain speed.

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