IBM Selectric Composer Got Balls

When I started designing newspapers in 1968 (at age 17) I used an IBM Selectric Composer, a souped up Selectric typewriter featuring metal font balls with exchangeable type faces and styles.  I thought it was state of the art.

My first introduction was the MTSC (Magnetic Tape Selectric Composer), where you typed in your text on the typewriter, it was recorded on tape in an adjoining unit and played back (typed) onto clay coated repro paper through the typewriter. It was totally automated, except it would stop to allow for an operator to manually change the ball to bold or italic or a new style entirely.

My weekly underground newspaper rented the MTSC console for $200 a month. When, however, we could no longer afford the fee, we switched to a half-priced version: the typewriter alone, which was a real pain. Here’s what says about it:

The original Selectric Composer, announced in 1966, required text to be typed twice. On the first pass, the machine would automatically measure the length of the line, providing the operator with a color+number (i.e. green-2) combination to be noted in the right margin. When the operator finished all lines of the document, they would put a clean sheet of specially coated paper into the machine and engage the justification lever. This time, prior to typing each line of text, the operator would turn a color dial to the noted color, and another dial to the noted number. Once the dials were set, the operator would begin typing the text. While typing, the Composer would insert incremental amounts of additional space between words such that the line would always be flush on the right margin. Errors could not be corrected, and when they occurred, the operator would simply space down a few lines and retype the line. In those days, cut and paste literally meant cut and paste. The completed copy would be cut, removing any erroneous lines, and pasted onto a layout sheet for later processing.

Both the MTSC and the Selectric stand-alone took up much less space, was less noisy and more streamlined than a Linotype machine, and it was cleaner too. But for the life of me, I could never get a truly perfect paragraph of justified lines. That’s when I decided flush left/rag right was the best way to set type (and photostating and enlarging 10pt IBM type to 42pt headlines was good typography).

14 thoughts on “IBM Selectric Composer Got Balls

  1. totalpackage_2

    I started on the early phototypesetters in the 70’s while working for a University, then later in my own studio I had one of the Selectric setups creating designs after hours. Ingenious little devices. I looked this up because I was trying to explain the Selectric system to a friend but she’s 20 years my junior and never heard of it.

  2. Tom L

    I cut my typographic teeth on one of these beauties, as a teenager “working” for my dad’s freelance graphic studio down in the basement of our suburban home.
    I remember taking a training class on operating the machine.  If I recall, the model my dad purchased was the “Correcting Selectric Composer,” which had a second ribbon of white lift-off material that ran underneath the main ribbon.  Character typos could be corrected by engaging the lift-off correcting ribbon and re-typing the mistake verbatim, then backing up and correcting the text.
    Of course, that really only worked for flush-left copy, as the escapement for justified text would be messed up with the correction.
    That machine was my entree to an enjoyable career in the typesetting industry (yes, typesetting used to be an industry!), graduating from Selectric Composer … to Addressograph-Multigraph, Compugraphic, and AKI electronic keyboards with punched tape … to the AM Comp/Set 500 (a self-contained keyboard and photounit in one) … to a one-ton APS-5 CRT photosetter driven by a refrigerator-sized CompuScan front-end system … and finally to PCs driving Postscript printers.
    But to this day, there hasn’t been a keyboard that’s been as satisfying to type on as the one the IBM Selectric Composer had, with its solid clack-clack-clack tactile response and slight whiff of machine oil.  🙂

  3. John Jezierny

    My first job at a “pre-press” house in 1968, provided a service entitled “cold-type composition”. I remember Eleanor, the typesetter, would spray the finished output from the Selectric, with enough fixative to choke a horse, then go back and light up another Viceroy. I also remember running the “galley” upside down through the waxer. Those really were the days.

  4. Ronn Campisi

    My first job as a magazine designer was also in 1968, at Fusion magazine. We had the same typesetting system. I remember the special clay-coated paper, running it through a waxer, and then cutting and pasting it onto layout boards. For headlines, however we used Letraset rub-down transfer type. I can’t tell you how many thousands of words I painstakingly put together letter by letter. It was a good way to intimately know the fonts you were working with.

  5. Sarah Butcher

    I remember seeing the composer while working for my father in the early 80’s . We sold and serviced IBM selectrics as well any other kind of typewriter. I acquired my love of typography while working at “Ken and Ray Office Equipment” it’s funny to see this post today , my dad who is 84 is calling quits next month , after 62 years in the typewriter business. After downsizing his biz in Baltimore city about 7 years ago, he has been selling vintage typewriters in a little shop in Hampden, Maryland. I anyone is interested in a typewriter, maybe a selectric and lots of balls send me an email,

  6. Mary Schill

    My first graphic job, while I was in my early years at university studying art, we used one of those machines to set type. The good thing about them is we also new that type below 10pt was hard to read for anyone. I wish more of the new designers today woudl get that. 

  7. Marlaine Weber

    I inherited my parents’ Selectric … and 5 balls. I never knew there were machines that required someone to correctly type the sentence 2x – how crazy! I would be there all day.
    Thanks for all of your articles; there’s always something new to learn!

  8. Howie Green

    Yep my first publication was all done one of the IBM typewriters too. It was all  typed for me by a nice eldely lady in the company “secretarial pool” but I had to draw out columns in light blue ink on special chalky surface paper we used to keep the ink from smudging. I think the Flintstones used the same process. Ah, progress!