IBM Selectric Composer Got Balls

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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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).