Design Dinosaurs: 19: The electric typewriter

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The Independent Culture
DESIGN historians adore typewriters. Encapsulated in those bodyshells is the saga of three ages of technology - mechanical, electrical and electronic.

Needless to say it was IBM that launched the first successful electric typewriter, the Model 01, in New York in 1935. It offered evenly pressured touch-typing (no more barely discernible characters imprinted by outlying little fingers, or holes drilled through the page by pounding first fingers) but didn't really catch on until proportional letter-spacing arrived with the Executive model in 1944.

The most famous of all the electrics, the IBM Selectric, was introduced in 1961. Instead of the usual basket of type bars it had a changeable, moving, spherical printing head or 'golf ball' which allowed typing speeds of up to 186 words per minute (not that typists' speeds increased: the soft keyboard merely fostered laziness which word processors, with their sophisticated formatting and spell-checking facilities, have only exacerbated).

Improvements followed thick and fast: in 1973 a correcting ribbon appeared, which lifted errors off the paper; in 1974 an electronic word memory; in 1978 automatic centring. Also in 1978 Olivetti introduced the first electronic typewriter, with electronic signals taking the place of many moving parts and a tiny screen to check the sentence before it was printed. The bodyshells varied from Eliot Noyes's curvaceous Selectric, like a sub-Henry Moore table-top sculpture, to Olivetti's black wedges with flat keyboards which the designer Mario Bellini derived from an inclined writing desk in a Piero della Francesca painting.

While these designs have secured the electric typewriter a place in the Museum of Modern Art, they haven't saved it in the workplace. Electric typewriters are now used by less than one per cent of secretaries, replaced by the WP, which eclipses them in every respect. Their day is done, and pages splashed with white Tipp-Ex tears remain to remind us why.