Typewriters

Though they would not become electronic until the 1970s, typewriters were the most critical and ubiquitous of all business equipment through most of the 20th century. Typewriter technology would benefit greatly from electrification and later electronic enhancements, although the associated technologies in their fullest incarnation would ultimately bring about the demise of the typewriter. Electric and electronic typewriters remained a cornerstone of business through the 1980s, but by the 1990s they had been relegated to the role of a discount product, completely displaced by the modern PC. Typewriters are now a common sight at flea markets and antique stores, prices bolstered by a recent resurgence in the anti-technological affectations of some writers, who place emphasis on the quality of the writing experience.

IBM Model B Executive
 IBM Model B Executive

Introduced in 1954, the Model B Executive electric typewriter (also known as the Model 41C) is the third iteration of the original IBM Electromatic Model 04, one of the most advanced typebar-based typewriters ever produced. Unlike other typewriters, IBM Executive models have an elaborate multi-escapement mechanism which advances a variable number of increments in accordance with the width of the typed character. This generates proportionally spaced print with a more typeset appearance than a standard typewriter. The Model B Executive also has interchangeable baskets in a range of fonts, a clumsy precursor to the interchangeable type elements used in the IBM Selectric. Weighing nearly 50lb, the Model B Executive is a massive commercial-use typewriter, with a large side-mounted carbon ribbon and take-up spool located under metal covers on either side of the machine.

IBM also produced the Model B Standard, a third generation version of the Electromatic Model 01 with fixed-width print and a smaller ribbon installed in the main body of the typewriter. The Model B Standard was modified for use as an input terminal on a number of early computers, including the Bendix G-15, DEC PDP-1 and IBM 1620.

IBM Model B Brochure (PDF)
IBM ET Parts Manual (PDF)
IBM ET News Letter No. 15 (PDF)

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IBM Selectric
 IBM Selectric

Devices included in this entry:

IBM Selectric 721 electric typewriter (pictured in thumbnail)
IBM Selectric 723 electric typewriter
IBM Selectric 725 electric typewriter


Introduced on July 23, 1961, the IBM Selectric was a fundamental revolution in typewriter technology. Abandoning the typebar mechanism used in nearly all other typewriters, the IBM Selectric uses a spherical, internchangeable type element, which includes 88 characters arranged in four rings of 22 characters each. The position of the type element is controlled by a whiffletree mechanism which mechanically decodes seven bits of keypress data to position the type element. Two bits select the row, while five bits select the column. Type elements are available in a range of different typefaces, and can be quickly interchanged. The incredibly fast mechanism of the IBM Selectric allows for much higher typing speeds than a traditional typebar mechanism, and avoids the lockup problems associated with typebar mechanisms when accidentally striking more than one key simultaneously. Despite its internal complexity, the entire Selectric mechanism is mechanical, and driven by a single motor.

Upon its introduction, the Selectric immediately commandeered nearly all of the professional typewriter market, displacing typewriters from competing manufacturers as well as IBM's earlier typebar-based electric machines. The Selectric would spawn an entire range of successor products, including the Selectric II and Correcting Selectric II, Selectric III and Selectric Composer. The Selectric mechanism would not be displaced in professional business machines until IBM's introduction of the Wheelwriter and Quietwriter electronic typewriters in the mid-1980s.

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IBM Personal Wheelwriter 25
 IBM Personal Wheelwriter 25

In 1984, IBM began phasing out their Selectric product line in favor of the Wheelwriter and Quietwriter, two new series of electronic typewriters. While the Quietwriter was not a successful product, the daisy wheel-based Wheelwriter would come to dominate the professional typewriter market through the late 1980s and early 1990s. Wheelwriter typewriters were available in two basic form factors: the standard body style used on the original Wheelwriter and Quietwriter models from 1984, and a more compact body style, first introduced in 1988 with the Personal Wheelwriter. The Personal Wheelwriter 25 pictured here is a later variant from 1992, which includes 32kB of memory and a two-line LCD display.

All models of Wheelwriter employ IBM's famous buckling spring key mechanism, best known from their Model M computer keyboards. Both the Wheelwriter and the Model M keyboard were manufactured at IBM's printer factory in Lexington, Kentucky. This factory is currently owned by Unicomp, a keyboard manufacturer which still produces Model M keyboards using the original IBM injection molds.

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Olivetti Underwood Lettera 32 & Lettera 33
 Olivetti Underwood Lettera 32 & Lettera 33

Devices included in this entry:

Olivetti Underwood Lettera 32 manual typewriter
Olivetti Underwood Lettera 33 manual typewriter (pictured in thumbnail)


Introduced in 1963, The Olivetti Lettera 32 is a small portable typewriter, once popular among students, journalists and other financially distressed individuals. The Lettera 32 was designed by Marcello Nizzoli, as a minor revision of his earlier Lettera 22 typewriter from 1949. In their time, the Lettera 22 and Lettera 32 were widely recognized for their efficient industrial design, which features a basket shift mechanism, keyset tablulator and a simplified body construction, in a highly compact form factor.

Two years after the Lettera 32, Olivetti introduced the Lettera 33, also known as the Lettera DL. The Lettera 33 shares the same mechanism as the Lettera 22 and Lettera 32, but features a modernized black-and-silver body style designed by architect Ettore Sottsass.

As with other Olivetti typewriters, the Lettera 32 and Lettera 33 were branded as Olivetti Underwood for the US market.

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Olivetti Praxis 48
 Olivetti Praxis 48

Introduced in 1964, the Olivetti Praxis 48 is fairly standard electric typewriter with impressive aesthetics. The Praxis 48 was designed by Italian architect Ettore Sottsass, whose "floating" keyboard concept was inspired by the 1959 Royal Electric typewriter and the Teletype Model 28. Sottsass is best known for the Olivetti Valentine, a oddly designed portable typewriter cast in red plastic.

Olivetti Praxis 48 Owner's Manual (PDF)

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Olympia SM3 DeLuxe
 Olympia SM3 DeLuxe

The popular SM3 manual typewriter is the third iteration of Olympia's SM series of medium-sized portable typewriters. The SM series began in 1948 as the Orbis typewriter, a temporary brand name used by Olympia when they first moved production out of Erfurt, located in Soviet-occupied East Germany. The Orbis/SM1 slowly evolved into the SM2, with numerous slight cosmetic tweaks but a largely unchanged mechanism. The SM3 was the first major upgrade to the functionality of the SM design, adding a manual tabulator.

The SM3 was popular among writers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, perhaps the most noteworthy being science fiction author Frank Herbert. Herbert used a SM3, identical to the example pictured here, to write the epic novel Dune.

Olympia SM3 Operating Instructions (PDF)

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Olympia SM7 DeLuxe
 Olympia SM7 DeLuxe

Introduced in 1961, the SM7 is a later member of Olympia's SM series. Internally, the SM7 is nearly identical to the earlier SM4, the first SM series typewriter to feature a keyset tabulator. However, the SM7 abandons the late 1940s body style shared by all previous SM series machines, in favor of a modernized, angular body. All subsequent SM series typewriters feature a simplified version of the SM7 body style.

The SM7 pictured here is a later example manufactured in 1964, which has its touch selector located to the left of the keyboard. Earlier variations of the SM7 have a touch selector located beneath the ribbon cover.

Olympia SM7 Operating Instructions (PDF)

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Remington SR-101
 Remington SR-101

The Remington SR-101 is an unusual licensed clone of the IBM Correcting Selectric II. Despite the fact that the SR-101 mechanism is nearly part-for-part identical to the Correcting Selectric II, it is an unreliable machine with a high failure rate. Folklore states that IBM provided Remington with incorrect material specifications in the Selectric IP transfer, plaguing the SR-101 with mechanical problems.

The Remington SR-101 was first produced in 1975 under the Sperry-Remington brand name. In 1978, Remington acquired the Selectric IP from Sperry. Machines from 1978 onward were manufactured by Remington subsidiaries in Holland and Italy, and sold in the USA as the Remington Rand 101.

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Underwood Noiseless Portable
 Underwood Noiseless Portable

The Underwood Noiseless Portable, a rebranded version of the Remington Noiseless Portable, was an popular model of portable typewriter through the 1930s. The Noiseless Portable and extremely similar Underwood Noiseless 77 (a rebranded Remington 7 Noiseless) were manufactured in the Remington factory, as part of a patent exchange and licensing agreement between Underwood and Remington.

The Noiseless Portable was also available in green and maroon, though black is by far the most common variant.

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