Electric Typewriter

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An IBM "Selectric" Typewriter circa 1961.

“Since 1865 (in Europe) or 1868 (in America) writing has no longer consisted of those ink or pencil traces of a body, whose optical or acoustical signals were irretrievably abandoned in order that the readers, at least, might flee into the surrogate sensuality of handwriting” (Kittler, Mucke, and Similon 113).

The electric typewriter was an advanced version of the original typewriter, to which the above quote refers. If the original typewriter distanced us from the "optical or acoustical signals" created by "a body," then the electric typewriter simply exaggerated that effect by perfecting the functions that a typewriter performs. This new technology contained a motor and improved upon its predecessor in a number of ways. For example, it greatly reduced the instance of “jams,” in which two keys pressed at once became “stuck.” It also created higher-quality documents than traditional typewriters and simplified the typing process. The electric typewriter eliminated the need for type bars and moving carriages and allowed for proportional letter spacing. This improved both typing speed and document legibility. The primary difference between the non-electric typewriter and the electric typewriter was that the former employed individual typebars operated by humans where the latter engaged a cylindrical typewheel operated by a motor. The new technology of the typewheel allowed for many of the improvements mentioned previously and ultimately facilitated the widespread popularity of the electric typewriter.

Pivoting type balls.

The first electric typewriter was patented by Thomas Edison in 1872. Yet his creation was “large, cumbersome and expensive” (IBM archives) and thus enjoyed little success. During Edison’s time, the cylindrical typewheel had not been invented, so he relied on a series of magnets to power his machine. George Blickenderfer was the first to create a modern electric typewriter and also the first to employ the new typewheel technology, which functioned in the following manner: “when a key was struck, the cylinder pivoted to that letter, then brushed over an ink roller on its way down to strike the paper on the platen” (Champlin 47). Though certainly an improvement over Edison’s invention, Blickenderfer’s model was likewise unsuccessful. Nonetheless, it did lay the groundwork for the IBM electric typewriter. In 1933, IBM acquired a company called “Electromatic Typewriters, Inc.,” the successor of the Northeast Electric Company, which had worked with Remington to produce the first successful electric typewriters. IBM developed its own innovative model, the “Selectric” typewriter, which included a pivoting ball. This technology can be viewed in action here: http://www.history.com/videos/history-rewind-electric-typewriter-1961#history-rewind-electric-typewriter-1961.

Earlier Versions

In 1893, George Blickensderfer unveiled a manual typewriter that featured an interchangeable typewheel at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, IL. Calling it the “Five Pound Secretary,” this small machine featured long spider-like keys and an oak wood case. The machine struck a chord with the American public and its popularity skyrocketed. By 1896 the Blickensderfer Manufacturing Company of Stamford, CT was producing 10,000 Five Pound Secretaries a year.

Then in 1903, Blickensderfer introduced the first mass produced electric typewriter, the “Blick.” Similar to its manual predecessor, the Blick featured a cylindrical typewheel and the established QWERTY keyboard, but in a stroke of genius, also carried light key touch, even typing, automatic carriage return and line spacing. Customers who were unfamiliar with the QWERTY keyboard even had the option to choose a different style. Despite these clear electronic advancements, the Blick never became a success. Featuring an Emerson electric motor and turned on by a Yale fit key system. The machine was simple to use. Electrical advancements at the time however, hindered its progress. Electricity had still not been standardized and currents differed from place to place.

IBM's first electric typewriter, the Electric Typewriter Model 01, introduced in 1935.

Following this invention, in 1909 brothers Charles and Howard Krum invented their own typewriter, also featuring a typewheel instead of typebars. Even after filing a patent for their creation, they were unable to get the project off the ground and abandoned their endeavors soon after. Then in 1920 James Field Smathers invented a quicker electric model and eventually sold it to the Northeast Electric Company in 1923. Looking to further develop this machine, the Northeast Electric Company partnered with Remington Electric in 1925 and successfully sold Remington Electric typewriters that were powered by Northeast Electric motors. In 1928 Northeast Electric was purchased by Delco, a subsidy of General Motors. Delco then decided to enter the typewriter business for itself instead of continuing the previous partnership with Remington Electric. Delco then formed the business Electromatic Typewriters, Inc., and produced the first Electromatic Typewriter the following year, in 1929.

By 1933, Elecrtomatic Typewriters, Inc., had been acquired by the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). Realizing the selling potential of the Electromatic Typewriter, IBM then spent close to $1 million redesigning and perfecting the machine. In 1935 IBM unveiled its Electric Typewriter Model 01, following it up eventually in 1941 with the Electromatic Model 04, restructured so as to feature innovative proportional spacing. With the addition of later models, by 1958 electric typewriters made up over 8% of IBM’s revenue. IBM and the equally opportunistic Remington Rand corporation competed neck and neck for the title of electric typewriter provider until 1961, when IBM’s Selectric typewriter series debuted. These typewriters featured a removable typeball with reversed lettering on it that rotated to provide jam-free, multi-fonted documents. Clearly Remington Rand did not stand a chance.

Marketing and Advertising: An IBM Case Study

An IBM electric typewriter ad circa 1955.

Various patents for various different typing machines have been awarded throughout history, but the most significant are those which IBM purchased from Electromagnetic Typewriters, Inc. This is because IBM was the first company to successfully market electric typewriters on a commercial scale. One factor that likely enhanced the marketability of the electric typewriter was the previous success of the traditional typewriter. One scholar writes that “typewriter sales were initially slow but increased rapidly in the 1880s, particularly after 1882, when competing machines began to crowd the Remington market … By 1900, Remington alone had sold more than one-half million machines” (Hoke 76). Despite this obvious popularity, both individual consumers and corporations were skeptical of electric typewriters for two main reasons. First, they doubted the new machines’ superiority and second, they feared the use of electricity. Thus, in IBM’s marketing strategy, the company emphasized the improved functionality of the machines as well as the safety of their electric components (IBM archives). Furthermore, by highlighting the electric typewriter’s advanced performance in business environments, IBM created a successful marketing campaign.

That this marketing technique differed vastly from those that preceded it is worth noting. Previously, typewriters were advertised for personal use more than anything else. One of Remington’s original typewriters resembled a sewing machine and they drew on this fact to market it. They advertised the typewriter as “the size of a sewing machine, and an ornament to an office, study or sitting room … it is certain to become indispensable in families as the sewing machine” (IBM archives). In this light, IBM’s targeted marketing toward corporations rather than families was striking. Eventually, IBM also began to offer their electric typewriters in various colors and with changeable typebars. Their pivoting type ball could also be easily removed and replaced by other balls with different fonts. These options allowed for greater personalization and consumer choice. Thus, IBM drew on proven advertising strategies to increase their client base.

The Electric Typewriter and Business

Although little data exists on the impact of the electric typewriter in the business sphere, after the typewriter first entered the workforce, to be later replaced by the electric typewriter, one can make the most basic assumptions: the typewriter essentially standardized and significantly sped up communication.

As it did so, the typewriter also eliminated the window for error since carbon paper was utilized that could create multiple copies at the same time, reducing mistakes. It was this quality that aided businesses in producing mass produced formal messages, giving the appearance of professionalism and legitimacy in a competitive environment. In addition to further providing investigative reporters and publications with quicker, more efficient copy in the newsrooms, the typewriter also provided opportunities for female employment in the workforce. By 1910, the U.S. Census reported 81% of clerk typists employed were women.

The Electric Typewriter and Gender: "The Type-Writer Girl"

Image from the AMC series "Mad Men."

“Was the secretary a sexually adventurous, independent feminist, or an economically depressed drudge looking for a way back into domesticity via marriage? What stories about the female bourgeois subject made these two seem like mutually exclusive options?” (Price and Thurschwell 7).

Women were by far the largest demographic to operate the original typewriter, both at home and in the workplace. By 1900, 76.7 percent of clerical workers were female (Hoke 77). This remained the case with the electric typewriter as well. One scholar attributes this pattern to the fact that “Remington, in an effort to increase sales, pushed for businesses to hire women operators who seemed to take readily to the new machine” (Champlin 46). Some have praised this phenomenon as a step toward empowerment and equality for women in the workplace while others have criticized it as perpetuating injustice and subjugation. Either way, one must first examine why, exactly, clerical careers proved so appealing to women at that time. Possible answers include the fact that clerical wages were often higher than those of other jobs available to women, the fact that clerical work was more respected than the work of many “traditional” female jobs, and the fact that “the business office was an excellent place in which to seek a well-bred husband” (Hoke 80). This last idea is conveyed prominently in the following clip from the popular 2000s television series “Mad Men,” which is set in 1960s New York City.


In many ways, the “Type-Writer Girl,” as Christopher Keep calls her, is also a product of fiction and film. Images of her appear and reappear throughout history in various texts, movies, and even television shows. For example, she is a significant character in T.S. Eliot’s iconic poem, “The Waste Land.” He writes of “the typist home at teatime,” who is “bored and tired [and] … hardly aware of her departed lover; her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass: ‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’” That this is a rather bleak portrayal of the Type-Writer Girl is obvious and reveals Eliot’s largely pessimistic attitude toward both his subject and modernity in general. Not all Type-Writer Girls were so lifeless, however, and Price and Thurschwell suggest that more positive portrayals of this figure “lured thousands of women into indebting themselves to buy typewriters or obtain diplomas” (7). Ultimately, the relationship between women and the typewriter can be described as paradoxical at best. Though the typewriter was not the sole cause of the introduction of women to the workplace, it did hasten the process. The development of the electric typewriter was simply a step that solidified it as a cultural icon and a tool of social change.


Lexmark Printer ink

From the electric typewriter eventually came the electronic typewriter. Similar to its predecessor in size and scope, the electronic typewriter featured a “daisy wheel” instead of a type ball. The daisy wheel was a circular perforated disk with letters shaped onto its outer edges. These electronic typewriters were also provided with cartridges, internal and external memory, and various electrical components. The electronic typewriter enjoyed a brief heyday from the 1970s to the 1980s before eventually falling prey to the computer.

Although the obvious connection between the typewriter and computer is the QWERTY keyboard design, today the only device to hold innate similarities to the electric typewriter is the printer. As the typewriter industry waned, magnates like IBM introduced new typewriter models that focused on print quality and precision. Eventually other businesses experimented with thermal transfer capabilities, dot matrix printing and pin-based engineering. With competing corporations realizing the potential in print, IBM sold off its flagging typewriter and commercial printing industry in 1990.

This new form of typewriter still featured ribbons and ink, but was capable of adapting to the computer via plug-in ports. Although significantly different in purpose from its predecessors, the printer provided the same function: quick, easy, efficient type. Thus, it is with sadness that the 21st century closed the chapter on both the electric typewriter, and typewriters as a whole, save for their lasting legacy in the small, light up “Print” button.


Champlin, Tim. “Those Marvelous Machines.” Antiques & Collecting Magazine, Vol. 112, No. 1, 42-48.

Eliot, T.S. “The Waste Land.” Bartleby. 2010. Web. 14 December 2010. <http://www.bartleby.com/201/1.html>.

Hoke, Donald. “The Woman and the Typewriter: A Case Study in Technological Innovation and Social Change.” Business and Economic History. Vol. 8, No. 2, 76-88.

“IBM Office Products Division highlights.” IBM Archives. August 1976. Web. 14 December 2010. < http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/exhibits/modelb/modelb_office.html>.

Keep, Christopher. “The Cultural Work of the Type-Writer Girl.” Victorian Studies, Vol. 40, No. 3, 401-426.

Kittler, Friedrich, Dorothea von Mucke, and Philippe L. Similion. “Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.” October, Vol. 41, 101-118.

Price, Leah and Pameal Thurschwell. “Invisible Hands” in Literary Secretaries/Secretarial Culture. Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005. 1-13.

“The typewriter: an informal history.” IBM Archives. August 1977. Web. 14 December 2010. <http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/exhibits/modelb/modelb_informal.html>.