07.31.11

Read-Letter Day for ‘Mad Men’ Prop

IBM's Selectric typewriter turns 50 today. Blake Gopnik on the real beauty behind the agile machine.

It’s on a stamp. It’s a fixture (literally) on the TV show Mad Men. IBM’s Selectric typewriter hasn’t been made for 25 years, but it seems to be getting a second wind in our culture. Today marks the machine’s 50th anniversary, in IBM’s 100th year.

Now that typewriters have all but disappeared, it’s hard to remember how special the Selectric seemed, compared to its traditional rivals. Instead of clunky strips of metal that rose up to hit your paper, the Selectric offered you a little aluminum “golf ball” that spun to the correct character when you hit a key and flew across the page as you typed. It was so agile, it seemed alive. On a Selectric, good typists could reach 90 words a minute, where before it they’d be lucky to manage 50.

The Selectric’s look came care of the great industrial designer Eliot Noyesr—that stamp is in his honor—and “iconic” is the word being bandied about. I think that gets the issue subtly wrong. It’s not the look of the Selectric that matters; without its mechanism, it wouldn’t mean a thing. What Noyes achieved was a casing that seems basic and industrial, even a touch heavy, as though anything fancier could only get in the way. It was plain enough to endure for a full quarter-century, never being notably in fashion or out of it. I think of it as a brilliantly good-enough frame for a leaping ball that was the real work of art.

woman-desk-selectric
The hair looks dated; the typewriter doesn't (Courtesy IBM) (IBM)

View a full archive by visiting Blake Gopnik's Daily Pic.