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IBM chips in with Golfball anniversary

Revolutionary typewriter tech is 50 years old this Sunday

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IBM's Selectric typewriter - the text processing tool that replaced traditional font with the 'Golfball' - will be 50 years old on Sunday.

First releasted in 1961, the spherical device was designed as a fast-moving type-head, able to punch a character through an ink ribbon and onto paper far more quickly than characters on the long arms of old.

IBM Selectric Golfball

Cape sphere: the IBM Golfball

That, IBM said at the time, will make typists even faster. It claimed a top typist could thrash out 90 words a minute - 80 per cent more than the 50 words a minute they'd get with a traditional electric typewriter.

The golfball also moved laterally across the page so there was no need to build a carriage mechanism to shift the paper behind the key-strike area. With no need to wait for the carriage to return to the start of the next line, typists were able continue tapping away once they reached the end of a line.

IBM Selectric

'Take a letter, Miss Jones'

Able to print only one character at a time, the golfball ended the possibility of key-jam: two or three character arms getting stuck together in the print area. That problem could hit even the most experienced of typists, especially if the typewriter was poorly maintained.

And with the ability to swap golfballs and out of the Selectric, the technology paved the way for machines capable of producing copy in multiple typefaces.

Daisywheel with Courier font

Golfball rival: the cheaper but way less resilient Daisywheel - which is still on sale today

IBM's rivals came up with similar systems, most notably the daisywheel, a circular arrangement of characters. Somewhat cheaper than IBM's golfballs, daisywheels were less resistant to wear and tear.

IBM continued to innovate, first adding - in 1971, with the Selectric II - the ability to change the pitch from ten to 12 characters per inch, and, in 1973, by adding an ink-lifting correction ribbon to new Selectrics.

IBM Selectric Golfball

Later IBM typewriters gained correction ribbons

In the late 1970s, the typewriter began to be superseded by dedicated word processing terminals - for which IBM provided golfball equipped printers - and, during the following decade, by computers running word processing software. IBM introduced the Selectric III in the early 1980s, but killed the line altogether in 1986 - five years after the launch of the IBM 5150, aka the IBM PC. ®

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