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I finally came home with an IBM Selectric II

I have a small collection of vintage typewriters. Until very recently, they were all completely mechanical and I’d avoided getting anything electric.

But since I work at IBM, I routinely get asked if I own an IBM Selectric.

The Selectric used to be ubiquitous in offices in the US, and it is memorable because it uses a “ball” to type with. The machine is still rather mechanical, but it has a motor drives the ball mechanism which is considerably more complicated than the traditional key slug design that traditional typewriters use. As an interesting bit of history, the USSR also bugged a series of US-based Selectrics in the 1970s in what may be considered the earliest keylogger.

I wasn’t going to get one. I’ve been advised that they’re incredibly complicated, take specialized expertise to fix them, and when they go wrong, they can really go wrong. But that nagging feeling was there, and when I saw a lonely IBM Selectric II for sale for $19.99 at a local thrift shop, I scooped it up and brought it home.

It was really loud when I plugged it in. But hey, the motor still worked!

Over the next few weeks I watched some videos about how they work, popped the lid off to see if I could identify the problem. I was able to pull out some super gross padding on the bottom and so it started to smell a bit better, and it is fun to poke around with.

Ultimately I had to admit defeat though. If I had more time, I may have tried harder to fix it myself, but the truth is I wasn’t actually enjoying the fix-up of this machine, like I have with the simpler fully mechanical ones. There were too many things going on, and when I noticed Berkeley Typewriter’s website has a “We Specialize in ALL IBM Typewriters” line front and center, I decided I wouldn’t delay any longer, and I should just take it in to have the experts. $400 later I had a repair receipt and a promise that it would be done within a month.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post our four year old son Adam came with me to the shop. Pretty much the most adorable thing to come out of all this was that the shop owner gave him a gutted President typewriter as a toy, and when he realized it was non-functional, he decided to try and fix it …”like mom does.” He popped open the top and started poking around inside with his toy tool set, an activity that took up a ton of time for several days. I’m so proud.

After a couple weeks I got a call that it was ready, and as soon as the weekend rolled around Adam and I piled into the car and went to pick it up. It turns out that it needed several parts replaced, so I suspect I would have struggled some in my attempts to fix it myself unless I went part hunting (again, with more time maybe I would have been up for it!). While I was there, I also decided to pick up an additional typing ball – this time in Script, which he sold to me in a beautiful little red IBM ball holder.

After browsing some listings, I’m certain that I’m going to end up collecting Selectric typing balls for use, it’s the only typewriter I have that you can change the font in!

Now safely at home and living happily behind me while I work, it’s actually quite lovely to use, and it’s been a huge hit with my kids. The keys are much easier to use than on any of my mechanical typewriters, so they can swiftly punch out a whole line without much effort, which they’re really enjoying. It’s a lovely little machine, and I am actually glad it joined my collection.

But really, this is the last one!