IBM - The Selectric Typewriter
(and Computer Standards)

Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

Computer standards are very important influences for product planning and long-range strategy of computer manufacturers. One must stay in working contact to:

In 1961, while I was part of the worldwide standards operation for IBM (my special bailiwick being programming standards), we had a situation that emphasized these cautions.

The BSI (British Standards Institution) was proposing a standard for electric typewriter keyboards. I heard of it from our BSI representative for IBM United Kingdom. In studying the draft standard I found these two elements:

Knowing that IBM's new Selectric typewriter was coming out with a "dished" keyboard (as all are today), I asked if the keyboard "plane" could be "as defined by the bottom and top rows of keys". The BSI drafters agreed without argument, even though they had no hint of what I worried about.

And as the Selectric had no real keytops as such, being squarish anyway, I asked if the fingertouch area could be that of a 9/16 inch circle. Again, OK, even though they had never considered a keytop that wasn't round! And I did not mention such when I asked the dispensation!

Suppose IBM typewriters were nonstandard in Britain?

Did you know that one day during initial Selectric production at Lexington, KY, the honored touring guest was Mr. Marx, of Marx Toys, grinning ear to ear? The reason? IBM had purchased the rights to his toy typewriter for children as a large basis for their design.

At that plant I had one of the biggest professional failures of my life. I went there on 1961 Feb 16 (with my seatmate being Basil Rathbone of Sherlock Holmes fame), to argue that the ball should be designed for 64 characters instead of 44. Thinking of it for an ASCII terminal, of course. The final word was "Naw! This will never be anything but a correspondence typewriter". They had to go through many contortions later to get it do so, for the pressures to use it as a terminal were overwhelming.

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