During the era of the typewriter there were a few kinds of basic designs. The (afaik) most well known is the type bar design, where each key is connected to an individual type bar that hits the paper when the key is pressed, each type bar carries the uppercase and lowercase shapes of a single letter. The other variant is the type wheel or type ball design (or generically the single type element design), where a single ball or wheel shaped element contains all the letters. The mechanism rotates and/or tilts the wheel/ball before it strikes the paper so that the right letter is imprinted.

type wheel type basket single element typewriter

Type wheel/balls have some advantages over type bars: They cannot get stuck, and the entire wheel/ball can be replaced to change the font. The Blickensderfer, one of the early wheel operated typewriters, is often described as being much simpler than other contemporary (often type bar operated) machines, containing only a quarter of the moving parts of other contemporary typtewriters, so the type wheel mechanism appears to not necessarily be more complex than type bars.

During the last decades of the typewriter era, the electric type ball operated Selectric machines where very popular as higher end typewriters, but I have the impression that type bars were more common in manually operated lower end machines.

There seem to be clear technical advantages for type wheel/ball designs. Why were type bars so popular for manual typewriters?

(This question makes a few assumptions, which may be wrong. Please tell me if that is the case.)

edit: Clarified the question that it is about manual typewriters, add pictures

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    As the IBM PC hit the market in the early 1980's, the waiting list to purchase an IBM Selectric typewriter hit something like 18 months, as production capacity lagged further and further behind demand. This was a major factor behind the initial rapid adoption of the PC. (personal recollection) – Pieter Geerkens Jun 30 '18 at 14:35
  • @PieterGeerkens Wow, I didn't know Selectrics were that popular. – JanKanis Jun 30 '18 at 14:58
  • I suspect Moor'es Law likely played in, bringing production cost and price down. But IBM was totally unprepared for the resultant increase in demand. – Pieter Geerkens Jun 30 '18 at 15:18
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    I don't know why you think bar type were more popular than ball type. When IBM Seletrics came out in the early '60s , they could not keep up with demand. As a supplier, made a couple components at a rate of about 50,000 per month . That was basically before computer applications. – blacksmith37 Jun 30 '18 at 15:36
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    Just a guess, from my long-ago experience of having used both (and a bit of mechanical knowledge), but I think it takes more power than the average human can deliver to rotate the ball quickly enough to keep up with typing speed. Thus the ball mechanism didn't become popular until the IBM Selectric added power assist. – jamesqf Jun 30 '18 at 17:46

As your typing speed increases, you require a typewriter that does not jam as you type. The IBM Selectric met this need, and thus was widely adopted by any business or government agency which could afford it. The IBM Selectric was introduced in 1961; also see here.

For everything you ever wanted to know about the IBM Selectric typewriter, such as how it came to be, the mechanical design, etc, see IBM Typewriter Innovation.

Even my high school typing class, from 1965, had half of the typewriters were electric.

However, if you could not afford the better typewriter, or if you were slow and clumsy, like most untrained people, then a manual typewriter, even an old one, was still useful. My mother-in-law used to by old manual typewriters at garage sales in the 1980s and 1990s, recondition them, and resell them at a profit to local college students. Eventually, improvements in word processing drove these remaining typewriters out of business.

It is all economics and technological change. You can still find a variety of typewriters for sale, for example, on eBay.

Key - ball - and wheel designs But what about type wheel designs? Why were they not pursued? Well, they were ... but early versions had registration issues. Today they are the cheapest, and best typewriters available. Why are they better today? Technological advancements.

Horizontal and vertical registration problems!

The IBM Selectric solved the registration problem, leading to nice, clean typed copy. This drove competitors with less effective solutions out of the premium market.

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    But why were those cheaper manual typewriters all (or mostly) type bar and not type wheel designs? The type wheel was invented some 70 years before the Selectric. – JanKanis Jun 30 '18 at 17:15
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    Another reason for the manual typewriter is portability. As I remember, portable typewriters could be quite light, while the electric ones - and particularly the Selectric - could be used as boat anchors. And you could use the type-bar portable where there was no electricity. – jamesqf Jul 1 '18 at 18:03
  • Concise answer and brings up the relevant points. – Solar Mike Jul 2 '18 at 22:41
  • Note that type wheels are quite different from the daisy wheels your picture shows. – JanKanis Jul 3 '18 at 7:14
  • What do you mean by registration issues? The letters not being on the same baseline as in your last picture? – JanKanis Jul 3 '18 at 7:30

As @jamesqf comments above, what appears to be the case is that manual type wheel and similar designs require more effort to operate, which translates into slower typing. When you think about it that makes sense, the wheel or ball head is much heavier than a single type bar, and it needs to both move forward and rotate by the press of a single finger. The travel distance is smaller than with a type bar but I would guess from the sizes involved that this doesn't compensate for the heavier weight.

Apart from jamesqf's comment I found another source that make the same claim. In The Last Service Call (ETCetera 33, dec. 1995) P. Robert Aubert mentions that "by the turn of the century, it became obvious that the Blickenderfer could not compete with the faster type bar designs. The basic problem all type wheel machines have is that a key must be bottomed to print a character." While that's not exactly the same description, it's pretty close. In a type bar depressing the key accelerates the type bar and as long as it has enough momentum the impression is made. In the type wheel there are two mechanisms, to rotate and to imprint the character, that don't in all typewriters engage at the same time, so the writer needs to depress the key all the way. Well that's my interpretation at least. But the common theme is that a manual type wheel typewriter is slower than a type bar design. For electric typewriters this doesn't matter, as the motor provides all the needed force.

I also found a source somewhere else that mentioned that the owner of one of the early type wheel typewriter brands at some point was convinced that type bars were better, which at least supports that there was indeed a technical reason for type bars to win out. Unfortunately I can't find the source anymore.

A different reason mentioned here is that most type wheel typewriters ended in the same period that visible typewriters became popular. Before, type bars would hit the roller from below, which meant the written text wasn't visible without rolling the paper forward. In the new front-strike typewriters the type bars hit the paper from the front, allowing the operator to read what was typed. The written text on the existing type wheel designs was not as easy to read due to the type wheel being in the way, giving them a disadvantage. The Selectric solved this, but that would require more travel for the type wheel/ball to move out of the way, thus requiring even more force in a manual typewriter.

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One big reason was - IBM held the patents on the Selectric design. Yes, ball heads in general had been in use before then, but it took IBM to come up with a ball head that was both consistent and reliable, and allowed for multiple balls with different typefaces and spacing. IBM didn't even patent all of the design, so they wouldn't give away some of their secrets.

The Selectric debuted in 1961, and was the typewriter to have by the end of the decade. When the patents expired in 1978, various copies began to appear, but by the mid 1980's, the personal computer and printer had replaced the typewriter in most businesses.

So, at about the time other companies had perfected their own ball head typewriters, there was no one to buy them.

There were one or two attempts to build a computer printer that used the ball head, but this was at about the time the laser printer came out, which obsoleted all print quality impact printers.

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  • When I was using an IBM 1130, the console printer was a modified IBM Selectric. We had to change the ball whenever we ran the APL interactive language, since it used lots of special characters. This was 1969-1972. – Peter Diehr Jul 2 '18 at 13:22
  • Type wheels already existed 70 years before the Selectric. Are you saying that they never were reliable in those earlier models? If so do you have sources or could you elaborate? And I'm not aware of manual type ball typewriters from during or after the Selectric patents, which my question is really about. Could you link to those? – JanKanis Jul 3 '18 at 7:44
  • One driving force behind the rapid take-off of PC's in thee business world was the long waiting list to purchase a Selectric in the early '80's. My memory recalls waits up to 2 or 3 years for purchase, depending on specific model. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 7 at 16:58

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