Welcome to the only site on the Internet dedicated to the IBM “Selectric” Composer line of typesetting machines.
Based on IBM’s revolutionary Selectric technology, the IBM Selectric Composer brought high quality typographic composition capabilities to the desktop. Composition is a term used to describe that part of typography concerned with putting together words and lines to make up pages.
Generally speaking, most typewriters were able to produce copy in either 10-pitch (pica) or 12-pitch (elite), which means ten or twelve characters per inch. All letters took exactly the same amount of space, so a capital “W” would take the same horizontal space as the small letter “i”. When the typist reached the end of a line, a bell would ring and they would mentally determine whether the next word would fit within the remaining space, and if not, move the carriage back to the next line. Typing was relatively simple, but the results were anything but appealing.
In contrast, typography used fonts that had variable sized characters (exactly like the text on this page). Producing typographic quality text, however, was not an easy task in the pre-computer era. Linotype machines used hot metal typesetting, a process where hot molten lead was injected into a character molds to create slugs that were later used to press ink onto paper. Phototypesetting was a method of setting type that uses a photographic process to generate columns of type on a scroll of photographic paper. Typesetters used a machine called a phototypesetter, which would quickly project light through a film negative image of an individual character in a font, through a lens that would magnify or reduce the size of the character onto film, which would collect on a spool in a light-tight canister. The film would then be fed into a processor, a machine that would pull the film through two or three baths of chemicals, where it would emerge ready for paste up.
IBM entered into the typographic composition arena with the IBM Selectric Composer, a machine based on their famous single element (aka “ball”) typewriter. The goal of this machine was to bring typographic composition to the desktop through an easy-to-use typewriter-like machine. Rather than using hot lead molds or film negatives to produce text, the IBM Composer allowed the typographer to produce camera-ready copy right at their desk. There was no need for large rooms of Linotype machines, nor chemicals for film developing. It was capable of producing justified text with variable horizontal and vertical sizes, something remarkable at that time given the absence of microprocessors.
The original Selectric Composer, announced in 1966, required text to be typed twice. On the first pass, the machine would automatically measure the length of the line, providing the operator with a color+number (i.e. green-2) combination to be noted in the right margin. When the operator finished all lines of the document, they would put a clean sheet of specially coated paper into the machine and engage the justification lever. This time, prior to typing each line of text, the operator would turn a color dial to the noted color, and another dial to the noted number. Once the dials were set, the operator would begin typing the text. While typing, the Composer would insert incremental amounts of additional space between words such that the line would always be flush on the right margin. Errors could not be corrected, and when they occurred, the operator would simply space down a few lines and retype the line. In those days, cut and paste literally meant cut and paste. The completed copy would be cut, removing any erroneous lines, and pasted onto a layout sheet for later processing.
With the ability to produce gorgeous documents on a desktop, customers required the ability to produce magazines, newsletters, mathematical tables, reports and many other types of documents that may require future editing. IBM saw this need and applied the Composer technology to an existing IBM Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter, resulting in the Magnetic Tape (Mag Tape) Selectric Composer (1966). This machine allowed the text to be typed and recorded on tape. When the tape was rewound and played back, the Composer would automatically perform the justification.
As technology progressed, IBM updated the Composer line to include the Electronic Selectric Composer (January 1975). This machine had about 8K of storage which could be divided into two sections: a main section and an alternate section. Since there was no external storage for this machine, it had a special power button which kept the memory alive when the machine was not in use. Having two memory sections allowed the operator to keep one document alive while typing another one. This probably allowed someone to proofread a document while the typist worked on another. When the edited copy was returned to the typist, they could switch to that section, make the edits, print the final copy, then clear that section.
The need for external storage prevailed, and IBM applied the technology from the Magnetic Card (Mag Card) Selectric Typewriter to create the Mag Card Selectric Composer. Coming in around $14,000 in 1978, this machine had all the capabilities of the Electronic Selectric Composer, but the operator could save documents to magnetic cards. Those cards could then be read back into the machine, edited, and reprinted as necessary. This provided the capability to store an unlimited number of documents without the limitation of the machine’s memory.
As personal computers became more powerful and less expensive, mechanical machines such as the IBM Composer started losing ground. Being mechanical marvels, they required frequent lubrication and constant attention from IBM customer engineers. Inexpensive computers and high quality laser printers produced output that rivaled even the best phototypesetter.