It is just 50 years since the IBM Selectric “golf ball” typewriter revolutionised the office market and laid the groundwork for the future of word processing and office automation technology.

The IBM Selectric became an instant sensation upon its debut on 31 July 1961, and remained the typewriter found on most office desks until the brand was retired 25 years later, in 1986.

With 2 800 parts, many designed from scratch, it was a major undertaking even for IBM, which had been in the typewriter business since the 1930s and was already a market leader.

The Selectric marked a radical change from previous typewriter designs, and it took IBM seven years to work out the manufacturing and design challenges before it went on sale.

The Selectric typewriter was a game-changer in many ways:

* Its unique “golf ball” head allowed typists’ fingers to fly across the keyboard at unprecedented speed. An expert typist could clock 90 words per minute versus 50 with a traditional electric typewriter.

* The golf ball moved across the page, making it the first typewriter to eliminate carriage return and reducing its footprint on office desks.

* Interchangeable golf balls equipped with different fonts, italics, scientific notations and other languages could easily be swapped in.

* With magnetic tape for storing characters added in 1964, the Selectric became the first (albeit analogue) word-processor device.

The Selectric also formed the basis for early computer terminals and paved the way for keyboards to emerge as the primary way for people to interact with computers, as opposed to pressing buttons or levers.  A modified Selectric could be plugged into IBM’s System/360 computer, enabling engineers and researchers to interact with their computers in new ways.

“The Selectric typewriter, from its design to its functionality, was an innovation leader for its time and revolutionized the way people recorded information,” says Linda Sanford, senior vice-president: enterprise transformation at IBM, who was a development engineer on the Selectric. “Nearly two decades before computers were introduced, the Selectric laid the foundation for word processing applications that boosted efficiency and productivity, and it inspired many user-friendly features in computers that we take for granted today.”