On The Ball


The wife and I are not ‘Retro,’ we’re just old fogies.

It’s not that we’re technophobic. Lord knows, we embrace technology to the limits of our non-Electronic Age brains. In our house, there are 2 PCs, a laptop, 2 tablets, 3 Kindles, 2 Kobos, 2 Smart Phones, and a Smart TV that’s smarter than both of us together. Still, sometimes we like to relive The Good Old Days, in The Good Old Ways.

The QWERTY keyboard was originally developed when early typists got faster than the rudimentary machines, and jammed letter strikers against the platen. It put the usual letters in unusual places, to slow typists down, and prevent jamming. It was touted by its proponents as, “More efficient,” a lie with a bit of truth in it.  It reduced the words per minute typed, but almost eliminated having to stop and unjam the machine, resulting in more total words typed at the end of the day.

The development of the electric typewriter smoothed out the jamming problem somewhat, and also eliminated the need to manually move the heavy carriage with the left hand/arm.

Selectric Ball

In 1961, IBM re-invented the wheel – actually, a ball. They produced the Selectric, a typewriter with no keys to jam. Instead, it had a little ball with all the characters on it. The smart machine rotated the ball – nicknamed a ‘Golf Ball’ – to the right position before smacking it against the paper. Different balls, with different fonts could be quickly snapped in and out.

Several models, with different features were developed, including one with a rudimentary 40-character memory. If a typist noticed a mistake while typing, (s)he could hit a special ‘Hold’ key, back up in the memory, change the error, and free the machine to continue.  There was no more heavy carriage to move back and forth. Instead, the ball and ribbon moved smoothly and quietly across the platen. This was the precursor to the computer word-processor.

Sadly, because of that, they didn’t last long, and soon became extinct – but not before over 2,000,000 of them were sold. The wife worked on one, in one of the offices where she was employed. She loved it. Recently, she had a couple of typing projects – recipe cards, and knitting patterns – where a computer and printer just didn’t work out well.

She found one offered for sale on Facebook Market. The woman wanted $40 for it. I asked where I had to go to pick it up. She’s had me drive 10/15 kilometers locally, for other items. This one, she said, was in Oshawa, the other side of Toronto. I told her that it would cost another $40 in gas, to drive there and back. Without any other offers on it, the price reduced to $35.

Driving completely across metro-Toronto, on Highway 401, is not the worst traffic in North America, but it’s definitely in the top 10. When I checked the location with a map program, the actual mileage (Canadian kilometrage) wasn’t all that high, but the program warned that, at the time that I checked, based on current traffic conditions, estimated trip time is 2 hours and 8 minutes.

We planned the trip for the middle of the morning, after the get-to-work onslaught, but before the lunch-time rush, and made the 160 Km/100 Miles in 1Hour/40Minutes. We waited till 2:00 o’clock to start back and, aside from some slowdown from the ‘memory of an accident’ we saw on the way there, we got home in 1Hour/40Minutes again. We immediately stopped at Costco, and put $45 of gas in the car.

The wife wanted some proof that the machine worked, but the woman getting rid of it was a young Real Estate agent, charged with disposing of an estate. She was so young that she’d never heard of or seen such a contraption. She plugged it in and turned it on. It hummed. She hit a couple of keys, and it clacked a couple of times.

Since she’d still not had any other offers for it, and since we were coming from so far away, she reduced the price to $20, which she may have quietly pocketed. When we got home, the wife plugged it in and turned it on. It hummed! She tapped a couple of keys…. but the little carriage didn’t move. She sat down and pored over the included owner’s manual – to no avail. A part may be broken/missing.


With the existence of so many Mennonites within a 50 kilometer radius, it is probably easier to locate a Ferrier (one who shoes horses), than to find a local typewriter repair shop. There was one, but the old gentleman who ran it was 83 in 2015, and the website is dormant. The wife has located one in the city of Hamilton. It’s not quite so far away, and in a different direction. It should only cost us $35 for gas – TWICE – once to drop it off, and again when we pick it up, plus the charge for Barney Rubble to fix it.

You may never get a hand-written letter from me – for which you should be thankful. With my essential tremor getting worse, the doctors’ scribbles that I mentioned in my Griffonage post, seem clear and legible, compared to my handwriting. I’ll tell you whether we are successful at this technology resuscitation project, and you may get a hand-typed letter to prove it.

6 thoughts on “On The Ball

  1. Rivergirl says:

    I remember those machines! Sorry you had to find one that didn’t work..
    Interesting history on the QWERTY, I never knew the reason for it.


    • Archon's Den says:

      We’ll get it running yet, even if we have to crank it to get it started. Despite my silly rants, I enjoy the drives, and we’ll have a useful,hard-to-get item at far less than it’s true cost.
      I can’t expect to enthrall folks with just my idiosyncrasies, so I usually throw in some history or social comment. I had actually published, when the son made the “efficiency” comment, so I went back and added it.
      A few people use the Dvorak keyboard, and increase data-entry by 50%/100%, but for the rest of us, QWERTY is entrenched, and we’re incapable of changing. 😦


  2. Jim Wheeler says:

    I bought an interim word-processing machine made by Smith=Corona in the late 1980s. Called a “PMP” (Personal Word Processing?), it was as heavy as a Selectric and used circular plastic letter wheels instead of the golf ball, but same principle. The words appeared on a small LCD screen for composition but could also be used in typewriter mode. It resides in the back of a closet now. It might still work.

    It is 1,472 kilometers from Toronto to Joplin. 🙂


    • Archon's Den says:

      Is that distance figure a mere random comment, or a challenge/invitation?
      My map program claims that the best route is 1743 km to Joplin from Toronto. Since Kitchener is a bit closer to the border, it says that we are exactly 1600km, or 1000 miles.
      I drove down to visit BrainRants last summer. The shortest route was half of that, 800km/500mi. The wife’s driving limit per day is 6 to 7 hours. It would have taken 9 to 10, so we actually took a longer route to guarantee good roads, rest areas, a motel for the night, and handling DC traffic while it was still light.
      Seven hours the first day, and she was sore and tired. Four hours the second day. Joplin would take us forever! We’ve been almost to Indianapolis, Pendleton, IA, but that was years ago. I got a kick out of the S-shaped highway at the bottom. Leaving Indiana – Welcome to Ohio, Leaving Ohio – Welcome to Indiana, Leaving Indiana – Welcome to Kentucky…. all within 5 miles. 😆


  3. […] wrote three years ago, about driving almost two hours – one hour of it in some of Canada’s worst traffic – and the […]


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