A different type of dance move

This 1973 IBM Selectric typeball recorded dancers' body movements

By | 4 minute read | January 20, 2020

Red Selectric with customizable typeballs

“Like Notes On A Staff,” begins the December 1973 announcement for a new IBM Selectric typewriter element to record dance and movement.

The element, we learn, was developed by IBM in conjunction with the Dance Notation Bureau of NYC to answer a problem “which has long confronted choreographers and teachers: how to record, quickly and accurately, the body movements of dancers without resorting to time-consuming hand drawings.”

The “scientific approach” to recording movement notates body motion by means of abstract symbols.

“The abstract symbols at left indicate which part of the body is in motion.” —1973 IBM press release

IBM introduced the Selectric electric typewriter—featuring a typing element, or typeball—in 1961. The typeball, a compact unit containing all the letters and symbols of a keyboard, rotated and pivoted to the correct position before striking. It replaced individual typebars that would swing up and hit the ribbon and page.

The Selectric and its descendants would go on to dominate the typewriter market for decades. Charles Ditchendorf joined IBM’s Office Products Division, which designed and manufactured the Selectric, in 1966.

“faster… more productive!” —1962 IBM Selectric print ad

“The typeball was a very interesting technical breakthrough,” Ditchendorf said in a phone interview. “They put a metallic coating onto a plastic element that gave it durability. I don’t recall anyone ever wearing one of those things out.” Beyond durability, the Selectric typeball allowed for a unique flexibility: it could easily be changed out, so customers had the ability to order typeballs with customized fonts and symbols.

Ditchendorf remembers the dance typeball announcement because it was so unique. The typeball had special Labanotation symbols, developed in the 1920s by Hungarian dancer/choreographer Rudolf Laban to analyze and record movement and dance. The type-ball was issued with a grid “so that you could figure out how to put the movements together,” he said.

A symbol’s location showed which part of the body—arm, leg, torso—was to be used. The symbol’s shape indicated direction. The symbol’s shading showed the level of an arm or leg. And its length controlled the time value of a movement.

“The soaring, graceful movements of a dancer’s grand jeté are quickly and accurately recorded through use of special symbols.” —1973 IBM press release

“My sense is that somebody important at IBM probably had a relationship with a dance company,” Ditchendorf said. “Maybe as a volunteer or a board member.” He believes that IBM created this particular typing element as a public service. “Somebody did a favor to people who needed it.”

The typing element had 88 different symbols, which could be arranged to form a complete vocabulary for recording movement of any kind, from ballet and modern to ethnic, even folk. And the range of motions extends well beyond dance: Labanotation can also be used to record movements in areas like sports, behavioral sciences, physical therapy, and even industrial operations. At the time of its announcement, the dance typeball sold for $18 (today, that’s a little over $100). The new element “joins a growing collection of special-purpose typing fonts which IBM has designed for the technical disciplines,” according to the press release.

“To the best of my knowledge, I didn’t sell one,” Ditchendorf said. He’s also not sure how many were ever sold.

Selectric typewriter

He did, however, sell other custom elements and products—a Braille typewriter, for example. He remembers a big green binder with every special character ever designed for typewriters, each with a visual example sorted by type style.

“If someone said, I need something like this, you’d get that binder out and see if it was available,” he said. If not, a special element would be designed.

He once worked with a typist who requested a square foot symbol: a square with a slash through it. He asked why she needed it. “Everything we do is about marketing square footage,” she told him. “I’m constantly typing sq. ft.,” which was eight characters instead  of one.

“I went and looked in the binder and sure enough, we had one,” he said. He had his custom engineer put it on her typewriter, and received rave thanks from the typist.

IBM print ad, circa 1973

Ditchendorf eventually moved out of the Office Products Division and worked for various other IBM groups, including headquarters. There, he was “part of the group that took IBM out of the typewriter business and into computers,” he said. “Nice closure there.”   

Throughout the many products and iterations of IBM, he notes that one of the company’s greatest competitors has been human resistance to change: he saw that firsthand with the sunsetting of typewriters, copiers, printers. As a salesman and later manager, one of his responsibilities was educating about the changes happening, and others to come.

“Things always change, don’t they,” he said.

Red Selectric featuring typeball

Recently, he said, one of his grandsons bought an original Selectric Typewriter.

“He had to outbid the guy who bid 50 cents. He paid a dollar for it,” Ditchendorf said. “And it still works.”

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