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Icons of Progress

The Selectric Typewriter

IBM engineers began their work on the innovations that would lead to the Selectric in 1954, and spent seven years on the task. The team that ushered the Selectric into the typewriter marketplace—at long last—was a talented group comprising engineers, designers, managers and sales professionals. The following represent just a few of those individuals.

  • Eliot Noyes 

    Eliot Noyes
    The man behind the Selectric typewriter’s elegant lines, Eliot Noyes brought a comprehensive corporate design vision to IBM.

    Thomas Watson Jr. hired architect and industrial designer Eliot Noyes in 1956 to create and lead a Corporate Design Program at IBM as its consultant design director. The program brought a coordinated design approach—marked by Noyes’s modern and technologically sophisticated aesthetic—to architecture, graphics, industrial design, interiors, exhibits and fine art procurement at IBM. Prior to joining IBM, Noyes served as curator of industrial design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York during the early and mid-1940s before starting his own architecture and design consultancy in 1947. In his work for IBM and other corporate clients, Noyes pushed the modern design ideal of simplicity of form, and was known for his belief that “good design is good business.” During his 21 years at IBM, Noyes also designed a number of products for IBM—most famously the Selectric. While the Selectric was a seven-year collaboration among a number of engineers and designers, Noyes is credited for its sleek and attractive appearance, considered a breakthrough in typewriter design. Noyes continued to serve as IBM’s design director until his death in 1977. For more on Eliot Noyes please visit Good Design Is Good Business in IBM’s Icons of Progress.

  • Horace “Bud” Beattie 

    “Bud Beattie changed the office landscape forever.” -- “Landmark Typewriter Turns 25,” USA Today, July 31, 1986

    The man behind the invention of the Selectric typewriter’s game-changing type ball, “Bud” Beattie got his start at IBM in 1933 in a customer service role. He was promoted the following year to draftsman and detailer, and later to engineer. In his early years at IBM, Beattie worked in the East Orange, New Jersey, lab, where he coordinated the development of new products and worked closely with IBM founder Thomas J. Watson Sr. He played a key role in the creation of a number of IBM products—including the IBM 709 calculating machine—and personally held 39 patents. In 1957, Beattie was named lab director for IBM’s new Electric Typewriter Division, headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky. In that role, he oversaw the engineering team that created the Selectric and is credited with coming up with the idea for the spherical type ball—while noting the shape of a ligthbulb as he changed it in his Lexington home. After the Selectric typewriter’s release and overnight success, Beattie was promoted to vice president of the Office Products Division and was later named an IBM vice president. Under his guidance, his labs went on to develop new product lines for IBM, including printers, copiers and automatic storage typewriters. Beattie’s myriad accomplishments were honored with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Medal in 1971, and the Engineering Citation of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers in 1973. Beattie was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1976.

  • John Hickerson 

    It was John Hickerson who, under Bud Beattie’s guidance, worked to change the Selectric type element from a mushroom shape into the spherical shape that became its final form.

  • Leon Palmer 

    Leon Palmer, an IBM engineer, developed the character-selection system for the Selectric typewriter. This system provided for fixed units of motion controlled by mathematical ratios. Palmer was made an IBM Fellow—the highest honor IBM bestows on a scientist, engineer or programmer, and an elite group handpicked by the CEO—for his contributions to the Selectric. He holds the majority of the patents that resulted from the development of the original machine.

  • H. Wisner Miller 

    “Wis” Miller left Princeton University to join IBM in the early 1930s—at the height of the Great Depression—and spent his entire career at the company. In addition to serving as the general manager of the Electric Typewriter Division for six years during the Selectric era, he was president of the Real Estate and Construction Division formed in 1963. Miller retired in 1971 as a vice president and group executive.