IBM Selectric I Typewriter w/ Blue Keycaps

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09 Dec 2018, 01:28


This post is actually about one of my finds from several months ago, a very early Selectric typewriter. Talk to any typewriter enthusiast and they will probably tell you that electric typewriters generally don't excite them very much with the Selectric being the one major exception. I am not knowledgeable enough about typewriters in general to know the exact reason why, but I do know that many people considered its legendary typeball mechanism to be revolutionary when it first hit the market in the early 1960's. Being more into vintage keyboards than typewriters, my interest is for an obviously different reason, which is the role the Selectric played as an inspiration for the design of IBM's beamspring switches and keyboards. This manifests itself in many ways ranging from the crisp tactility of both mechanisms, the identical keycap mounts, and the thunderous typing sounds they make. I was especially interested in the possibility of swapping out the keycaps on a beamspring for blue Selectric caps, which I didn't know about until seeing a picture in a 5251 review video by Chyros. I later realized that the picture was taken by DT member kuato. Given my success in finding IBM stuff so far, I decided to make finding these one of my main priorities during last May and June.

The Acquisition
Initially, I wasn't fully aware of how rare blue keyed Selectrics actually were until reading this thread. As it turned out, many others besides me were and probably are still looking for them. Furthermore, later models (Selectric II and III) did not come with the light blue keycaps. A popular theory for this seems to be that due to businesses being IBM's biggest customer (they aren't called International Business Machines for nothing), the blue keyed Selectric I's did not sell as well due to them being too flashy for office use leading to their eventual discontinuation. As a result, blue keyed Selectrics are very hard to come by.

Like anyone else would I first began my search on ebay. Sure enough there were hundreds of Selectrics for sale, but not one of them had blue keys. For an entire month I checked Selectric listings every day to see if anything would show up but continued to have no such luck. The same thing turned out to be true when calling local thrift stores and scanning craigslist classifieds all over the country. My only lead happened to be a typewriter shop owner in the Chicago area who claimed to have two, but he wanted to sell them both for over $1000 after fully restoring them, so that was also a no go.

I realized that I needed to be a bit more creative and start asking around in the typewriter community, and eventually found my way into a private typewriter classifieds group. I made a posting requesting for a blue keyed selectric in any condition and configuration, and surprisingly I got a response in less than a day. This person also happens to own a typewriter repair business with a specialization in Selectrics, and the pictures he provided (also shown above) made me very excited.


This machine had a serial number of 4033158, making it a very early model (1962). The seller originally purchased it in the early 1980's, and also noted that it had a few other unusual attributes. First, the margin levers and platen knobs were both grey instead of blue and the on/off switch was also inverted. This leads me to believe that this machine was already refurbished once before he purchased it. More importantly however it worked! The seller stressed that it still should be serviced, but I was also aware that Selectrics are very prone to damage during shipping, so I felt it would be best to have it checked my a local typewriter repair shop later.

After agreeing on a price, the seller quickly shipped it to me, and I was unbelievably excited! Although this was mainly because I was about to decorate one of my beamsprings with glorious blue keycaps, I also wanted to make sure that everything was still in working order. The seller did an impeccable job with the packaging, and it wasn't noticeably damaged anywhere when it arrived to me. Here is how it looked:


And a close up of the IBM badge:

First Impressions
So far, so good. The unit was remarkably clean in spite of its age, most likely due to it being stored underneath a dust cover (which the seller also included). I was very curious about the keyfeel since I have never typed on a Selectric before this point. And... the keys wouldn't budge! I then finally plugged the typewriter in and turned it on, and was greeted by the sound of a jet engine. It was even louder than I expected in person! I later found out that this was due to the noise dampening foam on the inside having degraded, but I wasn't worried. I then tried pressing down on some of the keys, and it was then that I finally got a true taste of the keyfeel. It was quite tactile indeed, and the crispness did vaguely remind me of beamsprings. Unfortunately I noticed a major problem just as I was beginning to enjoy myself: The carrier was stuck, meaning I could only type characters on the left most margin of the page.

The seller and I were both bewildered by this, and couldn't figure out what might have caused this, since the carrier wasn't stuck before the machine was shipped to me. Somehow there was shipping damage in spite of the outstanding packaging, and we both made a (futile) attempt at filing a claim with UPS, in spite of the many pictures we provided to them. I was a little disappointed, but not completely dissatisfied since I could still harvest the keycaps for my beamspring. It was the mainly the seller who was distraught about this, since he really wanted to provide me a working machine. I promised him that I would get it checked out at a local typewriter repair shop, but in the meantime I wanted to get started with the keycaps:

Harvesting the Keycaps Part 1: Alphas
Having a lot of experience with pulling keycaps off of beamsprings, I was actually surprised by the difficulty in pulling the caps off the typewriter. All of them took a considerable amount of effort to remove from their stems, with the whole process taking over 30 minutes. This was the result:

Although the keycaps were pretty clean on top, I gave them a quick wash due to some of them having oil underneath them:

I also made some quick comparison shots with different beamspring keycaps while I had the chance:

The final destination for these keycaps was my trusty 3278, which I have posted a few pictures of before:

You'll notice that I kept the original spacebar, even though blue would certainly look better. I'll explain the reasoning for that a bit later.

Typewriter Repair
Let's get back to the typewriter itself. I made a promise with the seller to get the machine checked out, and to be honest I was also very curious about what happened. I forgot to mention earlier that Selectrics are also unbelievably heavy and weigh around twice as much as a beamspring keyboard. Since I live by myself in a multi story apartment complex, carrying the typewriter to my car proved to be a difficult task.

Thankfully I was able to get it to the typewriter repair shop in one piece. The owner decided to give the machine a quick inspection and couldn't determine the cause of the stuck carrier, so I would need to leave it in his care for a little while. I actually discussed my interest in vintage computer keyboards with him and even told him that Selectric keycaps are compatible with IBM"s old terminals. Although he considered himself to be an expert on Selectrics, this fact blew his mind. He also had many Selectrics in his shop available for harvesting spare parts, and he even gave me several keycaps for free from a large drawer, which I later used on my 3278.

This shop happened to be very busy with a huge backlog (typewriters are a very popular hobby in Los Angeles as it turns out with only a handful of shops still in business), so the turn around time was quite long. So long in fact that both of us actually forgot about it for quite a while. I followed up with the shop just a few weeks ago to see where we were at. I finally managed to take the typewriter back home with me just yesterday, and was very pleased to find that the carrier was working properly. A few of the other quirks such as the inverted switch were also resolved, and it was also running much quieter than before. Although it took a while, I was satisfied with the repair overall. It's by no means finished however, as the shop did mention that fully refurbishing it would cost me another $200. I had already paid $100 for the other repairs and didn't feel it would be worth it unless I was planning to use the typewriter often, so we left it at that for now. However I still needed a new set of keycaps, so the shop provided me with a complete Selectric I keyboard module in order to save labor costs. I decided to go with light grey keycaps given how well they go with blue in famed colorways like the space cadet:

Just like with the blue keycaps, these also looked deceptively clean but were actually covered in oil. They were also even more difficult to remove from the stems due to the unit not being held down in place. After quite a bit of work, they are now properly mounted on the typewriter:

Harvesting the Keycaps Part 2: Spacebar
Earlier when I described the process of harvesting the keycaps, I left out the spacebar. I ended up not removing it until much later because quite simply I couldn't. It was taking an unbelievable amount of force to get off, so I asked the the shop to remove it for me as a favor. Sure enough they succeeded and this was the result:

The reason why the spacebar was so difficult to remove became apparent. It's stabilized by two latching hooks through a thick wire running underneath the keyboard module itself, a bit like how the AT and XT Model F's in fact. The hooks themselves are removable, but they too took an ungodly amount of force using some needlenose pliers. The goal was also to mount it on the 3278, so a comparison between both spacebars was in order:

Unlike the other keys, the spacebar is very different from its beamspring counterpart. The beamspring spacebar is much thicker and also has the stabilizer wire built-in. More importantly, the mounting holes on each side were not centered. This was a detail that I regrettably noticed too late, since this meant that the spacebar could not be mounted from the front onto a beamspring without cutting a part of it off to give the stems some clearance. Sadly, this was the result after I foolishly tried to force it on:

I felt bad about irreparably damaging the spacebar, but in practice this is hardly noticeable when it's mounted, and in fact I was able to get it to fit on my 3278 after this happened. Nevertheless, I decided against using it instead of the stock black spacebar since it wouldn't actuate the switch when hit left of center. Unless I can figure out a way to attach a stabilizer wire to it, it turns out I indeed damaged the spacebar for nothing :(

Testing and Final Thoughts

Here is a photo with a simple demonstration that the machine actually works now. Please excuse my amateurish mistake for not typing out the 1 key properly:

You may notice some symbols on top, which were made using another typeball provided to me by the seller:

Anyways, that about wraps things up. Hope you all enjoy reading through this!
Last edited by Bass on 09 Dec 2018, 02:31, edited 1 time in total.


09 Dec 2018, 02:17

This is the kind of thing that makes this forum need an upvote button.

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09 Dec 2018, 04:29

That is stunning!

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09 Dec 2018, 06:24

That's certainly awesome! That blue is gorgeous.

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09 Dec 2018, 10:56

I think they both look better as a result! Really nice! :D


09 Dec 2018, 15:32

I love it man! And triple points for putting new life into the typewriter! 8-)

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09 Dec 2018, 17:09

It's awesome you kept this typewriter and took it in for service. I'd be stoked to have one in working order.
Chyros wrote: I think they both look better as a result! Really nice! :D
I agree. That is a smexy looking Selectric.

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10 Dec 2018, 08:34

JP! wrote: It's awesome you kept this typewriter and took it in for service. I'd be stoked to have one in working order.
Chyros wrote: I think they both look better as a result! Really nice! :D
I agree. That is a smexy looking Selectric.
Agreed, my nether region has just gone hard and wet.

I blame DT for enforcing this type of keyboard erotica upon those less acquainted to such warm and cuddly images, belonging to this very rare beast ;) .


14 Dec 2018, 20:04

Hooray for destroying the historical value of vintage items. You deserve an upvote and Reddit gold too, I hope you continue this glorious activity

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15 Dec 2018, 02:21

Selectric aren't exactly in super high demand or low supply my dude maybe relax


19 Dec 2018, 17:59

Shiny blue keys mixed with flat black keys on the 3278 keyboard look inconsistent to my eye, although the blue keys are indeed cool. Regarding rarity of selectrics, no they are not rare, but the blue key ones certainly are (even op says so) and are in demand (I'd certainly like to find one).

Really appreciate the notes about the spacebar differences!

Now, this thread is sickening:
for-sale-f55/blue-selectric-i-keyset-fo ... 20420.html


19 Dec 2018, 22:54

Lowworkingmemory wrote: Hooray for destroying the historical value of vintage items. You deserve an upvote and Reddit gold too, I hope you continue this glorious activity
"The historical value" is not destroyed by someone willing to use things and swaps keys from a device to another. Even with the one broken key, the historical value of the machine is well preserved and in the hands of someone who decided to keep the machine -while- using the keys. No problems found.

05 Mar 2019, 16:34

Can i get a copy of the serial number database for Selectric typewriters. Or where I could down load it.

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