The Wheelwriter

One of the things I enjoy is learning about the history of modern computing. Two companies spearheaded the micrcomputer movement (which I personally dub as Microcomputer Mania!) in the 1980s. One company was Apple, and the other was IBM.However, I enjoy taking a look at other products these companies made. IBM actually made other things over the years besides computers: they made printers, clocks and dictation machines just to name a few.

However, one of the most well-known “non-computer” IBM product lines is their typewriters. Beginning in 1935 with the IBM Model 01, and developing into the Model A in 1948.

In 1962, IBM revolutionized the world of typewriter in the same fashion they turned the computing (or “data processing”) world on its head only three years earlier in 1959 with the 1401 computer. In 1962, they introduced the Selectric typewriter. This typewriter was special in the fact that it was the first to feature a “typeball” (metal golf-ball-like item with characters raised into the surface.) The typeball eliminated the jamming issue that was an issue on earlier models using the traditional ribbon.

In 1972, they updated the Selectric with the Selectric II. In 1973, they added a correction feature in the Selectric, allowing the user to correct a misspelled word. The Selectric line received its final update in 1980 – with the Selectric III.

In 1984, IBM released the Wheelwriter and Quietwriter series. While both were similar in operation to before, they were microprocessor controlled. They typically featured additional advanced features which placed it in between a standard typewriter and a word processor. An add-on screen could be installed, allowing you to view a line of type before printing it, and in 1985 they introduced spell-check. (The spell-check actually consisted of a EEPROM with a standard dictionary, plus a capacity of 300 user-added words.)

In 1991, IBM spun their printer, keyboard, and typewriter businesses off to form Lexmark. Lexmark continued to sell the typewriters for years after they were spun off from IBM. (According to Batchelor Business Machines, an IBM/Lexmark typewriter distributor, Lexmark actually may still sell the Wheelwriter series – 32 years after its introduction.)

My personal “experience”

The IBM WheelWriter 3 Series II typewriter we have in the library at our school is addictive to type on and use. The feel is very similar to the infamous IBM Model M keyboard, which was made around the same time. Both have buckling-spring key switches, which feel amazing. This specific Wheelwriter features the “rounded square” frame around the IBM logo and model name, similar to the one found on the PS/2 computers from the same time period.

This specific model of the Wheelwriter, the Wheelwriter 3 Series II, was manufactured and sold in 1988 and 1989. The original Wheelwriter was first sold in 1984. As with most of IBM typewriters, it was made here in the United States at their plant in Lexington, Kentucky.

Print quality produced by the Wheelwriter
Print quality produced by the Wheelwriter

This typewriter also has a clean, crisp print quality. This typewriter uses a daisy-wheel print mechanism (which explains for the high print quality), very similar to the mechanism found in cheaper printers for computers and word

The daisy wheel print mechanism in the IBM WheelWriter II
The daisy wheel print mechanism in the IBM WheelWriter II

processors at the time. The Quietwriter, which was the “other” version of the same basic typewriter with a different print mechanism, contained a non-impact print head.

The paper feed mechanism is very simple to use. The Wheelwriter and Quietwriter both have electric paper feed mechanisms, in contrast to the manual paper advance mechanism found in the Selectric III and earlier models.. There are four keys for moving the paper manually; the page up and down keys move the paper at a quicker pace, whereas the micro-up and micro-down keys both move the paper at 1/48″ inch. The paper, similar to many other typewriters and even early inkjet printers, loads in the top and is fed down into the mechanism in a “U-shape”, around the feed platten, back up between the platten and the print head assembly.

The Wheelwriter and Quietwriter were both made during a period where computers and word processors were taking over. Competitors, like Brother, had dedicated word processors, which could do advanced tasks like bold and italicize characters without having to change the print head. IBM did not sell dedicated word processors, but they did sell their PC line (the PC-AT was out before the Wheelwriter and Quietwriter series were announced by IBM), which could run programs like Microsoft Works and Lotus Symphony. (While IBM sold the PC, many people preferred the Apple Macintosh for early desktop publishing due to the graphical user interface.)

This specific typewriter isn’t used very often. The librarian uses it to print out labels for the books she doesn’t buy through a distributor, as she prefers it to printing labels in Microsoft Word.

My dad used a IBM Selectric II in high school for the typing class. They were brand new at the time (1973), and he considered them far superior in comparison to the old mechanical typewriter he had at home.