Typewriter of the moment: Abigail van Buren’s IBM

January 17, 2013

“Dear Abby,” Abigail van Buren, sorts through letters asking advice. Newseum photograph, from publicity photo.

“Dear Abby,” Abigail van Buren, sorts through letters asking advice. Newseum photograph, from publicity photo.

News flash, on Facebook, from the Newseum:

Abigail Van Buren, author of the “Dear Abby” advice column, died Jan. 16, 2013. She was 94.

NPR’s e-mail added a couple of details:


‘Dear Abby’ Dies; Pauline Phillips Was Adviser To Millions

Writing under the pen name Abigail Van Buren, she wrote the world’s most widely syndicated column. The daily readership grew to more than 100 million. The column is now written by her daughter, Jeanne.

More at NPR.org:


What an incredible melange of history in that photo!  You can read about Mrs. Phillips at the NPR site, but consider just this photograph:

  1. “Dear Abby” which used to be regular reading in most households in the morning — literally millions of American households.  She and her chief competition, “Ann Landers,” could each by herself move the nation, to change habits, to question manners, to change behaviors with vaccinations or new medical procedures, and in a few cases, move legislation through Congress.  No one in newspapering or broadcast today has the clout this woman had, but rarely used.  Not even Rupert Murdoch with his empire, had so much clout as Dear Abby.  (Many of us were surprised to learn later that the women who wrote Dear Abby and Ask Ann Landers were twin sisters — another one of those twists in real history that no one would believe in fiction.)
  2. Isn’t that an early IBM electric typewriter? Our local Fry’s doesn’t stock even electric typewriters anymore, nor could I find one in my last run through Staples and Office Depot (catalog sales, perhaps). IBM probably hasn’t made one 20 years, and not one like that one in at least 40 years — that is not a Selectric.
  3. Dial telephone.  Not just a land-line, but an actual, analog, dial telephone.  Without seeing any identifying characteristics, we can assume that her telephone provider was the AT&T regional company — unlikely that it was Continental, the only other major provider in the U.S. at the time.
  4. The Yellow Pages telephone book under the phone.  I think even Yellow Pages stopped printing those things; we haven’t had a good update on our white pages in years.
  5. Newspaper syndication meant EVERYONE had access to her columns — no internet.  A dime for the local paper, and you had Dear Abby.
  6. The fountain pen in her hand, perhaps for more than just signing letters (what do you say, Office Supply Geek?).
  7. No computer, which in addition to replacing the typewriter, would probably also replace the four-drawer file cabinet in back of her (a locking cabinet, perhaps a HON?)
  8. Is that flowered pattern the wallpaper in the place? They don’t make orchid wallpaper like that any more.
  9. Look at that stack of mail.  Each came in an envelope, stamped, for less than 8¢ (1st class rates topped a dime for the first time in 1974).  No e-mail; no electronic version to cut and paste from.  Each letter to appear in the column had to be retyped on that IBM typewriter.  Most high school students today have probably never sent a letter through the mail, and many have never received one, either.

The Newseum didn’t credit the photo, nor say when or where it was taken; I’ve not found more details yet. At the Newseum site, the photo is credited to Phillips-Van Buren, Inc., the company that runs the column.  I’m guessing 1970 at the latest, and this may be in the 1960s or even 1950s.

Some of us old timers get future shock just looking at that photo.  Can your students date that photo with the clues in it, history teachers?  Journalism teachers?  (Photos at OzTypewriters suggest this photo could have been made in the 1960s.)


Heck, it may be a 1950s typewriter (do you read German?):

Deutsch: Elektrische IBM-Schreibmaschine aus d...

Deutsch: Elektrische IBM-Schreibmaschine aus den 1950er Jahren Lizenz (Photo credit: Wikipedia)  (Translated roughly, “IBM electric typewriter from the 1950 license.”)

A century of IBM

June 23, 2011

IBM turned 100 years old last week, on June 16.

IBM logo, 100th anniversary plus the Selectric typewriter

An "element" from an IBM Selectric typewriter, incorporated into a logo celebrating IBM's 100th year

In our studies of the effects of technology in the 20th century, do we give enough information and deference about IBM?  The company surely is not familiar to high school students — seniors for the class of 2012 having been born circa 1994, long after the heyday of the IBM System 360, the once-ubiquitous data punch cards, and the astonishingly advanced Selectric typewriters.  IBM retired the Selectric in 1986, a year before our older son was born, nearly a decade before today’s high school seniors bounced into the world.  The IBM punch cards, introduced in 1928, became difficult to find by the time I was coaching debate at the University of Arizona (we used the cards for debate evidence because they were larger and lighter than index cards, as did many other people in other walks of life).  Computing power of the S/360 paled in comparison to minicomputers available by 1985, and especially in comparison to the desktop microcomputers that dominate our working world today.

I wonder what today’s high school students really understand of the computer revolution?  Do they understand the fundamental roles IBM played in inventing the 21st century?

IBM System 360 at NASA, circa 1969

Caption from IBM: "IBM System/360 at NASA The System/360 Model 75 processed data for the first lunar landing 240,000 miles away from the moon, at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. It was one of five System/360 machines used by NASA for the Apollo 11 mission and the same computer that later calculated liftoff data needed by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin for the flight back to Earth."

IBM occupies a particular fond spot in my heart.  Through the National Merit Scholarship program, I had my college paid for in great measure by a four-year grant from IBM, a Thomas J. Watson, Jr., Scholarship.  As I recall it was for about $5,000, much more than adequate for tuition and fees at the University of Utah at under $400/quarter.  Coupled with a more modest scholarship from Utah and my 40 hours/week job in a laboratory, my undergraduate years were financially easy compared to our sons’ studies today.

As a sort of thank-you, I was expected to make an annual trek to the IBM offices in Salt Lake City to report on my progress.  IBMers at the time were still very much on the white-shirt/blue-shirt plan, and the contrast between campus and the IBM office could scarcely have been more stark.  Despite their sponsoring my education, I could not convince IBM to give me a price break on my first IBM Correcting Selectric II; it was a major scrape to come up with the $740, full list price of the beast.

But what a great investment!  My apartment became term-paper central.  At the end of the quarter, I could go without  paying for a meal for two or three weeks.  I did have one apartment manager complain about women spending the night in my apartment, and I don’t think he believed me when I said they were working on term papers.  I had not expected the academic benefits of the machine:  My grades in broadcast classes rose with scripts submitted in easy-to-read Orator typeface; I’m convinced the lack of pencil-corrected errors added a full half-grade to other papers, too.

That typewriter finally succumbed to my unwillingness to pay for the annual servicing from IBM.  I think Kathryn donated it to the Salvation Army sometime after we got to Texas, after two decades of service.  I found another at a garage sale in about 2000, for $10, with six elements and a slew of ribbons and correctapes.  It also succumbed to a lack of service, though, and joined its predecessor at the Salvation Army five years ago.  I’d love to have a good working version today, still, though I can do almost everything it could do with a wordprocessor and a laser printer.

IBM System 360 coming to Japan - IBM image

Caption from IBM: "The System/360 Model 75 processed data for the first lunar landing 240,000 miles away from the moon, at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. It was one of five System/360 machines used by NASA for the Apollo 11 mission and the same computer that later calculated liftoff data needed by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin for the flight back to Earth. Two men standing on truck w/System/360 logo magnifying-glass IBM System/360 in Japan At Tokai Bank in Japan, all operations were performed manually, forcing employees to run calculations on abacuses into the late hours of the night. The arrival of the System/360 enabled the company to do away with abacuses and, in doing so, send employees home to spend more time with their families, drastically improving morale. Meanwhile, more work was completed in a shorter time frame, and customer satisfaction soared."

IBM’s leadership as a company runs much deeper than simply as an innovator in technology.  IBM for years had the best corporate training available — at American Airlines we benchmarked our training against IBM, when benchmarking was a tool of corporate improvement.  IBM’s people had the good sense to sit us down and explain they had benchmarked their own training against American’s pilot training, which they explained was the model for outstanding training:  Hire people who already know how to do the job, have a lot of experience, and love the work; train them intensively in the company ways and systems, and especially the machines they will use; use simulators to offer much more practice than can safely be had on the job; provide a mentor to monitor closely that the student (pilot) is doing the job right; require extensive refresher courses at least once a year.

At one point IBM had 20% growth in revenues for 20 consecutive years. IBM even figures in one of the great urban legends of the 20th century.  For the film of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, 2001:  A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick used a  computer as a central character.  The computer becomes the bad guy in the movie, however; the urban legend is that the company refused to let Kubrick use their logo.  So, the legend claims, Kubrick simply backed up one letter in the alphabet for each letter, and the nefarious HAL computer was born. Both Kubrick and Clarke denied that was the case, noting that HAL was a form of acronym for “Heuristic Algorithmic.”  They also note that IBM computers are pictured in the movie.  The story merely adds to the understanding that IBM was everywhere that technology or good management was found on the planet.

Despite having been eclipsed by its two partners in micro computers, Microsoft and Intel, IBM today offers yet another reinvention of itself, larger than it was when its fortunes were said to have collapsed, a few years before our high school students were born.

CBS Sunday Morning offered a short version of the company’s history on June 12 — fortunately, one of the items CBS posted on YouTube (they don’t put enough of the Sunday Morning stuff there, if you ask me).


Math: Language for a smarter planet

March 23, 2009

But will it inspire any kid?

Tip of the old scrub brush to P***ed Off Teacher.

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