How did they switch fonts on a typewriter?

At work today I was reading a transcript of an old (1960’s) lecture. At several points, book titles were mentioned, and the titles were written in a (kind of funky) italicized font, rather than normal.

How’d they do this? I’ve used an electric typewriter, and there’s no italics option, just the big ball with capitals on one side and lowercase on the other.

Depending on the type, they either didn’t or they manually switched daisy wheels or printballs.

For the time period, mine’s on a different ball. IBM Selectric typewriters were introduced in 1961 and have typeballs that are trivially easy to replace.

Later Selectrics were made into print terminals. When I was in grad school a professor who was finishing his dissertation which was very mathematical had to run the entire thing through the terminal/printer twice. That inspired me to write mine so everything in it could be printed on a line printer.

Laser and inkjet printers make things very easy.

I’ve worked on typesetting Selectrics that would do things like justify and columnize text. They would also stop typing and prompt for a ball change when a different font was used.

The Brother typewriter I had during college used daisy-wheels. If I remember right, the wheels were encased in a plastic cartridge for protection, kind of like 3-1/2-inch discettes were. I think I had a wheel for the standard Roman typeface, one for italics, and one for Greek letters plus math and science symbols.

As you can imagine, they were a pain in the ass to use. You had to swap back and forth every time you wanted to change character sets. Usually you’d type a whole line in “normal” mode, leaving spaces where you wanted an italic word or special symbols to go. Then you’d backspace to the gap, swap wheels, type, swap back again, and proceed to the next line.

It was draining. Between that and the wooly mammoth hunting, your day was pretty much shot. Such was life back in the late Pleistocene. (c. 1987)

My daisy-wheel Xerox Memowriter allowed you to insert a stop code into stored text. The typing would stop, allowing you to change the wheel (for, say an italic face) then hit return, whereupon it would continue until the next stop code.

My undergrad term papers were the talk of the campus.

I believe I was the only member of my 1984 college class (of about 100) to write my senior essay on a computer. I used a Kaypro II, running the CP/M operating system and a word processor called (IIRC) Perfect Writer. Nine-inch monochrome display. Text only, no graphics. No mouse. No multitasking. No modem. NO HARD DISK! Two 640KB floppy drives. You put the floppy with the program on it in drive A and the data disk in drive B.

I had an IBM Selectric console typewriter that connected to the computer with an RS-232 serial cable. The word processor allowed you to insert a special character that would pause the printing when fonts changed, so you could change the type ball. I used it for switching to italics and Greek characters.

I got compliments from instructors on the quality of the typography of my papers. (On the quality of the content, not so much.)

Later on, I got a smaller, lighter Brother typewriter/printer with daisy wheels like Bytegeist described. (Almost identical to thisone.)

Today the prospect of watching a printer typing one character at a time seems unbearably slow. But back then the notion of preparing your whole text on the computer, editing it, and changing it all around before printing out the final version was revolutionary. The luxury of watching the typewriter/printer rattling out your words as fast as it could run was just amazing, even if it took a couple of minutes per page and required switching fonts manually.

Before that, of course, you had to type out your drafts, make corrections by hand or **literally **cut and paste (or tape) the pages, then retype. You might have to do this two, three, or more times. If you were lucky or rich, your typewriter had that fancy self-correcting feature that lifted erroneous characters off the page invisibly. If not, you used correction tapes, or Wite-Out, or Og forbid, an eraser.

Kids these days don’t know how good they have it. Now get off my lawn, you whippersnappers!

At the time an IBM tech told me they did not call them printballs. I was emphatically told IBM called them "type elements or “golf ball elements.”

You whippersnappers had* printballs*?!?

Anybody here ever have to type on ribbon?

How 'bout carbon paper?

How 'bout correction paper?

Kids these days…<mutter>

Before the IBM Selectric, they didn’t have italics. Italics were only used in typesetting; on typewriters, you used underlines (typesetters know that means italics and generally don’t like italics simply because it’s hard to see).

Many typewriters didn’t have a 1 (you used a lower case L) or exclamation point (created with a single quote, backspace, period – the backspace didn’t erase, remember). Quite a fw computer keyboard characters were not on typewriters and had to be created using combinations (= for instance was a hyphen, a backspace, a slight roll of the platen, then another hyphen). Most typewriters were either 10 pitch (called “Pica” – Courier 12, roughly) or 12 pitch (called “Elite,” roughly Courier 10).

The Selectric allowed people to swap out different typefaces on their typing elements, but most people generally stuck with conventions. It was introduced in 1961, so it’s almost certainly how the document you saw was created.

No daisywheels in the '60s. I’m guessing Selectric. When you hit the italics you stopped typing and changed the ball. Typed the italic stuff, then changed it back.

The typesetting Selectrics came along at the end of the '60s. They were great.

In one of my most exciting term papers,* using a borrowed Selectric with variable pitch, I used pica for the text and elite for the footnotes. (And you young things cannot possibly imagine what a pain in the ass it was to do footnotes on a typewriter. You just can’t. Variable pitch was not really much help at all.)

*ETA: circa 1971

Of course we had it hard. One floppy drive, and we had to keep swapping disks. And we liked it.

A few weeks ago I was cleaning out the cabinets at work and found a bunch of Selectric balls. This building was built 15 years ago, which meant we just packed them up and brought 'em with us last time. We do still have two typewriters for the occaisional dumb office thing, but these balls didn’t fit those. Who knows how long ago we got rid of their typewriters?

By the way, staff a lot older than I am didn’t know what they were.

ETA - my mom has talked about writing papers with Pica and Elite, and how essentially it was the Stone Age version of using Courier New - no way in hell did you want to get stuck writing your paper on the little one.

I prefer the term “dancing walnut”.

If you really want to play Stump The Kids, toss a couple rolls of typewriter correction tape at 'em.

Of course, there was the era before correcting typewriters, and you either had the eraser disk with brush, the pencil-shaped eraser, again with a brush on the end, or a packet of correction paper, which was used by backspacing to the offending letter, slipping the correction paper between the ribbon and the document, then striking the letter you want to erase.

And you kids… before IBM developed the changeable type elements, if you wanted to change fonts, you changed typewriters. Ages ago, I had an italic IBM typewriter. This beast was the old-fashioned mechanism with a fan-shaped array of typebars.

I still type our tenancy agreements on a four-page, two-part carbon form. No correct tape on that thing, either. (Once you’ve made a typo, you’ve made a typo that’s gone through to the second copy, so there’s no point. I correct with white-out and a black pen. Sigh.) Nannanannana!

My first typewriter had a fabric ribbon. It was a Royal from about the 1920s or 1930s. My father threw it away and I never forgave him. I’m still bitter.

That has happened. The typewriter I’ve used has one of them - I can’t for the life of me imagine typing anything without at least that - and after I screwed up a mailing label once I discovered that the correction tape wasn’t, you know, correcting. I turned the thing to advance it and it didn’t turn, so I went to get the boss. She rummaged around in the storage closet and finally brought me a new tape. After about a minute I finally admitted I didn’t have a damn clue how to proceed.

Between the hassle of typewriters, landlines, and no internet I can’t for the life of me imagine how people got stuff done in prior eras. On the other hand, sometimes I can’t understand how we get things done with the internet.

In addition to changing fonts, it wasn’t uncommon to use a black and red ribbon, so you could change colors too. There were also other colors available, but less common.

Luxury. We used to dream about getting a floppy drive for our TRS-80. When we got a cassette tape drive, we thought we were rich. But if you try to tell that to the young people of today, they won’t believe you…