When IBM Created a Typewriter to Record Dance Movements (1973)

Increas­ing­ly many of us in the 21st cen­tu­ry have nev­er used a type­writer — indeed, have nev­er seen one in real life. But despite being deep into its obso­les­cence, the machine has a long cul­tur­al half-life. See­ing type­writ­ers in clas­sic and peri­od films, for exam­ple, keeps an idea of their look and feel in our minds. Nat­u­ral­ly it gets entan­gled with the romance of the writer, or rather the Writer, whom we imag­ine pound­ing away on a cul­tur­al­ly icon­ic mod­el: an Under­wood, an Olvetti. “If Olivet­tis could talk, you’d get the nov­el­ist naked,” writes Philip Roth in The Anato­my Les­son. From the then-new elec­tric IBM type­writ­ers, how­ev­er, you’d hear “only the smug, puri­tan­i­cal work­man­like hum telling of itself and all its virtues: I am a Cor­rect­ing Selec­tric II. I nev­er do any­thing wrong.”

Yet we under­es­ti­mate the influ­ence of the IBM Selec­tric, on not just writ­ing but late-20th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can life in gen­er­al, at our per­il. Intro­duced in 1961, this tech­no­log­i­cal­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary type­writer replaced the old “type­bars” — those thin met­al arms that whack a let­ter onto the page with each key­stroke — with a “type­ball,” a “com­pact unit con­tain­ing all the let­ters and sym­bols of a key­board, rotat­ed and piv­ot­ed to the cor­rect posi­tion before strik­ing.”

So writes IBM’s Jus­tine Jablon­s­ka in an essay on the ver­sa­til­i­ty of the type­ball, which could be swapped out and mod­i­fied accord­ing to the needs of the user. In 1973, IBM could say even to those users who need­ed to type out not words, sen­tences, and para­graphs but dances that, yes, there’s a type­ball for that.

Devel­oped in col­lab­o­ra­tion with New York City’s Dance Nota­tion Bureau, this unusu­al type­ball “had spe­cial Laban­o­ta­tion sym­bols, devel­oped in the 1920s by Hun­gar­i­an dancer/choreographer Rudolf Laban to ana­lyze and record move­ment and dance.” Each sym­bol­’s loca­tion “showed which part of the body — arm, leg, tor­so — was to be used. The symbol’s shape indi­cat­ed direc­tion. The symbol’s shad­ing showed the lev­el of an arm or leg. And its length con­trolled the time val­ue of a move­ment.” In total, writes Karen Hill at Zip­py Facts, Laban­o­ta­tion had “88 dif­fer­ent sym­bols, which could be arranged to form a com­plete vocab­u­lary for record­ing move­ment of any kind, from bal­let and mod­ern to eth­nic, even folk.” Beyond dance, the sys­tem could also record “move­ments in areas like sports, behav­ioral sci­ences, phys­i­cal ther­a­py, and even indus­tri­al oper­a­tions.”

This par­tic­u­lar type­ball show­cased the Selec­tric’s ver­sa­til­i­ty, but some had high­er hopes. In a 1975 paper, dance schol­ar Drid Williams com­pares its poten­tial impact to that of “Guten­berg’s inven­tion sev­er­al cen­turies ago,” sig­nal­ing that “the graph­ic lin­guis­tic sign can now be joined by its obvi­ous coun­ter­part, the print­ed human action sign.” But she also express­es regret that “ ‘the ball’ is being looked on by many as a mere prac­ti­cal aid to record­ing human move­ment and it is being asso­ci­at­ed with spe­cial­ist fields like dance. As usu­al, con­cern with the syn­tag­ma­ta obscures the real issues of the par­a­digms.” Indeed. A more prac­ti­cal-mind­ed assess­ment comes from Charles Ditchen­dorf, employed at the time at IBM’s Office Prod­ucts Divi­sion. “To the best of my knowl­edge,” Jablon­s­ka quotes him as say­ing, I didn’t sell one.” But then, when has dance ever been enslaved to the mar­ket?

via Ted Gioia on Twit­ter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er the Inge­nious Type­writer That Prints Musi­cal Nota­tion: The Keaton Music Type­writer Patent­ed in 1936

Nota­tions: John Cage Pub­lish­es a Book of Graph­ic Musi­cal Scores, Fea­tur­ing Visu­al­iza­tions of Works by Leonard Bern­stein, Igor Stravin­sky, The Bea­t­les & More (1969)

Arnold Schoen­berg, Avant-Garde Com­pos­er, Cre­ates a Sys­tem of Sym­bols for Notat­ing Ten­nis Match­es

The Endur­ing Ana­log Under­world of Gramer­cy Type­writer

Dis­cov­er Friedrich Nietzsche’s Curi­ous Type­writer, the “Malling-Hansen Writ­ing Ball” (Cir­ca 1881)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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