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How to use a Selectric Composer Font Ball that has a broken top

The font elements for Selectrics come in 3 basic types:

20150827_184020First Generation (Rabbit Ear): 1961 to about mid-60’s. 88-Character Selectric I/II elements only. These are the simplest design, just a bent wire held in place by a plastic half-cap. You pinch the rabbit ears to open. Delightfully easy and super-durable. They almost never break. Why IBM switched from this design, I’ll never understand. Perhaps they *wanted* their elements to break easily because around the mid-60’s came…

Second Generation (Inevitably Broken): mid-60’s to mid-70’s. 88-Character Selectric I/II and Selectric Composer elements only. You can tell these by sight from the chromed pivot lever ends and how the lever is attached to the pivot by only a thin plastic loop. This is what inevitably breaks. These are a much more complex design than the First Generation elements, and most of them you find in the wilds now 40 or 50 years later are busted. Sadly, the few of us with Composers learn quickly that most of the elements made for the Composer were Second Generation elements, and we learn to live with broken levers. It’s such a weak design that it was none-too-soon replaced by…

Third Generation (The Fix): Mid-70’s until end of production. Some 88-Character Selectric I/II, some Selectric Composer, and all 96-Character Selectric III elements. These you can recognize because the entire pivot post is plastic with a wire pivot inside, and it’s molded to the snap lever. This is a far more robust design than the Second Generation, and break far less often than the previous design does. It’s not anywhere near as robust as the First Generation design, but is a reasonable compromise.

All this doesn’t mean that broken Second Generation balls are useless, though. The mechanism for clipping the element to the carrier post is simple enough that you don’t even need the clip-top at all. Here’s what I do with most of my Selectric Composer elements that I collect that are busted:

Here's a type element from my Selectric Composer with a busted lever. The first thing you want to do is note down the color of the triangle and the typeball name. In this case "PR-11-B" (Press Roman 11 Point Bold) Note also which direction the arrow points. This is the front of the ball. If you're missing the top already and don't know where the arrow points, note that it will always be 90 degrees to the left of the catalog number stamped in the ball edge. On a Composer ball, it points to the lowercase "s".

Here’s a type element from my Selectric Composer with a busted lever. The first thing you want to do is note down the color of the triangle and the typeball name. In this case “PR-11-B” (Press Roman 11 Point Bold) Note also which direction the arrow points. This is the front of the ball. If you’re missing the top already and don’t know where the arrow points, note that it will always be 90 degrees to the left of the catalog number stamped in the ball edge. On a Composer ball, it points to the lowercase “s”, and on an 88-Character Selectric I/II ball, it points to the lowercase “z”.

Second step: break off the lever and toss it.

Second step: break off the lever and toss it.

Start breaking out the plastic top with a pair of needlenose pliers

Start breaking out the plastic top with a pair of needlenose pliers

when you break off enough plastic, grab the pivot post and twist it out.

when you break off enough plastic, grab the pivot post and twist it out.

Finish breaking off the plastic bits and remove the clip wire and save it. Clean all the stuff off the top.

Finish breaking off the plastic bits and remove the clip wire and save it. Clean all the stuff off the top.

on the top of the ball, write the element info and draw a small line towards the front of the ball where the arrow used to point.

on the top of the ball, write the element info and draw a small line towards the front of the ball where the arrow used to point.

Install the element with the "front" line pointing forward.

Install the element with the “front” line pointing forward.

Slide the clip onto the post to hold the element in place. Push it on more with a pair of pliers if you want to, but it's harder to get off later.

Slide the clip onto the post to hold the element in place. Push it on more with a pair of pliers.

An even better solution is to pull the top off of a First-Generation ball and use that rabbit-ear clip for all of your topless typeballs. (:

An even better solution is to pull the top off of a First-Generation ball and use that rabbit-ear clip for all of your topless typeballs. I hereby throw this idea out to you Makers with access to spring steel wire bending equipment, you could make some money just running off a whole bunch of these First-Gen clips and selling them to Selectric owners.. (:

Updated: August 27, 2015 — 8:23 pm

12 Comments

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  1. One of these days, I’m going to drag a Selectric home – not an idle threat and could be this weekend as there is a city-wide yard sale this Saturday. I will file this information away in case I have a broken-top font ball to deal with.

    Off topic: Twenty Fifteen!?

    1. Yeah, my Twenty-Fourteen template broke when I added some plugin, and I had to whip a Twenty-Fifteen one up real quick. Still haven’t gotten around to fixing it.

  2. Right now there is an offer on German eBay for 28 different IBM golfballs – they seem to be all for a composer, except one. PR and UN in all kind of variations. PR is “press roman” what I learned here. What is “UN”?

  3. Breaking Bad? That’s Breaking Good! :)

  4. You don’t have to break the top off if you don’t want to. Break the plastic tab off and solder a short piece of 12 ga copper wire to the metal cam. Here’s some photos:

    https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/golfballtypewritershop/attachments/293305139

    -Clark

    1. ooh, that works too! :D

  5. That’s great. I have more than a few broken 2nd gen type balls that I would love to use. Great hack.

  6. This is a fantastic post, such an obvious solution, but one that I certainly wasn’t aware of until I stumbled here. Thanks for putting this trick up with such great pictures. I also love the hillbilly solder job by ProfessorC, I’ll have to give that a go as well.

  7. Thank you so much for this. I bought several elements on eBay and they were all non-functional, but I did what it says here and they all work just fine now.

  8. This article was extremely helpful to me in getting some broken type balls working again. Thank you so much!! I have carefully pried up the plastic top and took a paper clip of similar diameter as the original spring wire and fashioned my own 1st generation rabbit ears, then squeezed it all back together and secured it with superglue underneath. Rounded jewelry pliers are the only tool needed to bend the paper clip into the proper shape.

    1. Yeah, I imagine even something like a c-clip would work, as long as it held tight and didn’t fly off when typing. The original rabbit-ear clips are super easy to use, though – if you find one, hold onto it. (:

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