Kyle’s IBM Selectric Composer – an Heroic tale of desire fulfilled!

What follows below is the story of New York artist Kyle Void and his quest to obtain a working IBM Selectric Composer. This quest was a long, arduous and expensive journey for Kyle, fraught with disappointment and dead ends. His perseverance and willingness to throw absurd amounts of cash at the problem won through in the end, and now he’s the happy owner of one of the rarest and most complexly interesting typing machines on the planet. Here’s the story in his own words, which I’ve only edited to break a 1,752-word paragraph into multiple chunks for easier reading:

It was when I first breached the mystical barrier between the magic of the off-set white, special font, parchment paper of published books and the thought to attempt it myself, that I lead to the route of using an IBM Selectric Composer.

Growing up I loved books; (and still do) the smell and officiality of them that nursed the story or text to my brain. A favorite poet and author of mine, Richard Hell, had an old zine he did in 1970 with David Giannini called Genesis:Grasp. These zines struck to me that barrier bonding the mysticism of publishing to  that of self-produced. I researched more into it and realized he used an IBM Selectric Composer to achieve his publishing and font selection.

After researching more into it I realized a lot of 1970’s publishing used a similar font that I’d later learn the name of called Journal Roman. This rough look that an analog electric typesetter gave was exactly what I was looking for to create the proper framing to my books. So I started searching online for one for sale.

rytrthimage7Not too long after I realized they were near impossible to come by and even find any info. So I went to my local typewriter store in NYC in Gramercy and spoke with them about it. They had to let it digest for a minute… then almost hick up’ed in thought from not seeing or hearing of one since they were new. They told me good luck, but it’s no longer in circulation. But they suggested an IBM Selectric II for me to use instead which I thought with high expectation to do the job. About a month of having it I realized it didn’t have anywhere near the fonts that I wanted and I tried so hard to find a font that would mimic, at the time, my view of Times New Roman. But none were close or the right size I wanted.

So I went on the hunt again for a composer with determination  but head full of doubt. I went through the the image results on Google looking through, which introduced me to Ted and his machine ‘Mothra‘ much before I’d meet him. I found one for sale!!! But but in shock it was listed in 2008. I took a chance and sent an email.

Two nights later I got an email in a daze when I got home at 2 am after a night of heavy drinking from ‘Hubert’, a man who had an Electronic Composer, he still had it for sale! So I called him right then at 2 am drunk. I was so excited it probably kept me coherent enough to hold a conversation. He was very friendly but a little hard to understand from his thick Canadian accident (probably no worse than my drunken slurs). For my fortune, he still had it and said he needed to make a box to ship it.

We went back in forth between phone calls and emails for about two weeks talking about our lives and romanticism we had for the machine and writing. Well, finally enough he dug out 55 font balls, manuals, an IBM pica ruler, 28 ribbons, and hand made polka-dot dust cover his ex-girlfriend made for him in 1985 which clearly brought back memories to him. He mailed it out and I was incredibly eager to get it; having my guys at Gramercy anticipating it to work on it when it arrives. Unfortunately when it got here it was all banged up. Keys were broken and what I assume the insides matched. He explained to me before I got it it was missing a belt. But I was in high hopes that Gramercy was going to be able to find one.

wedfwegimage6Anyway I took the machine down to Gramercy and the owner (Paul) took one look at it shaking his head saying “nah, this thing can’t be fixed.” I instantly felt my heart drop. He said you can throw it in the alley, someone will pick it up there. I was in complete disbelief. After all that, this was the outcome, a composer in a desolate NYC alley. His son Jay, who I was mostly speaking with, said hold on let’s hold onto it hear and see what we can do. So they did. He called me back after a few days confirming it was in pretty bad shape and no one could really fix it.

But I was determined. Even though at first I wanted to give up he pushed me to call around. He gave me the repair list of every shop in the US and I went through it with a fine comb. At the same time I read Ted’s post on reviving his. So I messaged him in on his comment section. Shortly after he emailed back saying if he were to sell his it “would be for a lot of dead presidents.” But I was persistent, so he said look, here’s a list of repair manuals and things you need to know in fixing the one I had. Also brought up the trade market between us with font balls, that we still do. I was trading fonts for a machine I never used and still researching how to fix the one I had.

Finally I found a guy in Hudson that said he could fix it. I was ecstatic! At the same time I found another IBM Selectric Composer (the dial operated one). I was in love with its style, simplicity, and beauty. So I researched who its owner was and figured out it belonged to a guy named Nick. So I  found his email and emailed him. He responded back saying he ironically gave it up to Ted. So I emailed Ted back asking him about it. He said he indeed had it and could ship it to me for the price of shipping, but it needs some work. So he did, and I called the guy at Hudson back saying now I have two and wanted the original IBM Selectric Composer fixed more ideally. He said it maybe more challenging and he couldn’t guarantee it but he would try.

wefwefimage2A few days later Ted sent me an email of a list of people who had composers they were trying to sell on his blog. So I emailed all of them and one responded, a woman from Minnesota. She said her neighbor used to run a print shop in the 70’s that went out of business and he still had it stored in his office. I was guessing it was another ‘Electronic Composer’ because they seemed more common at this point. But when she sent me a picture, sure enough there was the beautiful colored dial and tan shell. I told her I’d take it.

It was another two week process talking back in forth with each other and becoming very familiar with each other’s stories. Then finally it was time to send the money to the old man that had it. I had to Western Union it because he was unfamiliar with any other method. I was worried about his packing job so I found the UPS store he was shipping from to call them letting them know about my situation and when he arrives to double box it and I’d pay for it.. so they did.

ergergimage3Sure enough it came a week later in great shape, no damage. I called Hudson and told them we had two now and I was figuring out how to get them to him. I didn’t have a driver’s license but my girlfriend did. So we found how to rent a car and got a Bmw suv (no extra charge) to drive up to Hudson. It was a beautiful drive in the beginning of fall. The shop looked like something out of a movie. Very quiet and strange like a large shack dressed like a home on the outside.

We dropped them off and I waited another two weeks. They finally called me back saying the motor was broken but they replaced it with the one that Ted gave me. I also brought the ‘Electronic Composer’ but at this point gave up on it and gave it to him. He did a “cleaning” and switched the motor. After another few days he said the tab feature was giving issues and he couldn’t figure it out. At this point Ted was addressing that Professor C was showing interest in fixing my machine. So I told Hudson to cease any further work on it and I’d come pick it back up. So we rented another car and drove back up to pick it up. I paid him to switch the motor and later to realize cause more work.

I was beginning to get real frustrated and almost give up a handful of times. The process was completely consuming me in every avenue.  So I emailed Professor C, he gave me his address, and I shipped it to him.(the ‘Minnesota IBM Selectric Composer with replaced motor). Another week passed and I was getting worried he didn’t receive it. So I looked up the address, it was a  bed and bath and I began to panic. Did I ship it to the wrong address??? I double checked and it was right so I called.  A woman answered and said Clark was out of town ’til the next day, I was relieved they knew who he was! When he got back he began work on it and another 2 weeks passed. I was completely unsure the direction the machine was going.

Finally he emailed back saying it was just about fixed and that everything was working he was just running rendered tests. He sent me a video of it justifying and my jaw sunk to the floor. I was blown away. He shipped it back and sure enough it was running great! Finally I had a working composer! I was in complete disbelief. I called him and thanked him profusely. I now have a complete printing press in my apt here in the East Village an I am in current work of publication of a few books of poetry and a magazine. If it wasn’t for Ted most of this wouldn’t of been possible for me. Thanks Ted, and thank you Lena  for all your help, it wouldn’t of been possible without you either. But high praise to the genius engineer, Professor C.

Updated: December 2, 2015 — 8:46 pm


Add a Comment
  1. Congrats to Kyle and kudos to Professor C!

    These things must truly be rare, and difficult. I hope Kyle’s keeps running for a long time.

    There is a “papernet” out there of typewritten publications that’s quite fascinating. I’ll be posting something about this on my blog soon.

  2. Congratulations to Kyle and thank you for including the video. I wasn’t sure how the dial was used in creating justified text – mystery solved.

    ProfessorC is a miracle worker with those Selectrics.

  3. Wow, what a great saga.

    Richard, looking forward to your papernet posting.

  4. I think the reason these machines are so hard to find today is they were specialized tools for business. They were very expensive (about $10,000 in 1970), so most were leased. When the leases were over, IBM would take them back and most likely destroyed most of them when the demand waned since they had been superseded by newer machines. I believe the only ones to be found today were purchased outright, either new or refurbished.

    Yes, they are much more elaborate and complicated than a Selectric. Although based on the basic Selectric mechanism, a Selectric was nearly $1,000 in 1970, so the 10x cost difference should give you an idea of the differences. Pricing was partly because IBM wouldn’t be producing the Composer in the millions of units, unlike the Selectric and wouldn’t be able to make a profit off volume.

    IBM Selectrics are my passion and I’m lucky to have been introduced to the Composer by a retired IBM CE who gave me two Composers, training manuals, tools and parts. I’m glad to have helped Kyle get his machine working again.

    1. Hello-
      I have a working IBM Selectric Composer AND a working IBM Electronic Composer. I also used to have an IBM Mag Card Selectric Composer, but I donated that to the IBM Archives. I am located in Delaware. I used to have a website called I read your article and was wondering where you are located and whether you could help me to revitalize my Selectric Composer. Although it is in mint condition and it works, it has an occasional escapement problem where it adds extra units to a space, messing up any justification. I would love to have it looked at by someone who has worked on one before especially if you can “dip” it and clean it good inside.

      1. You can contact Clark through his blog:
        or through the Facebook Golfball Typewriter group:

    2. yes, that seems to match information i was provided & recall from several correspondence with Village-Roadshow distribution here in Oz. when i queried the amazing presentation, fonts & lettering (so good they looked like “letraset”!) they told me fhey used the IBM WORD COMPOSER, & they were a business machine in the $10K price bracket… i use laser printers off my Word PC, & it’s not even close to what those were like in the 80’s… i understand your desire to have one… it has sat upon my shoulders all these many (now) years!

  5. That’s dedication, especially calling someone at 2 am and drunk to talk Composers! Glad to read there was a happy ending :)

  6. Yes, it was absolutely a saga. Much owed to Ted and Professor C- both helped me to a working machine. Thank you both! Ted told me the whole time to keep patient, without his constant reassurance I think I would have had a mental breakdown. But Professor C is truly a mechanical genius, no doubt about it.

    1. Kyle,

      We have an IBM composer & font balls. This had belonged to my father-in-law who past away 32 years ago and it’s just been stored in his house. If you are still interested in this device, like New, email me

  7. Kyle is a great person and I am so happy that the outcome was a positive one. I remember when he was getting frustrated, but I recall telling him that he came so far and not to give up. I am grateful that he found Ted, as it was definitely a step in the right direction. Ultimately it let to Clark and the end result is one of the only fully functioning IBM Composers that I know of.

    In this business we meet many interesting people, but I must say that Kyle is a wonderful person and his dedication to his craft and talent will bring him much success in life. We here at Gramercy kind of wish we had the expertise in this model to bring it back to life, but in the end, it gave Kyle a chance to come in contact with some wonderful people along this journey. I am just glad that we were able to be a part of it.

    Jay Schweitzer
    Gramercy Typewriter Co.

  8. What a trip down memory lane! In the mid and latter 1970s I worked for a military simulations game company called Gamescience. We produced both boardgames and role playing games as well as having a huge catalogue of items available through the mail.
    This was in the early time for gamming and a revolutionary era for new products. Most games were produced in quantities as small as 500 to 1000 by small publishers. We typed our text out with an IBM Selectric II with ragged right columns with the dial just like yours. As in the old days, the columns were then cut out and pasted up (waxed) for reproduction on photoplates used on offset or web press. By 1976 we acquired an old IBM Composer and it wasn’t cheap. I am just guessing that it cost $5,000 – around the price of a small car. But having fully justified columns put our products in the big league.
    I hadn’t thought much about that old composer in decades. Your blog has really brought back memories on how we did things way back then. I’m glad you finally got your heart’s desire.

  9. I have available two machines: one IBM Selectric Composer with a dial — called a “standalone composer” by us working in the field with them back in the day –and one IBM Selectric Electronic Composer … along with about 32 balls.

    1. @Jsne

      I am interested can you please e-mail me:

  10. Hi there Munk,

    I am a “graphic designer” also coming for the most part from the punk & DIY publishing scene.. I’m in the N. East and am trying to typeset a project in the next few weeks on a Composer. Do you think you could pass my contact onto Kyle or any other local Composer enthusiast who may be interested in a rental of sorts? Hopefully before too long I can get my hands on my own machine.

    1. Ok, forwarded your info to Kyle. Good luck! (:

    2. I have two composers for sale

  11. The composer was cranky the day it got hatched, and the stand-alone model with it’s chopping block escapement gave many a tech stress related illnesses. The electronic ones use a leadscrew drive, which is far in a way better for moving the carriage. If you can find any variety still working hat’s off too you. I worked for IBM OPD for many years, and I wouldn’t go near one, nor their disaster the IBM Electronic Typewriter models 50,60,75. When IBM declared the machines at end of life that’s all she wrote, as nobody else in their right mind would touch one of them. There are several wear items in the leadscrew drive models that are not available anywhere, such as the leadscrew drive gear box. The keyboard cycle clutches also wear out, and hard hard to replace, and re-time.

    1. Heh, yeah. Spare parts are a real quest to get ahold of, but I still have mine running, and I’m not even a Selectric mechanic :D

  12. I have two IBM composers mag card attachment as well I’m in Canada

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