Bill Skillman had been working at IBM for nine months in 1960 when his supervisors called in the 25-year-old West Coast service technician and asked if he'd like to go on special assignment to the typewriter plant in Lexington, Ky. He quickly assented but was naturally curious about the posting. What was it for?

Explaining they had been sworn to secrecy, his superiors said they couldn't tell him anything about the trip. Besides, they didn't know what was going on; no one would tell them.

One week after agreeing to the temporary tour of duty, Skillman joined a handful of similarly bemused colleagues culled from IBM offices around the country who were assembled at the Lexington facility. Told they had been chosen for their mechanical aptitude and manual skills, the technicians signed confidentiality agreements, promising not to talk about the project at hand.

Once committed to secrecy, the group was brought into a secluded classroom, where a lectern occupied center stage with a covered object. When it was unveiled, the crowd of technicians, not normally given to effusions, oohed and aahed. None of them had ever seen anything like it, and they spent the next few weeks getting acquainted with the prototypes issued to them. After learning the ins and outs of the new product, the participants went back to their respective home bases.

The training Skillman had undergone was to enable him to service the embryonic machine during its field test. Sites chosen for the so-called A-test were high-security facilities where people were accustomed to hush-hush development of breakthrough advances. Skillman made regular visits to such proving grounds as the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California's Santa Clara Valley, a growing technological center that, a decade or so later, would be dubbed Silicon Valley. He was always alone. "I couldn't even take my boss with me on a service call," he recalls.

Fortified with feedback from operators who had used the machine at their desks for several months, IBM called Skillman back to Lexington for a 90-day detail to make final preparations for the unveiling of the new product. Based on his own experiences in the field, Skillman offered a couple of suggestions that he says were incorporated into the final design. Meanwhile, he and a colleague trained a phalanx of instructors who would be dispatched around the country and around the world to teach other technicians how to service and repair the mechanically complex device.

Forty years ago this summer the new machine made its debut. Skillman still has a memento of the occasion presented to him by IBM: a plastic cube encasing a silvery, golf-ball-shaped type head, which was the device's most distinctive feature.

The new creation was called the IBM Selectric.

With the unique golf-ball technology, the Selectric would come to dominate the office landscape as no other typewriter ever had or would, until personal computers laid claim to the desktop terrain. The Selectric reigned for more than two decades before IBM stopped marketing it, and customers still ask for it by name, according to repairmen who specialize in fixing and selling the groundbreaking machine.

At the 1961 press conference rolling out the Selectric, Gordon Moodie, general manager of IBM's electric typewriter division, said the new machine "represents an entirely new approach to typewriter design and function." The most striking feature of the Selectric was that it had no typebars. In their place was the golf-ball type element encircled by four rows of raised characters.

IBM insiders credit engineer H.S. "Bud" Beattie with being the driving force behind the Selectric. Beattie had joined IBM in June 1933 as a customer serviceman, and in 1946, as an engineer, he invented a "mushroom printer" -- named for the shape of its print element -- for use in data processing applications. He became convinced early on that this so-called single-element technology could be applied to typewriters. Five years later, IBM began the research and development into what would become the Selectric.

According to Skillman, the first production run sold out completely, but there were "growing pains" once the novelty wore off.

"When the Selectric first came out, they were really hard to sell," Ben Batchelor recalls. He was a service technician for IBM from the mid-1960s to early '70s and now has a repair business in Calabasas, Calif. Many typists, he says, were put off by what was yet another unprecedented feature of the machine: The carriage did not move. The platen -- the cylinder on the carriage, around which the paper wrapped -- did not go from right to left and then back again, as on conventional typewriters. Instead, the type ball moved. When the typist hit the keys, the golf-ball element skittered across the length of the platen. At the end of a typed line, the user hit a return key, sending the ball gliding back to the left side, while the platen rolled up, positioning the paper for the next line.

Quinn McDonald, manager of writing services for an Alexandria publishing firm, recalls her days in advertising when a young copywriter, accustomed to a manual typewriter, first encountered the Selectric. "She asked me where the return handle was," McDonald recounts. "I told her there wasn't one." A hand, positioned to push a nonexistent lever, would just encounter air, recalls McDonald, adding, "We all did the IBM Selectric wave."

A stationary carriage had advantages that were not readily apparent to doubters. The Selectric never took up more room than its body size, unlike traditional typewriters, which required at least twice the amount of space they seemingly occupied in order to allow for the shuttling carriage to extend on either side. The Selectric could be placed alongside a wall or in an enclosed niche. "They were great in submarines," says Mike Patrick, an Alexandria repairman and former authorized IBM sales dealer, who recalls selling 11-inch models to the U.S. Navy at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

IBM promotional materials claimed that a typist could expect "usable speed of more than 180 words per minute," although, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, no one has ever typed faster than 158 words per minute. Nevertheless, the Selectric did offer users the potential for greater speed than its predecessors, as well as better accuracy, by eliminating problems caused by typebars that could collide, entangle and create overlapping imprints on the page.

One universal complaint against typewriters was the noise, and the Selectric was as loud as any typewriter that had preceded it, although, according to Skillman, no more so, despite perceptions to the contrary. "The sound was different, so people interpreted it as being noisier," he says.

For devotees, the Selectric's distinctive sound was part of its appeal. "Nothing was more reassuring to me in the morning than coming in and turning on the Selectric and hearing that thunk-hum," says marketing executive Kent McDonald, who, beginning in 1980, spent much of his professional life in advertising, most notably for global giant J. Walter Thompson.

While the Selectric found many admirers from the start, its complexities made it a product that couldn't just drop from the skies without much support and hand-

holding. Again, the folks at IBM had a plan.

If anyone could market an innovative-but-alien machine, it was IBM. "At that time, IBM had the best sales force in the nation, maybe the world," says Batchelor, adding that other companies modeled their marketing programs after IBM's. In complying with the dress code promulgated by corporate patriarch Thomas Watson Sr., IBM employees were as renowned for their appearance as their salesmanship. No one who valued his employment with the company deviated from the expected uniform: dark suit, conservative tie and white dress shirt.

Even IBM repairmen wore business suits; back then, they weren't service technicians, they were "customer engineers."

Sterling King was a typewriter service technician at the National Security Agency when the Selectric was introduced. Eventually, he and his colleagues would attend

IBM's intensive Selectric repair courses, allowing them to perform all the servicing and maintenance in-house. Initially, however, the IBM repairman had to make office visits. Because the outsider didn't have clearance to wander the NSA's halls unattended, King would accompany him on his calls.

Observing that a "customer engineer" got more respect than a service technician, King adopted the IBM job title. Noting how the secretaries sat at attention when the well-turned-out IBM man approached, he says, "I made it a point to go out and buy myself a white shirt. Every payday, I would buy a white shirt."

When King and his fellow repairmen first saw the Selectric, he says, they were astounded. The typewriter had one feature in particular that, he says, "blew everybody's mind."

The Selectric's floating element not only moved, it could be removed and replaced with interchangeable type balls bearing different fonts. "On all other machines, the typeface is permanent," he notes. "But, with the Selectric, you had the ability to change the typeface. That was fantastic."

"You could just pop that little ball off and put a new ball on," says Eileen Webb-

Braxton, a veteran legal secretary. She first encountered an IBM Selectric more than 20 years ago, at typing school. "They had all sorts of different heads. I always liked the Presentor head, the one with the big type on it. It's a big, large font, larger than the Courier.

"You thought you were being so artistic, because you could change your fonts," she says, laughing at the recollection.

Recalling his salad days in the early to mid-1970s, television scriptwriter and producer Michael Dolan says, "The changeable type ball just suggested to me that if you had an IBM Selectric, you would be a real writer."

The type ball was a standout feature at the 1964-65 World's Fair in New York City. The IBM pavilion was topped with a 500-seat theater housed inside a giant, silvery, ellipsoid structure that evoked the round type head. Instead of the 88 different characters that would have encircled a type ball, only three letters appeared on the dome, but they were repeated 1,000 times: IBM, IBM, IBM.

In 1971, IBM issued a new model. Famed architect and designer Eliot Noyes, who had been responsible for the Selectric's curved, sculpted housing, created a more angular shape for what was dubbed the Selectric II. Added features included an "express" backspace key, which sent the type ball whizzing back along a line of type, and, most notably, a dual-pitch lever, which provided the option of typing either 10 or 12 characters per inch. The machine was also quieter than its predecessor.

Meanwhile, says Skillman, they could not help but notice at IBM that a large volume of machines they serviced had been rendered virtually inoperable by eraser debris, which was -- there is no better way to put this -- gumming up the works. An innovation designed to address that problem was introduced in 1973. Again, it set the typewriter industry on its ear.

The Correcting Selectric II had a button on the lower right side of the keyboard. If a typist mistakenly depressed the wrong key, he or she could hit that button, causing the element to back up to where the offending character had been printed. Typing the same character again would cause the mistake to disappear from the page.

"I remember when it first came out, it was amazing," says Batchelor. "We couldn't figure out how it was taking that ink off. Before they actually had the machines out, IBM had a sales meeting for us and showed us a film. And, it was such a simple thing. It was just a sticky tape taking off ink that was designed not to stick to the paper."

From then on, it seemed, all an IBM Selectric salesman had to do was answer the phone and take orders. "Everybody had to have a Selectric," recalls King. "They couldn't type without a Selectric. If they were typing on a Royal or a Remington, they would break that machine down until they got themselves an IBM. They would sabotage those machines until we had to move them out and get an IBM in there."

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the $1,000 machines were an extremely hot commodity in more ways than one. "The theft rate was such that you wouldn't believe it," says King. This, despite the fact that the large, blocky machines didn't lend themselves to quick getaways; manufactured in a variety of widths, they can weigh in the neighborhood of 40 pounds.

In addition to being promoted to supervisor at the NSA, King was building up his own private typewriter repair and sales business on evenings and weekends and found himself turning away offers of bootleg Selectrics or being asked to work on machines that had had the serial numbers filed off.

IBM couldn't make Selectrics fast enough. There were waiting lists. Individuals who could not afford the hefty price tag -- "half as much as a new, cheap car," as one repairman recalls it -- had to settle for less desirable alternatives. "I lusted for an IBM Selectric for many years," says Michael Dolan. "I eventually did buy an IBM Model B, which is to the Selectric as a Nash Metropolitan is to a Corvette."

Mike Patrick, who started in the typewriter business in 1973 as a repairman, went on to own three typewriter stores in Maryland and Virginia within 10 years. Until the mid-1980s, when IBM decided to focus only on bulk sales worth $20,000 or more, there was no such thing as an authorized IBM dealer. The corporation controlled all the markets -- new and resale -- so that even used Selectrics were difficult and expensive to obtain. Independent dealers went to great lengths to get their hands on Selectrics to satisfy growing consumer demand.

Starting in the mid-1960s, IBM produced Selectrics specifically designed to be used in conjunction with computers, providing keyboard and printer functions that were otherwise not available in those pre-inkjet days. At first, text generated by those early, electro-mechanical word processors was stored on magnetic tape cartridges; then less bulky "mag cards" were introduced.

"We got so desperate, we would take these electronic mag card machines, strip the electronics off of them and turn them into regular Selectrics to try to sell them," Patrick says.

Long the front-runner, IBM had to play catch-up in 1978 when another company introduced the first electronic typewriter incorporating a microprocessor and daisy wheel, a disk printer that replaced the golf-ball element and became the industry standard. IBM's last stab at electromechanical technology was the Selectric III in 1980. However, with their printed circuit boards and other prefabricated components, electronic typewriters were cheaper to produce than the Selectric, which most observers agree was as much a victim of high manufacturing costs as low technology. Finally, in 1985 the company halted production of Selectrics.

As personal computers became more and more affordable, typewriters of every ilk lost ground, relegated to closets and storage rooms.

Once, there were a couple dozen employees at Kaufman Office Machines. Now staffed only by Mike Patrick and the two older of his three sons, the store occupies a rented storefront in Alexandria, across from Potomac Yards. The second-story windows are covered with boards, vestiges of the damage from a fire this past February. In 1997, a year after he closed the last of his three former shops and sold the building, Patrick says, he rethought his business. "We decided we're not going to sell typewriters anymore. We're just going to service them, period," he says. Then, just as he was changing his emphasis, something unexpected occurred. "That's when typewriter sales took off. We quadrupled our amount of typewriter sales." And, he says, nine out of 10 of his sales are Selectrics.

Forms, labels and envelopes constitute the majority of business that keeps typewriters active. "The typewriter has been relegated to the short job," says Skillman, who now owns an independent typewriter repair business in Oregon. "By the time you bring up your PC and modify the word processor for whatever little job you want to do, type it and then put it back to where it was before you messed with it, you could have had the job done on the typewriter long before and been on your way with no aftereffect."

"The analogy we like to use around here is that, even though we have vacuum cleaners, lots of people still use brooms, because brooms are easy, they're accessible and they just do the job," says Jennifer Richard, an official with Lexmark, a company that acquired IBM's typewriter division.

Customers who eschew far more versatile electronic typewriters in favor of Selectrics do so because of the older machines' "plain Jane" appeal, says Patrick. "It had correcting, but it didn't have your fancy memories and displays and all that stuff that was going to confuse people, because they bought it strictly to back up their computer."

Moreover, the Selectric was specifically designed to handle multiple copies; electronic typewriters generally don't have the impact needed to go through several layers of paper the way some forms require, he says.

The Selectric's resurgence is relative. In his heyday, when he finally became an authorized IBM dealer, Patrick says, 500 to 600 Selectrics blew out the door a month. Now, in any given month, he may sell a dozen or so. But, where others have written off the typewriter as a dead medium, Patrick and similar mom-and-pop entrepreneurs are feeling a pulse. He has service contracts with law firms that, instead of a typewriter per secretary, may now have one for every five; he gets walk-in repair jobs and, in any given month, he and his sons may work on 50, 60, maybe even 100 Selectrics in addition to the other machines they fix.

Once they were elbowed aside by computers, Selectrics became available by the truckload. Patrick's insurance company put the value of the hundreds of unrepaired machines he lost in the February fire at three bucks apiece. Yet a restored Correcting Selectric II can carry a price tag of $250 or so, depending on the model. Because of hundreds of moving parts and dozens of often interdependent adjustments that require precise calibration, reconditioning Selectrics is a highly specialized craft.

The adjustments on a Selectric are so easily thrown out of whack, according to local repairmen, they're amazed that Bill Skillman risks shipping his rebuilt machines to far-flung locations. "When I pack them, I just do it exactly like IBM did," explains Skillman.

For many, the sheer bulk of the machine is a validation of its worthiness.

IBM officially stopped marketing the Selectric in 1986. There are no plans to commemorate the Selectric's 1961 birth, although the machine does live on as a benchmark. Lexmark continues to license the IBM logo and promotes IBM's new electronic typewriters with the pledge, "Features the Selectric Touch{csi}".

Cyber-artist Bill Keays celebrates the Selectric, or, at least, the idea of it, in a program he calls "Virtual Selectric." A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his studies focused on digital text, Keays says he chose an animated Selectric type ball to illustrate his simulation of three-dimensional space because he sees the element as "a compact icon." More than 500 years after the development of the first printing press, he says, "the history of typography has culminated into this one sublime shape."

Nowadays, an array of fonts can be summoned by the click of a mouse. But, for anyone who has ever struggled to defy the computer's default settings or automatic formats, there is also a frustrating disconnect. For all its limitations, a typewriter offers instant, hands-on gratification, and Selectric loyalists rely on their ever-familiar machine for that tactile comfort.

"I fear the day when no one's around to fix them and keep them going," says Kent McDonald.

There's a scene in the film "Wonder Boys" that depicts novelist Grady Tripp, portrayed by Michael Douglas, working on a book he has been unable to complete. Tripp can't move on. He can't get past his defunct marriage; he can't commit to his lover; he can't finish his book. Wrapped in a tatty, pink chenille bathrobe, Tripp sits in front of a beige Selectric I. It is about the last thing left he can depend on.

Rhonda Blank is a freelance writer who lives on Capitol Hill.