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During the era of the typewriter there were a few kinds of basic designs. The (afaik) most well known is the type bar design, where each key is connected to an individual type bar that hits the paper when the key is pressed, each type bar carries the uppercase and lowercase shapes of a single letter. The other variant is the type wheel or type ball design, where a single ball or wheel shaped element contains all the letters. The mechanism rotates and/or tilts the wheel/ball before it strikes the paper so that the right letter is imprinted.

Type wheel/balls have some advantages over type bars: They cannot get stuck, and the entire wheel/ball can be replaced to change the font. The Blickensderfer, one of the early wheel operated typewriters, is often described as being much simpler than other contemporary (often type bar operated) machines, containing only a quarter of the moving parts of other contemporary typtewriters, so the type wheel mechanism appears to not necessarily be more complex than type bars.

During the last decades of the typewriter era, the electric type ball operated Selectric machines where very popular as higher end typewriters, but I have the impression that type bars were more common in manually operated lower end machines.

Were there technical reasons for type bars being more popular in simpler typewriters? If so what were they?

(This question is based on a few assumptions, which may be wrong. Please tell me if that is the case. And it may be that nontechnical reasons were more important in why type bar designs were more popular. I'm also interested in those, but in that case this is not the right site.)

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  • $\begingroup$ have you considered the effect of patent royalties $\endgroup$ – joojaa Jun 30 '18 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ @joojaa That could be a possibility, but I haven't found any references or other evidence that this in fact was a reason. And type wheel writers already existed by 1893, so for any post WW 1 typewriters any patents would have expired. $\endgroup$ – JanKanis Jun 30 '18 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ If I recall correctly, the early wheel machines spun at a constant rate and you had to have an operator that could key at a perfectly steady rate, landing on a key and waiting until the wheel got there. This was actually handy for teaching typing, but limiting in the workplace. This all from memory, so possibly mistaken. $\endgroup$ – Phil Sweet Jul 1 '18 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ These were also used in the TWX teletype keyboards, if memory serves. $\endgroup$ – Phil Sweet Jul 1 '18 at 13:24
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    $\begingroup$ @CarlWitthoft I don't have data on what could be simplest in theory, but the Blickensderfer No 5 (one of the early type wheel models) had 250 parts compared to 2500 for contemporary typewriters according to wikipedia. No references there, but the Smithsonian agrees. $\endgroup$ – JanKanis Jul 2 '18 at 20:12
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The reason turns out to be that type bar typewriters are faster. A type wheel is much heavier than a single type bar and needs to both rotate and move forward, so operating it with a finger requires more effort. For an electric typewriter that is not a problem as the motor provides the additional force. See this answer for more details and references.

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