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Psst … Want to buy a used IBM Selectric? No questions asked

We would have got away with it too, if hadn't been for your perfectly reasonable user request

On Call Do you know where that computer came from? Or that chair? Or that desk? Today's On Call concerns another brush with the long arm of the law that all started with a simple call for help.

Our story takes us back to the 1990s – a time of transition for many companies. The Windows 3.x era was underway, and Windows for Workgroups was finding a home on many a corporate desktop. The teller of today's story, Regomized as "Sarah" (most definitely not her name), was working at a company occupying floors in a high-rise complex as events unfolded.

This being the era after acoustic couplers, Sarah was busy installing external US Robotics models when one of the secretaries at the company pulled her aside and asked if there was any way her existing typewriter could be connected to the computer. A smart bit of thinking on the secretary's part: why try to persuade IT to pony up the cash for a printer when there was a device already on her desk?

The device in question was an IBM Selectric Typewriter. Originally launched in 1961, the machine was an instant hit for Big Blue. IBM had been a big noise in the typewriter world for decades by that point, but the Selectric – with its golf-ball type head replacing the basket of type bars – was a leap from the jam-prone typewriters that came before.

By the time of our story, the Selectric brand had been retired, but the workhorses continued to churn out type as nimble fingers jabbed the keys – or, in the case of Sarah's client, sought to hit the word processor.

Sarah pulled out the typewriter and peered at its connectors. Sure enough, there was a suitable port. It should be possible to connect the device to the computer. All that would be needed was something to connect it with and some appropriate software.

"I located the hardware sticker on the device and found an 800 number," she told us. "I called and ordered a cable and driver …"

Which is where things began to unravel. The secretary's innocent request and Sarah's order triggered something behind the scenes. While Sarah waited patiently for the equipment to arrive and the telephone call to return to the secretary to plug things in, other discoveries were being made.

"Well, I was never called to install it as the typewriter was part of a large group of stolen hardware," she said.

"So also was most of the furniture and computers in the place."


It transpired that the company had unwittingly leased office equipment that was a tad warm to the touch.

"All discovered because one secretary was clever," said Sarah.

While pilfering the Post-its is bad enough, wholesale theft of tables, chairs and IBM iron is something else entirely. Ever been called out to fix some hardware that burnt your fingers for all the wrong reasons? Share your tale with an email to On Call. ®

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