This Faithful Machine


On Technology

Picturing the literary history of word processing.

Len Deighton at his home office in London.

Len Deighton in his high-tech home office in London. “The first application of the MT/ST in a literary setting was by the British spymaster Len Deighton’s assistant, Ellenor Handley.”

When did individual writers begin to use word processors? As I began work on a literary history of word processing, I found it difficult to establish a time line. Sometimes writers kept a sales record—a word processor or computer would have represented a significant investment, especially back in the day. Other times, as with Stanley Elkin or Isaac Asimov, the arrival of the computer was of such seismic importance as to justify its own literary retellings. But most of the time there were no real records documenting exactly when a writer had gotten his or her first computer, and so I had to rely on anecdote, detective work, and circumstantial evidence.

Naturally I scoured The Paris Review’s interviews for mentions of writers and their machines. In addition to temporal markers, they sometimes offered rich insight about their views of the technology in relation to the creative process. Take Ian McEwan’s comments from his Art of Fiction interview:

In the mideighties I was a grateful convert to computers. Word processing is more intimate, more like thinking itself … I like the provisional nature of unprinted material held in the computer’s memory—like an unspoken thought. I like the way sentences or passages can be endlessly reworked, and the way this faithful machine remembers all your little jottings and messages to yourself. Until, of course, it sulks and crashes.

The computer is humanized, brought into the space of jottings and mumblings or musings, mood swings and household accidents.

Pictures proved to be as rich a method as any for reconstructing this history. I found myself squinting over images of writers posed alongside of their computers, running Google image searches, trying to match makes and models. There was also the way in which the computer gradually worked its way into the stock of collective imagery around writing and literature, something fully realized by the time R. Crumb drew Charles Bukowski “leering” into his Macintosh, for example. And then, of course, there were the advertisements, the magazine covers, the product manuals: a visual stockpile, an appealingly tactile record of this seemingly ephemeral topic. For many writers, after all, a word processor was as much an appliance as it was a deeply individualized instrument—more fax machine than fountain pen, as I say in the book. Still, the plastic, glass, and silicon devices had stories to tell, just as did the people pictured with them.


MT/ST Operator

An MT/ST operator from period literature. The operators pictured were universally female.

The story of word processing begins in the office. Like the typewriter before it, the word processor was a profoundly gendered technology. And remember that word processing originally meant something much more expansive than it does today. It once encompassed the complete flow of written information through an office environment: its production, reproduction, distribution, and filing. Dictation was as much a part of word processing as typing and transcription, and this is reflected in early product catalogs from IBM and other companies. Pictured above is a female operator in front of the IBM Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter (MT/ST), the product which IBM marketed as the centerpiece of its word processing line after it was rolled out in 1964. The operator typed at a Selectric; mistakes were corrected on the page, leaving behind the usual blemishes, but the correct character sequence was stored to the magnetic tape reels visible in the photograph. For the first time, the material act of composition and inscription was sundered, yielding a state in which the text, suspended on tape, could be revised indefinitely before producing final, “letter-perfect” copy with the touch of a button.

Ellenor Handley with Len Deighton’s Bomber manuscript in 2013.

The first application of the MT/ST in a literary setting was by the British spymaster Len Deighton’s assistant, Ellenor Handley, who used one in Deighton’s high-tech home office to prepare the manuscript for his 1970 World War II novel, Bomber, (long-listed for the Man Booker Prize). The tape reels containing (as Deighton was to put it in his afterword) “the first book to be entirely recorded on magnetic tape” are long gone, but the final manuscript survives, now in the hands of a private collector; in 2013 Handley was reunited with it, revealing, if you look closely, the bite marks along the edges of the pages where the MT/ST’s mechanical tractor feed had once gripped: the enduring mark of the mechanism.

TV Typewriter

The TV Typewriter, a concept in place by the early seventies.

Pournelle with Zeke

Pournelle with Zeke. “The computer freed him from the labor of retyping.”

A decade later, word processors had taken the form we recognize today: a typewriter attached to a TV set. The creation of a working “TV typewriter” was a rite of passage for Silicon Valley hackers, including Steve Wozniak, who demoed one at the Homebrew Computer Club before he brought along the computer he called an Apple. By 1979, when he wrote a feature story for onComputing magazine, Jerry Pournelle was already an early adopter and proselytizer, having assembled a custom system built around a Zilog Z-80 chip, a sixty-four-character Hitachi monitor, and the CP/M operating system. He called it Zeke, short for Ezekial [sic]. Pournelle, like many early adopters, was a genre writer: the computer freed him from the labor of retyping, allowing him to spend more time revising his prose as well as dramatically increasing his output. “Boy, has this thing made it easier to write science fiction,” he told his readers. A couple of years later he entered into an amiable disputation with fellow sci-fi author Barry B. Longyear in the pages of Asimov’s magazine. The accompanying pen and ink illustration, by Jack Gaughan, captured much of the anxiety around early word processing, depicting the authors swallowed up by their machines to become both input and output in a never-ending loop.

Jack Gaughan, caricature drawing

Jack Gaughan, caricature drawing. It “captured much of the anxiety around early word processing.”

Stephen King with his Wang System 5 Model 3 word processor in 1982.

Stephen King with his Wang System 5 Model 3 word processor in 1982.

Meanwhile, gag pieces advertising pencils or fountain pens as feature-laden “word processors” became a staple of the 1980s computer press. Peter McWilliams stretched the joke to a short book about the fictitious McWilliams II Word Processor (Portable! User friendly! Prints characters from every known language!). Users of all stripes were coming to grips with the strange new ontology of writing on the screen. “Writing with light” was the phrase authors invoked over and over again. “It seemed like the future,” Peter Straub said of his own IBM Displaywriter, bought to collaborate long-distance on The Talisman with Stephen King, who had at the time what he delighted in referring to as his “great big Wang.” But writing with light had its perils, too: notoriously temperamental floppy disks were given to spawning “bad sectors,” a phenomenon so rampant that Amy Tan founded a Kaypro computer-support group with that name shortly before the start of her own fiction career in San Francisco. Other writers worried what would happen when their words slid off of the edge of the glowing glass screen—the manual accompanying Perfect Writer, the Kaypro’s default software, came with a fanciful visual aid to illustrate the principle behind the scrolling mechanism, the better to reassure anxious users.

McWilliams Word Processor

“Gag pieces advertising pencils or fountain pens as feature-laden ‘word processors’ became a staple of the 1980s computer press.”

Illustration of a 1982 Perfect Writer.

Illustration of a 1982 Perfect Writer. “The manual accompanying Perfect Writer came with a fanciful visual aid to illustrate the principle behind the scrolling mechanism, the better to reassure anxious users.”

But computers were never just about screens and keyboards. They were also about writers, who had bodies. Sometimes this manifested itself in prosaic ways: a photo captures Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, at work on the manuscript that would become Between Men (1985), reclining in a chair, the detachable keyboard of an Osborne 1 on her lap, a blanket underneath, her cat watching from above, as her head turns to look into the diminutive five-inch screen, a box of floppy diskettes visible alongside. As so-called portables (“luggables”) like the Osborne and Kaypro came on the market, they changed the array of available postures for writing with a computer—harbingers of the laptops and tablets to come.

Eve Sedgwick

Eve Sedgwick at home. “[Computers] were also about writers, who had bodies.”

Stanley Elkin with his Lexitron

Stanley Elkin with his Lexitron. Elkin said that the day of its arrival was “the most important day of my literary life.”

Stanley Elkin unabashedly referred to the arrival of his Lexitron VT 1303 word processor—which he rechristened the Bubble Machine because it reminded him of a jukebox—as “the most important day of my literary life.” Elkin had multiple sclerosis, which by the late 1970s had made it almost impossible for him to write longhand or punch the keys of a manual typewriter. The Bubble Machine changed all that. It also gave him a new appreciation for plot: “You can go back and change and reference and fix … so in a way, all novels written on the Bubble Machine ought to be perfect novels.” No cure for MS, but a life changer for MSS.

Norman Mailer’s laptop displayed at the Harry Ransom Center.

The laptop used by Judith McNally, Norman Mailer’s assistant, displayed at the Harry Ransom Center.

What will remain of words written with light? Major institutions like the Harry Ransom Center, the Houghton Library at Harvard, and Emory University are acquiring writers’ computers, hard drives, and diskettes as part of their personal papers. What’s of interest is the data: some long-forgotten version or false start waiting for a researcher in magnetically suspended animation. But the hardware itself can have its own aura and affect. For a time, the Ransom Center displayed the laptop used by Norman Mailer’s assistant, Judith McNally, under glass in the exhibition hall. It is yellowed and tarnished by nicotine stains. John Updike’s diskettes, meanwhile, are available to researchers who visit his papers at the Houghton. They have fifty diskettes from Updike’s later career, giving pause to biographer Adam Begley’s characterization of the collection as “a vast paper trail, perhaps the last of its kind.” But missing are the Wang diskettes that Updike, at about the same time as Stephen King, began using in the 1980s. Updike, understandably enough, had thrown them out.

Updike’s “lost” Wang disks

But even old computer diskettes can have remarkably resilient afterlives. The Wang diskettes were fished from the Updikes’ curbside trash, alongside numerous other mementos, souvenirs, and doodads by a man who now keeps them in his storage locker in Austin, Texas—not far from the Ransom Center, in fact.

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. Kirschenbaum’s book Track Changes, about the history of word processing, is now available from Harvard University Press.