March 7, 2013

Every Ubiquitous Tool Starts Somewhere

Anybody else remember Bank Street Writer? It was the first word processor I ever used, way back in elementary school on my Commodore 64. It had a few menus and was kind of WYSIWYG, but only in the most generous sense. Nonetheless, I knew enough about typewriters from playing around with my grandfather’s to realize that this was a step in the right direction.

At least Bank Street Writer fit on the desk in my room, though. That was not always the case:
Deighton stood outside his Georgian terrace home and watched as workers removed a window so that a 200-pound unit could be hoisted inside with a crane. The machine was IBM’s MTST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter), sold in the European market as the MT72. ‘Standing in the leafy square in which I lived, watching all this activity, I had a moment of doubt,’ the author, now 84, told me in a recent email. ‘I was beginning to think that I had chosen a rather unusual way to write books.’
Len Deighton was already a best-selling author in 1968 when an IBM tech, who repaired his typewriters, suggested he try their new contraption. It was just barely a “word processor” – when the technology was being developed it was labeled Textverarbeitung (“text processing”) by a German IBM executive – but it was pretty impressive, recording keystrokes on magnetic tape and replaying them at a rate of 150 words per minute.*

Not surprisingly, the first to master the MTST was Deighton’s assistant, Ellenor Handley:
In an email, Handley, now 73 and retired, detailed her role in Deighton’s writing process. ‘When I started Len was using an IBM Golfball machine to type his drafts,’ she wrote. ‘He would then hand-write changes on the hard copy which I would then update as pages or chapters as necessary by retyping—time-consuming perhaps but I quite liked it, as I felt a real part of the process and grew with the book.’
And, thus, the first novel written on a word processor, Bomber, about a World War II bombing raid, was born (the technological equal to Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, the first book submitted in typewritten form).

What’s amazing is not just how far the actual technology has come since the MTST was hauled up through Deighton’s window, but how ubiquitous word processing is. I write for a living and for pleasure, so I spend more time in Word than just about any other program (Word Perfect is a tool of the devil!). But even if you don’t write for a living, you use it all the time. The conventions of word processing software have even seeped out into other applications, such that we don’t give much thought any more to changing a font or running a spell check on an Email.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine what the next leap in technology could be that would sweep the word processor from the scene. Maybe some kind of neural link where the writer could simply download the contents of his mind to the page? No typing, no shuffling the mouse about. I might be down to try that, so long as I don’t have to take out a part of my house to fit it in.

* Interesting “small world” note: Deighton later wrote another book about World War II, specifically the Battle of Britain, called Fighter. Said German executive had fought in that battle, for the Luftwaffe, of course.

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