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December 27, 2011 8:59 AM   Subscribe

Matthew Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, is exploring the literary history of word processing. In a lecture at the New York Public Library entitled Stephen King's Wang, Kirschenbaum asks "When did literary writers begin using word processors? Who were the early adopters? How did the technology change their relation to their craft? Was the computer just a better typewriter, or was it something more?"
posted by Horace Rumpole (41 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

Semi-humorous facts not mentioned in the NYT article:

• Twain, a former typesetter himself, went bankrupt investing in the Paige typesetting machine.
• Clippy is the lone survivor from Microsoft Bob, which was an ill-fated attempt to create a user-friendly interface for Windows 3.1.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:06 AM on December 27, 2011

Dave Barry was an early adopter, and his Lost in Cyberspace (1996) is quite funny.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:08 AM on December 27, 2011

I still miss WordPerfect, you guys!

Not really. Word 2010 is decent if overloaded.

As for "is it just a better typewriter?" I've got two words for you: Copy and Paste.
posted by emjaybee at 9:09 AM on December 27, 2011

I think one of my favorite anecdotes about the seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer is that Gibson banged it out on a typewriter.

Rob Liefeld's Shaft: 7 Inches, Fully Poseable

Yes I know the actual copy reads "7 Inches Tall"
posted by griphus at 9:10 AM on December 27, 2011

I've got two words for you: Copy and Paste. Pen & Parchment.
posted by Fizz at 9:11 AM on December 27, 2011

It's really sad that Word is considered a word processor. "Crappy layout engine" is more accurate. I wonder how much $ publishing houses have to spend to turn that into something they can actually use.
posted by DU at 9:12 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

DU, I ask this without snark. What would you suggest as an alternative for Windows users?
posted by Fizz at 9:15 AM on December 27, 2011

Jerry Pournelle was discussing this earlier...
posted by mikelieman at 9:17 AM on December 27, 2011

And by that I mean, "And he ain't impressed by the 'scholarship':

A professor in Maryland has an article in the New York Times about word processors and novelist. He doesn’t seem to have done any homework at all. He references a 1985 Stephen King preface, and is apparently intent on digging about in the Microsoft archives, but he hasn’t bothered to talk to the people who were actually writing with computers in the 1979-1984 era

posted by mikelieman at 9:20 AM on December 27, 2011

I don't know Windows software that well, but in general I would do the plainest plain text you can find. Notepad, if it supported good keybindings. There must be a good text editor for Windows somewhere. Can't emacs run natively there?

Unless you are doing something academic, you don't need to be able to make tables and so forth. And if you are using italics and bold, you are probably riting It rong. Use your words, not your text decorations.
posted by DU at 9:21 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

As far as typewriters go its been discussed much much earlier as well.

Gramophone, Film, Typewriter by Friedrich Kittler makes a serious contribution and is still a great read, regarding Nietzsche, insanity, typing, etc.

Checking out Kittler's wikipedia article just informed me that he died a few months ago, with fittingly, last words of "Alle Apparate auschalten", which translates, referring to the machines which were keeping him alive, as "switch off all apparatuses".

His was effective scholarship. Hopefully mikelieman's concerns are addressed and the next generation can do even better.
posted by wjzeng at 9:24 AM on December 27, 2011

Pratchett was an early adaptor and I remember him likening word processed documents as a huge worm. The analogy worked when I read it, but i'm missing some salient point to his metaphor. Anyway, he basically said it was easy to flit backwards and forwards through the text adding and changing details.

Not sure everyone got it straight away but the ability to edit on the fly was a great boon. No more need for a fifth draft when you can fix things up as you write them.
posted by seanyboy at 9:26 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'll never forget my parent's Smith Corona word processing typewriter. It could display up to two lines!

Not sure how it changed my eighth grade writing, but it was way cooler than our typewriter.
posted by drezdn at 9:30 AM on December 27, 2011

Anyone looking for a no-nonsense word processor/alternative to Word. I just discovered this: q10.
posted by Fizz at 9:36 AM on December 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

@mikilieman: Matt Kirschenbaum's been linked to the Pournelle rant, and says that "yes, he's definitely high on my list of people to talk to." As for the NYTimes piece, it may not be the best advertisement for Kirschenbaum's scholarship: to get a better sense of his subtleties as a scholar, his 2008 book Mechanisms is worth a look. Don't just accept Pournelle's word that he's simply some dilettante who "hasn't done his homework."
posted by Sonny Jim at 9:47 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

My first word processor was an Amstrad PCW8256, in 1985.

Not entirely coincidentally, my first commercial sale was the first story I wrote on my PCW.

Revise revise revise!
posted by cstross at 9:47 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't just accept Pournelle's word that he's simply some dilettante who "hasn't done his homework."

Oh, most assuredly I do not just accept Pournelle's word on this. In fact, half of what I keep up with Pournelle for is the "Grr... Get off my lawn!" curmudgeonly goodness you've seen.
posted by mikelieman at 9:57 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Noobs. My first word processor was IBM/ATS, a line editor for use on Selectric printing terminals connected to an IBM/360. That was probably around 1972.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:04 AM on December 27, 2011

I recall from Isaac Asimov's autobiography (part 1) In Memory Yet Green, the first time Dr A's typewriter broke down and Asimov nearly freaking out from keyboard withdrawal. (IIRC, he then went out and bought three new typewriters.)

I currently use Scrivener to organize my writing and, yeah, the right software makes a big difference.
posted by SPrintF at 10:41 AM on December 27, 2011

Stephen King's Wang

I see what you did there!
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:58 AM on December 27, 2011

I'm a huge fan of Ulysses for writing. Is Scrivener any better?

Also, for what it's worth, I remember the *last* time I saw a standalone word processor in use - freshman year of college, Spring 2001. Actually sort of looked like a cool machine, especially since there are no distractions, like access to MetaFilter.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:04 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I miss LocoScript. Still think the copy/paste facilities were better than in Word.
posted by paduasoy at 11:09 AM on December 27, 2011

Sticherbeast: Scrivener is f'ing awesome. (I have not used Ulysses.) Now that my Macbook is dead, I really need to get a copy of the Windows version to use on our other computer. I wrote my one completed NaNoWriMo work with Scrivener on the Macbook and really enjoyed the experience.
posted by epersonae at 11:57 AM on December 27, 2011

Neal Stephenson admitted at a signing that writing with a fountain pen (which at one point he was an adamant user) and a computer was "basically the same shit."
posted by stratastar at 11:59 AM on December 27, 2011

No one can tell me that the title "Stephen King's Wang" wasn't chosen deliberately.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:08 PM on December 27, 2011

Does anybody else remember Scribe? I wrote my term papers with it in college in the early 1980s. I mostly remember it because when html came out the first thing I thought was "oh it's just like that scribe thing I used in college."
posted by interplanetjanet at 12:14 PM on December 27, 2011

I've got two words for you: Copy and Paste.

Man, I remember doing that physically, with book chapters that had been typed up in WordStar.
posted by bardophile at 12:29 PM on December 27, 2011

I had a word processor for my C64 probably around '85 or '86. It ran on a two sided floppy with the processor on one side and the spell check on the other. Since I only had one floppy drive, I had to pull the application disk out and put a blank disk in to save what I was working on and since the Commodore had such a flakey power supply/connector, you had to save often. I had the thing rigged up to a hand-me-down daisy wheel printer that was so freaking loud that I had to build a Styrofoam surround for it to keep my housemates from killing me when I was printing out a long paper. A ten page paper took something like twenty minutes to print.
posted by octothorpe at 1:23 PM on December 27, 2011

« Some days ago a correspondent sent in an old typewritten sheet, faded by age, containing the following letter over the signature of Mark Twain:

Hartford, March 10, 1875. Please do not use my name in any way. Please do not even divulge that fact that I own a machine. I have entirely stopped using the typewriter, for the reason that I never could write a letter with it to anybody without receiving a request by return mail that I would not only describe the machine, but state what progress I had made in the use of it, etc., etc. I don’t like to write letters, and so I don’t want people to know I own this curiosity -breeding little joker. »

...continues at: Mark Twain on the typewriter
posted by procrastinator at 2:09 PM on December 27, 2011

Ah, Locoscript. As a Commodore man like Octothorpe, Locoscript was what the new computer lab used to teach typing on a bunch of CP/M powered Amstrad machines. I loved the C64 port of Tasword, which could fit an 80 column display on my portable TV. It achieved this by using an 8 high by 4 wide pixel grid for each character - including spaces. Now I'm older, I understand why this caused my parents consternation.

After moving to the Amiga, I was dragged into using Protext, another Amstrad port. Seemed all the trade magazines and fanzine publishers swore by it and no-one would take articles written with anything else. It always felt odd that font changes were marked up with visible characters, rather than simply italicising or emboldening the font rendering on a bitmap-based GUI - which even the shipped-on-launch Textcraft could handle.

I briefly played with Excellence, another Amiga wordprocessor that had an incredible feature - inbuilt scripting, using ARexx. One of the scripts that shipped with it would pick random words out of a document and substitute words from the thesaurus it featured, meaning people with electronic encyclopaedias could forge homework quickly. Of course, no-one could afford a CD Rom, let alone thesaurus in those days; but the ability to do this, through simple scripting, blew me away at the time. The temptation to play with the tool was too much for me; rather than write, you could code to enhance your writing and restructure your writing environment as you saw fit.

Now we're full circle, with distraction-free tools such as Byword simulating those early wordprocessor, and markup techniques (like Markdown) looking an awful lot like those 8 bit programmes.

Back on topic, I found Jay David Bolter's Writing Space fascinating a few years back, and I also think we'll see a comeback for old-school big-H Hypertext at some stage - not this shaky HTTP business, but solidly interconnected and versioned hypertext. There also needs to be new tools to work with electronic text to get away from the accelerated-parchment model we're still using.

Word is actually quite lovely to use, as long as you hold to one rule: USE THE STYLE SYSTEM. DO NOT FIGHT WITH LAYOUT IN WORD.

I suppose I should read the links now.
posted by davemee at 2:30 PM on December 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

There is a bit in Isaac Asmiov's autobio where he discusses his acquisition and use of a word processor. Unfortunately I don't have the book around, and I can't find it reproduced online, but he was a typewriter holdout well into the mid-80s, IIRC. He finally switched over to a WP only when some company sent him one for free, and it happened to be around at the same time that his typewriter broke, and thus he was forced to use it out of desperation, or something like that.

The part I remember most vividly was his description of using the WP: he never bothered to learn how to move between pages, so he would write each page, then move on to the next one, and once he moved on was unable to go back and edit until he printed off the manuscript. But even with this (ridiculous, trivially solvable) limitation, it was enough of a step up from using a typewriter that he was an instant convert.

Word processing is one of those things that people who never had to write a multi-page, multi-draft paper on a typewriter just don't appreciate. And being able to edit your writing as you write it, rather than pounding out a draft and then going back and editing it as a distinct operation, changes the process of writing tremendously. It's definitely a topic worth studying, and I hope someone puts some real effort into it while there are still lots of people around who spent significant amounts of time doing things The Hard Way.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:40 PM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

As a computer programmer, I frequently have the experience that I am unaware of the fact that I'm using a keyboard, monitor, and sometimes a mouse while I'm deep in concentration on the task at hand. I am so familiar with using the devices—and the way they work conforms so well to my unconscious model of them—that they simply vanish. At least until something goes wrong.

I regret a little bit that I never had the same experience of the tool's disappearance while using a typewriter.

I think that when I was younger it must have happened when writing with pen or pencil, but I can't recall it (how do you determine whether you remember *not* noticing something?) and it's certainly not the case anymore when I'm called upon to put my chicken-scratches on paper.

And if there's one problem with my cellphone it's that it also never (or rarely) lets me forget that I'm trying to use it.

The ability of the seasoned user to forget he's even using the tool has got to be one of the signs that separates a great tool from a merely useful one.
posted by jepler at 4:06 PM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I call you guys noobs, I mean it. You are all in the entirely wrong decade when it comes to early word processors. The eighties? Seriously? Hell, there were articles like this reminiscence by James Fallows from 1982 that already long for the good old days of pre-CP/M systems like the SOL-20 and Electric Pencil. And that article is like 20 years old now. Think of it this way: WordStar (circa 1978) was an imitation of Electric Pencil (circa 1976), which was basically the first WP software that was sold as software rather than built into a hardware system.

Even that article by Pournelle labels him as a noob. He declares the early word processor users are from like 1979, and were using Wang dedicated word processors. Those were relatively new machines, even the 70s were the wrong decade. IBM introduced the Mag Tape Selectrics in 1964. I remember using one, it seemed like goddam magic. Olivetti also had a magnetic card WP called the Audit 5 around 1965. It was better than a WP, it had computing functions too, it was kind of a super duper tabulating calculator with word processing attached. I remember my Dad showing me ads for the Olivetti A5, he lusted after one as a replacement for his antiquated 1950s Burroughs Sensimatic accounting machine. Oh I loved that old Sensimatic.

And still you're in the wrong decade, by like fifty years. Amazing machines like the Underwood Automatic Typewriter and the Hooven Automatic Typewriter were introduced in 1911, they were totally mechanical and stored text on something akin to a player piano roll. Later developments in paper tape storage resulted in machines like the Friden Flex-o-writer in the late 1930s and 40s.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:19 PM on December 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

Oh, I'd forgotten Protext - thanks, Davemee.
posted by paduasoy at 3:44 AM on December 28, 2011

Ulysses (Mac only, sorry) is my favorite writing program ever! Scrivener is a very close second.
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:11 AM on December 28, 2011

Easyscript on the Commodore 64 which was, to be honest, about as good a word processor as you'd expect from Commodore. All the cool kids used Paperclip, apparently, but I had what I had. I printed papers on a Commodore-rebranded C.Itoh printer, sold elsewhere as the (I kid you not) Gorilla Banana, on tractor-feed paper. That thing was so screechingly loud and slow that I didn't dare print anything after bedtime because it would wake up the entire house, even if I wrapped it up in a blanket to deaden the noise. Imagine the sound of a sheet of hardwood going through a planer and you've got the right idea, only louder.

On the flip side, Easyscript had an easter egg in that it would play Pomp and Circumstance if you tickled it the right way. I used to do that to celebrate the end of yet another pointless (it seemed) assignment.

I still like to conceptualized and (very) rough draft by hand, though, and take to the computer only when I'm pretty sure what I'm going to write.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 12:49 PM on December 28, 2011

Hey, at least you could afford a copy of Easyscript. The poor kids had to save up for an issue of Compute! (or was it in Compute!'s Gazette?) with the MLX listing for SpeedScript and then key it in before they could type in school papers.

Ah, it was Compute!. Thrill to the MLX listing, tens of thousands of digits to key in before you could use the software.
posted by jepler at 1:41 PM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

charlie don't surf: You're correct about the evolution of the underlying technology, but I think Pournelle and others have an argument for picking the late 70s as the dawn of the word processing age, since that's about the time when the technology began to become affordable.

The magtape (MT/ST) and unit-record (MC/ST) Selectrics are amazing, but were eye-wateringly expensive. Hell, Selectrics in general, even just the plain-jane typewriter models, were expensive throughout much of the time that they were in production; far more so than desktop computers are today. The earlier generation of punchtape or card machines (e.g. the Flexowriter) were even more costly. There's a reason that most people aren't aware of them today — there just weren't that many.

Systems like the Flexowriter and the MC/ST were clever as hell, but they were too expensive, given their inherent complexity (plus labor/capital tradeoffs at the time), to end up on the desks of most writers in the way that electronic word processors eventually would a few decades later. Plus, they don't really offer a convenient editing function, and I think that's pretty much the killer feature of the word processor — at least, for an individual user who isn't churning off thousands of form letters or something. Also, it's hard to pinpoint any significant social changes as a result of the papertape/punchcard/magtape typewriter systems; inexpensive word processors arguably killed the "typing pool".

All in all I can't get too worked up if people talk about "early word processing" in the 70s or 80s, since for many people that was exactly when it occurred.

Somewhat related: I'm surprised nobody has linked to "A Brief History of Word Processing" by Brian Kunde; it's a quick read and I think we can agree he's not too much of a noob — he starts his timeline in 1867 (it's written in 1986).
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:10 AM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well I will disagree about WP not causing "significant social changes" at an earlier time than ~1979, but I'll come at it from a different angle perhaps.

The Selectric MC/ST systems were the first affordable WP systems, because in those days, most WP tasks were handled by a stenographer's pool, with secretaries taking dictation, or recordings on dictaphones from an entire company staff being pooled together for professional typists for production on paper. For a brief time, professional stenographers and typists accumulated power within corporations because they could outperform any other workers with the support of advanced WP machines. One pro in the typing pool could do the work of a dozen or more secretaries with individual typewriters on their desks. So replacing a dozen typewriters with one Selectric MC/ST made economic sense.

This trend did continue somewhat through the early age of general purpose microcomputers with WP software. I still remember working with the stenographers at some of the movie studios who used dedicated WP systems like IBM Displaywriters. For a time, the steno pool's advancements outpaced the rest of the world. A real pro typist was extremely productive. We used to joke that a pro stenographer that could type 80 WPM could now erase 800 WPM.

But that's not really where I'm going with this. There was one area where WP had an enormous, societal level impact. I already alluded to it before, when I mentioned using IBM/ATS on an IBM/360 timeshare system. Word processing revolutionized computer programming. When I first started programming, we wrote programs on paper coding forms and had to type each line of code onto punched cards. Languages like FORTRAN were optimized for punched card formats. If you were lucky enough to have a big budget, you'd submit your coding forms to the keypunch pool and trained typists would turn your handwritten forms into punch card decks.

It was monstrously difficult to edit and manage large programs as a whole, since edits were made on a punched card and had to be manually inserted in the right place in the card deck. You'll notice on that Fortran coding form that columns 73-90 are marked "Identification Sequence." Sometimes on long programs, we'd write a sequential incremented numbers (e.g. 100, 200, 300) in those columns, not as line numbers but to give us a position to insert new cards in sequence between those numbers. Or if you were clever, you'd run the deck through a mechanical card sorter and let it insert the new cards in the right place.

But all that changed when simple line editors, or even full screen editors were created. I'm not sure when these editors became widely adopted, but I first saw IBM/ATS in about 1972. The use of keypunch machines started to drop as more people edited code online, either on printing terminals or CRT displays. Programmer productivity exploded, since you could maintain huge programs and execute changes instantly. IMHO this is what really lead to the "Information Age" of computer technology we see today. Programmers were able to maintain larger software systems, which lead to more complex operating systems like Unix that were written in higher level languages instead of assembly language, and the replacement of queued programs on punchcard decks to online timeshare systems that were interactive.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:21 AM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm one of those guys who spent hours keying in the MLS code for Speedscript on my C64. I also remember being hugely disappointed when I discovered Easyscript didn't wordwrap. Even Speedscript wordwrapped!
posted by lhauser at 2:37 PM on December 30, 2011

NYT followup on the "who was first?" question.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:40 AM on January 10, 2012

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