"A Rather Unusual Way to Write Books": The First Literary Work Produced With a Word Processor

By Bulent Yusuf on at

An Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland has identified the first literary work to be written with a word processor, instead of a typewriter. The book is Bomber, by Len Deighton, a World War II thriller published to critical acclaim in 1970. What follows is a magnificent tale which sees several fellow authors' names being put forward for this accolade, before Deighton himself was fingered.

The word processor used was an IBM MT72, marketed in the US as the IBM MT/ST (Magnetic Tape / Selectric Typewriter), a 90kg behemoth that was hoisted with a crane through a window into Deighton’s house.

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum has been researching the crossover between computing and literature for a book entitled Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, and in the process has built up a sizeable collection of vintage word processing machines. He’s not so much interested in the impact that word processing had made on the physical act of writing, but in identifying when and how it first came to be used by novelists.

“The story of writing in the digital age is every bit as messy as the ink-stained rags that would have littered Gutenberg’s print shop or the hot molten lead of the Linotype machine,” Kirschenbaum said in a lecture to the New York Public Library in 2011. “Who were the early adopters, the first mainstream authors to trade in their typewriters for WordStar and WordPerfect?”

There are quite a few candidates for this accolade. Legend has it that the author of Dune, Frank Herbert, submitted work to his publisher in the late 1970s on 8-inch floppy disks, and contemporaries like Larry Niven and Michael Crichton were using word processors by this time too. Later, Tom Clancy wrote his 1984 thriller The Hunt for Red October on an Apple IIe using WordStar software, whilst former US President Jimmy Carter experienced a minor panic in 1981, when he accidentally deleted several pages of his memoir by hitting the wrong keys on his Lanier word processor.

But the first among equals is Len Deighton, who in 1968 was knee-deep in the research and composition of his ambitious new novel, Bomber. Set during World War II, it follows an RAF bombing raid over the course of a single night in 1943, told through the perspective of multiple characters; British and German, combatant and civilian. There were endless rewrites and revisions -- handled by Deighton and his personal assistant, Ellenor Handley -- but the scale of the project was proving too much for conventional typewriters.

Deighton by this point was well-established in London’s literary scene. He wrote bestselling spy thriller The Ipcress File in 1962, which became an equally successful film in 1965 starring Michael Caine. At the same time, he wrote and drew a cookery column for The Observer newspaper (he taught Caine how to cook an omelette for a scene in The Ipcress File), and he was travel editor for Playboy magazine. In effect, his talent and range of interests made him the quintessential “early-adopter,” long before the phrase had ever been coined.

There followed a fortuitous discussion with the IBM technician who serviced Deighton’s typewriters. IBM had installed these new-fangled word processing machines in the new, ultra-modern Shell Centre on the South Bank of the Thames. Perhaps he could make use of one? (Coincidentally, a young Jim Henson -- before finding his groove with The Muppets -- had recently made a corporate video advertising their virtues, called “Paperwork Explosion”.)

Several weeks later, a top-of-the-range IBM MT72 was delivered to Deighton’s home, but it was too big to fit through the door. The technicians had to remove a window on the upper floor to have it hoisted inside. “Standing in the leafy square in which I lived, watching all this activity, I had a moment of doubt,” the author, now 84, told Kirschenbaum via email. “I was beginning to think that I had chosen a rather unusual way to write books.”

The actual workings of the MT72 were a crude mish-mash of conventional typewriter and computer, and worked very much like a keystroke recorder; at the same moment that a character was typed onto a page, the keystroke was recorded as data onto magnetic tape. There was no screen to work with, but backspacing to correct an error on the page also resulted in the data being corrected on the tape. A hard copy without any corrections could then be printed off. This was the basic functionality, but other features Deighton and Handley made extensive use of included searching, inserting additional text, sentence spacing, line-lengths, hyphenated words, merging, and flagging up passages in the text.

"I am a slow worker so that each book takes well over a year—some took several years—and I had always 'constructed' my books rather than written them”, Deighton explained to Kirschenbaum. “Until the IBM machine arrived I used scissors and paste to add paras, dump pages and rearrange sections of material. Having been trained as an illustrator I saw no reason to work from start to finish. I reasoned that a painting is not started in the top left hand corner and finished in the bottom right corner: why should a book be put together in a straight line?"

Bomber was finally published in 1970 and greeted with widespread acclaim, with Anthony Burgess and Kingsley Amis among its fans, and it's often cited as one of the great works of fiction about World War II. In his afterword to the first edition, Deighton gave due credit to IBM’s technological marvel: “This is perhaps the first book to be entirely recorded on magnetic tape.”

Kirschenbaum believes it goes even further than that, as he elaborated to Giz UK over email: "The significance of Deighton is that he wrote a novel on the first product that was actually called a 'word processor.'" IBM doesn't know of any other private individual wanting an MT72 before Deighton, which makes Kirschenbaum reasonably confident that he was the first author to use this particular machine.

But the quest doesn't end there. While the MT72 had many ideas and concepts that we would recognise today as a word processor, it wasn't a piece of software; it was a machine. "So," muses Kirschenbaum, "the question becomes, who was the first author to write with a computer word processor as we would recognise it?" Two possibilities he has identified are John Hersey, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist who is reported to have worked on a mainframe system at Yale in the early 1970s, and sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle, whose first home computer acquired in 1976 is now at the Smithsonian museum in Washington DC.

In the decades since, whilst word processing has since become ubiquitous, only a handful of literary works have used it for anything other than, well, writing. Stephen King’s short story Word Processor of the Gods appeared in 1983, and is the first example of it being part of the plot; characters are rubbed out of existence when their names are deleted from a word processed document. And in 1990, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling would gleefully cut-and-paste Victorian texts into their manuscript for The Difference Engine, rewriting them beyond all recognition, and popularised the steampunk subgenre in the process.

Track Changes will be published next year by Harvard University Press. Incidentally, Kirschenbaum has a vintage model of the IBM MT/ST, and is currently attempting to restore it to working order.

Image Credit: Get Addicted To

This week, we're celebrating unsung heroes and the people who dared to dream big, with The Dreamers. Bookmark this page for all related stories, or contact us here with tips.