Dusting Off the Typewriter

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Thursday, 15 May 2014 10:00 AM

By Richard Grigonis

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George Raymond Richard Martin, sometimes known simply as GRRM, is the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning fantasy writer who gave us a series of epic fantasy novels (“A Song of Ice and Fire”) that was adapted by HBO into the “Game of Thrones” TV series.
 
Martin literally made headlines recently when he revealed to late-night talk-show host Conan O'Brien how he writes his weighty tomes using a computer equipped with pre-Windows DOS, running the 1980s word processing program WordStar 4.0.
 
That won’t sound strange to many writers, whose creative processes are often “married” to whatever writing technology they started out with, be it fountain pens and long legal pads, manual typewriters, electric typewriters, electronic memory typewriters, Radio Shack Model II computers with the Trisdos operating system, Microsoft DOS computers, Macs, or what-not.
 
Hemingway, for example, started out with a Corona 3 typewriter (it’s still at his old place in Cuba), moved on to an Underwood (the most popular brand of the 1920s) then migrated over to several machines made by Royal, the most popular brand of the 1950s (at one point he owned a Royal Arrow, also favored by Richard Wright). He ended up with a Swedish Halda portable model P.
 
In my case, the mention of WordStar triggered a flood of memories. Way back around 1970 I read in a magazine of IBM’s prototype for an elaborate secretarial word processing station, the harbinger of the word processing systems of the 1970s and 80s.
 
Indeed, IBM had introduced word processing with their Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter, or MT/ST, of 1964. “Word processing” by the way, is a translation of German IBM engineer Ulrich Steinhilper’s 1950s term for typing and office activities, “textverabeitung.”
 
In any case, I drooled at the 1970s IBM console with its giant TV tube, keyboard, and comfy chair that had music-emanating speakers built into a wrap-around headrest. As one who enjoyed writing, I could hardly wait for such a device, but that particular model was projected to cost tens of thousands of dollars. Moreover, to my knowledge, the product never launched.
 
The first actual “word processing system” I encountered was in 1979 while temping at the Coopers & Lybrand accounting firm in New York. It was a Vydec made by Compucorp, which later became part of Exxon Office Systems.
 
Amazingly, the early Vydecs had no microprocessor, but were powered by SN7400-series digital logic integrated circuits made by Texas Instruments. They also produced a lot of heat that cooked the operator’s lap and legs, but for braving such technology the operator was paid a then-astounding $20 an hour, the inflation-adjusted equivalent of about $63 in 2013 dollars.
 
A few months later I encountered another dedicated word processing device at the Children’s Television Workshop, the Wordstream by MAI Basic/Four Corporation. MAI soon gave up on Wordstream in 1980, and ours was swapped out for a Wang VS16 and then a Wang VS100 supermini computer with a 32-bit processor.
 
Wang Laboratories originally had separate data and word processing systems, but the legend goes that one day in the 1970s a customer refused to make a major purchase of Wang equipment unless he could buy a system incorporating both sets of features. Wang obliged with a sort of “hardware mashup” to achieve what at the time was an impressive feat.
 
Around this time, filmmaker and electronics enthusiast Michael Shrayer had written the first word processing program for a microcomputer: Electric Pencil for the Altair 8800, which he debuted in December 1976. Electric Pencil could run in a mere 8 kilobytes of memory on an Intel 8080 or Zilog Z-80 processor. Shrayer produced 78 versions of the program for practically every micro of the era, even the 1983 IBM PC.
 
But Shrayer became bored with programming and he sold out his business interests. Imitators appeared, such as WordStar and Magic Wand for the IBM PC, which gave way to Multimate, which in turn was usurped by Word Perfect, surely the greatest DOS text editor of them all.
 
My first personal WP program was Letter Perfect (early 1980s), running on an Atari 800 with 48 kilobytes of memory and a 150K floppy disk drive. My TV was the monitor, which displayed 40 character-wide lines. The Atari could hold 17 and a half pages of text at a time; you could store the sections on disk and chain them together in software to print them out as a single large document using a Panasonic dot matrix printer.
 
Yours Truly, by the way, has the distinction of being the first (and perhaps only) person to translate an artificial intelligence program to run on a word processor. My version of Joseph Weizenbuam’s ELIZA, a primitive conversational program, ran in the Wang VS word processing’s “Decision Processing” language, and later in the macro language of Word Perfect for DOS.
 
Richard Grigonis is an internationally known technology editor and writer. He was executive editor of Technology Management Corporation’s IP Communications Group of magazines from 2006 to 2009. The author of five books on computers and telecom, including the highly influential Computer Telephony Encyclopedia (2000), he was the chief technical editor of Harry Newton's Computer Telephony magazine (later retitled Communications Convergence after its acquisition by Miller Freeman/CMP Media) from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. Read more reports from Richard Grigonis — Click Here Now.
 
 
 

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