Wednesday 4 May 2016

The technology of writing ...

Where's the USB port?
Technology has been something that's featured in many books written by Len Deighton, not least of course the computer 'brain' that was at the heart of General Widwinter's grand scheme to invade the USSR in Billion Dollar Brain.

While that book was written on a contemporary type-writer, Deighton's 1970 novel Bomber was the first novel fully written on the, then, new-fangled word-processor. This fact is confirmed in a new book by Matthew Kirschenbaum, Track Change: A Literary History of Word Processing. This book has just been released and a nice review can be found here on the New Republic website.

The author confirms that Bomber claims the title of first word-processed book, written by Deighton on an IBM MT/ST machine so large that he had to have the windows taken out of his south London home to get the machine into his office - compare that now of course with the size of the average tablet computer! The picture to the right shows said machine!


  1. Some one who has been using computers since the days of the massive IBM 360 in the US(the laptops we use today have massive processing power compared to this big monster which had to be housed in a large building specially designed with cool air conditioning facilities) , it is my opinion that writing using a word processor those days may sound impressive, but not sure how it would have helped in the thought process. For example, Robert Ludlum whose all books were no1, best sellers, much later , wrote in long hand using a stack of sharpened pencils on yellow writing pads ( this was the way that Americans wrote their exams in top universities there; it was a common sight to see pencil sharpners fixed to the walls in a lecture rooms there), and faxed them to his publisher. Frederick Forsyth was reported to have written his best sellers too in long hand-that was too much later .

  2. Punched paper tape and an IBM 'golfball typewriter. The typewriter itself was a mechanical marvel and the digital computer I worked on around this time used such a machine as an input and output device.

    A nice picture making it clear that Len was a bit of a gadget freak. I see also what I'm guessing is a 16mm movie camera. I wonder if he still is keen on gadgets. If he is there's never been a better time.

    This excellent article, by Mathem Kischenbaum, which I think you've referenced previously, is worth a look for anyone who can't wait for his book.

  3. In mid-1960s there were no computer which was capable of what Deighton wrote in that novel, "Billion Dollar Brain". Networking computers –ARPA Net, the predecessor of the Internet was still in its infancy and hence many computers could not be networked easily to form a supercomputer cluster as the film depicted.
    That said, in 1970 and in that decade, there was only editing software available which was mainly used for editing computer program codes, and the effort was hugely cumbersome. The IBM MT/ST was not fully electronic, used mechanical parts and tape drives as solid state memories, i.e. silicon chips were being researched and came into use first in calculators-mid19070s. I used this machine in USA to prepare research reports. It was not easy to use as the so called word processing was nothing but editing software mentioned above. I often preferred the advanced versions of electronic typewriters. I wondered whether this machine was worth the trouble. Until Mid-1980s and the advent of IBM PCs, word processing was a cumbersome chore.
    Those days in USA, we used yellow pads and HB pencils for draft work, even as computer scientists.. Robert Ludlum a bit later , wrote all his novels-all of them were number 1 best sellers, using the yellow pad and a box of HB pencils and in long hand! He used to fax them to his agent! His books were very thick, and his effort must have been formidable. Not surprised at all, as in USA in those days, even in university examinations, yellow pads and pencils were universally used as US universities do not distribute printed booklets, and students brought their own yellow pads and boxes of HB pencils! Even today, no US university distributes printed booklets.

    1. Just to add to the above.
      IBM was a massive company in 1970s-there were no Microsoft and Apple then in 1970s, and no mobile phones either, and the company was so dominant at that time globally, having produced the mighty IBM 360 mainframe computer and having the policy of “job for life” for its worker, one wonders how come we got this IBM MT/ST, a very rickety cumbersome bundle for the simple job of word processing.
      The reasons were many, but 2 stand out: national and technological. The national: The Federal Government in the US has always been the massive funders of technological research in companies, and universities, even though they often like to pontificate to us, outside the US, that it should be the territory for private companies! Their Federal Budget has always been crafted for many years with hidden funding and subsidies Boeing has been an example of a beneficiary of this funding, but they will all deny this! The major part of the budget was diverted then to meet the Vietnam War effort. The US was in a state of shock and depression ,due to the failure of the Vietnam War with thousands of conscripted American soldiers, dying in the swamps of Vietnam. Some of them were young top grade electronic engineers ( like one of my classmates) picked up through social security number lottery, then the way to call them to report for the training to get battle ready. The euphoria felt in late 1960s when the first man landed on the Moon from the US was fast fading, because of the Vietnam War going very wrong. Added to this was President Nixon’s despicable machinations in covering up his part in the Watergate break in and his attention was to escape any responsibility in this crime . Technological: .The computer storage then was mainly tape drives, a mechanical contraption not fit for the nimble job of word processing. The semiconductor memories were just taking shape with minor capacities of storage- these were at best thought to be fit for calculators. We knew that these memory chips have massive potential, and the final step needed to was not taken because of the focus of the Federal Government budget on the war effort. There was not much enthusiasm in industry for innovations, where the products were not directly linked to the massive military effort. IBM , in its famed labs, was not able to do much in terms of discovering new products. Even the famed ARPA Net, which was the forerunner of the Internet in 1980s, was a pure research network linking a few US universities would not move further.
      The prevailing national climate then was that depressing. No wonder that best TV series were created to lighten up the national mood: Happy Days, HawaiiFive-O, Bob Newhart Show, Mary Tyler Moore, Columbo, The Rockford Files etc.. we used to watch them to get away from the bad news arriving each day on the TV. There were only 3 major national TV channels. Coming out of the shadows of the War and the Nixon Period, it was noticeable how the national mood improved in 1980s, and how the industry was able to innovate fast with the strong help from the Federal Government.


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