As far back as the 1950s, Ulrich Steinhilper, an executive with one of IBM’s German subsidiaries, had coined the term Textverarbeitung—literally text processing—in an effort to position typewriter products on an equal footing with IBM’s mighty data processing division. When the technology behind the MTST was ready for the marketplace, the label “word processing” was adopted to ease the buyer’s pain on encountering the price tag. Though the notion of one of the units in private hands—let alone for use in popular fiction writing—was not a scenario either Steinhilper or IBM had anticipated, Deighton quickly demonstrated that a working novelist—responsible for producing hundreds of pages, and obsessive about quality and consistency—was perhaps the ultimate exemplar of a power user.
Deighton’s biographer and longtime friend, Edward Milward-Oliver, points out that this early adoption of word processing was consistent with Deighton’s long-standing interest in technology. And he remained a computer pioneer. Mortally afraid of losing text to power outages, Deighton had one of the first uninterrupted power supplies custom-made for the Olivetti word processor he moved on to next. (Today he favors Windows laptops.)
Bomber itself was a harbinger of what we would today call a techno-thriller. “Sometimes,” opines one of his characters, “I think it’s just the machines of Germany fighting the machines of Britain.” When he wrote those words, Deighton could not have known that the German executive who originated the notion of Textverarbeitung had also flown Messerschmitts for the Luftwaffe in the early years of World War II, making ace before being shot down over Kent, captured, and shipped off to a prison camp in Ontario (from which he escaped, several times). Steinhilper himself authored several books about these events after his retirement from IBM, and these are still popular among military aviation buffs. Meanwhile, less than a decade after finishing Bomber with the assistance of the machine that was the first working incarnation of the word processing concept, Deighton would author a classic nonfiction account of the Battle of Britain in which Steinhilper fought. Published in 1977, it was titled simply Fighter.
The story behind Bomber is a kind of techno-thriller in its own right, a story about the emergence of a new kind of text, a technotext, mediated not by computer software but by a sophisticated electro-mechanical device for storing and manipulating written words. Yet just as Bomber broke new ground with its complicated portrayals of characters on both sides of the Channel, so too is the story behind the book one of more complex kinds of relationships. The historical coincidence with Steinhilper is one. Another is the role of Handley, the woman who actually operated the MTST as part of an intense collaborative system for producing, organizing, and revising the prose of the novel. The words of this groundbreaking technotext indisputably belong to its author, Len Deighton. But the hands on the high-tech machine that processed them—a true literary first for English literature—belonged to Ms. Ellenor Handley, she who had once “felt very much a part of the process and grew with the book.”