This Was the First Word Processor Ever Used By a Novelist. It Weighed 200 Pounds and Had to Be…

Reading between the lines.
March 1 2013 10:30 AM

The Book-Writing Machine

What was the first novel ever written on a word processor?

Len Deighton and his IBM word processor, London, 1968.
Len Deighton and his IBM word processor, London, 1968.

Courtesy of Adrian Flowers

Would best-selling novelist Len Deighton care to take a walk? It was 1968, and the IBM technician who serviced Deighton’s typewriters had just heard from Deighton’s personal assistant, Ms. Ellenor Handley, that she had been retyping chapter drafts for his book in progress dozens of times over. IBM had a machine that could help, the technician mentioned. They were being used in the new ultramodern Shell Centre on the south bank of the Thames, not far from his Merrick Square home.

A few weeks later, Deighton stood outside his Georgian terrace home and watched as workers removed a window so that a 200-pound unit could be hoisted inside with a crane. The machine was IBM’s MTST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter), sold in the European market as the MT72. “Standing in the leafy square in which I lived, watching all this activity, I had a moment of doubt,” the author, now 84, told me in a recent email. “I was beginning to think that I had chosen a rather unusual way to write books.”

Today, of course, many—surely most—fiction writers work with computers, laptops, and word processors just like the rest of us. Literary scholarship generally credits Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi with being the first manuscript submitted to a publisher in typewritten form. Would it be possible, I wondered when I began my research into the literary history of word processing a year and a half ago, to locate a corresponding first for the digital age? The answer turns out to be the book Deighton published in 1970 with the aid of the MTST: a curiously apropos novel about World War II, titled Bomber.

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Deighton at the time was something of a sensation, a fixture in Swinging London whose 1962 espionage thriller, The Ipcress File, became a worldwide bestseller.   The film of Ipcress launched Michael Caine’s international career. Writing about espionage gave Deighton a certain profile, one he also enjoyed as a roving travel editor for Playboy. (Spies, declared Conrad Knickerbocker in 1965 in Life were “hip, committed, engagé and morally relevant.”) But Bomber was to be a darker, more serious, and altogether more ambitious book, its origins lying in Deighton’s own childhood in London during the Blitz and his experiences of photo-reconnaissance in the Royal Air Force just after the conclusion of the war.

Bomber follows the course of a single raid by the RAF (taking place on June 31, 1943) through the eyes of dozens of different characters—British and German, combatants and civilians, in the air and on the ground alike. Deighton prepared for the writing with thousands of hours of research, including site visits to the locations depicted in the book, stints in the military archives, scores of interviews, and a cross-Channel flight in a restored German Heinkel III. He kept meticulous notes, all of them color-coded and cross-referenced. Meanwhile, the walls of his London home were papered with maps and weather charts of Europe, which he used to storyboard the unfolding action, placing tape and tags to mark the positions of different aircraft over the course of the book in order to ensure narrative continuity—an uncanny reminder of the big-board displays used by wartime air controllers to maintain situational awareness during the actual bombing raids.

Like many other commercially successful novelists before and since, Deighton could not afford to indulge a solitary muse. Ellenor Handley had worked with him in his south London home since 1966. In an email, Handley, now 73 and retired, detailed her role in Deighton’s writing process.  “When I started Len was using an IBM Golfball machine to type his drafts,” she wrote.  “He would then hand-write changes on the hard copy which I would then update as pages or chapters as necessary by retyping—time-consuming perhaps but I quite liked it, as I felt a real part of the process and grew with the book.” When the MTST arrived at Merrick Square, the author and his assistant recall, it was Ms. Handley who mastered it.

Like many early technologies, the MTST began as a hybrid creation, a kind of mechanical centaur consisting of two separate devices fused to work in conjunction with one another. At the same instant a character was imprinted on the page from the Selectric’s typing mechanism, that keystroke was also recorded as data on a magnetic tape cartridge. There was no screen, but backspacing to correct an error on the page also resulted in the data being corrected on the tape. Unblemished hard copy could then be produced with the push of a button, at the rate of 150 wpm. What’s more, the printing process could be halted while in “playback” mode to allow for the insertion of additional text; sentence spacing, line-lengths, even hyphenated words were all adjusted automatically as revisions were introduced. In the States, the MTST retailed for $10,000; Deighton leased his as a hedge against its eventual obsolescence. Because he had opted for the most expensive of the four models, it had an additional tape storage reel (much like the dual floppy disk drives that would begin accompanying personal computers a decade or so later). The operator could retain two different bodies of text at the ready “on-line,” and even blend them with one another in the course of producing finished pages—what we would today call a mail merge. For a project such as Bomber, which involved continuous cross-referencing between the different narrative episodes, this was to prove a particular advantage. Ms. Handley was also able to take advantage of a feature that allowed special magnetic marker codes to be recorded on the tape, thus enabling near-instant access to any passage so flagged; this was crucial to ensuring consistency in the technical portions of the manuscript.

“One might almost think the word processor (as it was eventually named) was built to my requirements,” Deighton told me:

"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. Until the IBM machine arrived I used scissors and paste (actually Copydex one of those milk glues) 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 greeted with widespread acclaim upon its publication in 1970. Today it is regarded in the U.K. as one of the great works of fiction about World War II, praised by Anthony Burgess and Kingsley Amis. But it also has another claim on literary history. “This perhaps the first book to be entirely recorded on magnetic tape,” Deighton noted in his afterword to the original edition. Though he didn’t use the term himself at the time, it was also the first published novel to be written with a product explicitly brought to market as a “word processor.” But what did that mean years ahead of the advent of the first office terminals and personal computers?

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.”

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