Tuesday Reads: A Trip Down Memory LanePosted: March 5, 2013
I’m going to do something a little different this morning, so I hope you’ll indulge me.
Over the weekend I ran across a story at Slate by Matthew Kirschenbaum that brought back a rush of old memories: The Book-Writing Machine: What was the first novel ever written on a word processor?
The story is about thriller writer Len Deighton, who in 1968 wrote his novel Bomber on an early word processor called the IBM MTST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter).
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.
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…
It was one of the first “word processors,” although that expression had not yet been invented. You can see a photo of the one Deighton used at the link.
The reason this story triggered my mental way-back machine is that in the late 1960s I worked on a machine like that. When I first moved to Boston in 1967, I landed a job at Harvard University’s Widener Library.
The job was in the library’s shelflist automation project (pdf). The starting pay was $65 per week, a quarter of which went to half of the rent on an apartment one block from Harvard Yard ($165/mo.). Today, if you could get a unit in that building it would cost a rather large fortune. But I digress.
I started out working on a keypunch machine like the one at the right. the punch cards were then processed by an IBM 1401 computer like this one.
Here’s a video I found about an IBM 1401 computer purchased in 1959!
It’s hard to believe that in those days computers took up entire rooms! But I’m probably not the only one her at the Sky Dancing blog who remembers those days. Actually, I had worked in the data processing office when I was in college, beginning in 1965, so I already had some familiarity with computers and keypunch machines.
Pretty soon my office at Widener Library purchased a few more sophisticated data entry machines built by the Dura Business Machines Co. The Dura machine was similar to Deighton’s but much cheaper. It consisted of a modified IBM Selectric typewriter with an attachment that punched holes in paper tape instead of the more expensive magnetic tape in Len Deighton’s machine. You typed normally, and the words were converted to code on the paper tape. The tape was then converted to punch cards, read by the computer, and printed out. The printouts were checked by editors who marked any errors, deletions, or additions and you could make the corrections without retyping everything. You could also backspace over errors as you typed.
Here’s a 1968 photograph and description of the Dura 1401 from the ABA Journal. I’m posting it in large type so you can read the text.
Now this is where my trip down memory lane started to feel a little less nostalgic. According to the ad, “your girl” operates this magnificent machine and “your girl’s output goes up as much as 100%.” Were things really that sexist in 1968? Yes, yes they were. Here’s a “help wanted” ad from the Toledo Blade that I came across when I was looking for information on the Dura machine. You’ll notice that only men need apply. In the column to the left are some ads for women’s jobs.
I couldn’t get all the text into the screen grab, but you can see the whole thing at the link. The text mentions a couple of times that the job is only available to men.
In the mid-1970s, when I worked at M.I.T., our office purchased a Wang word processor. This was a pretty advanced machine, dedicated only to word processing that was operated pretty much like Microsoft Word. It had a monitor, a printer, and a large CPU, I guess you’d call it.
By the mid-1980s I was working in a different department that had rudimentary PCs. By then I was an “administrative assistant.” I left that job in 1986 and swore never to take another office job, and I never have.
The work could be interesting and challenging, but the condescending attitude toward clerical/secretarial workers was just too much to bear. “Women’s work,” you know. Keep in mind that in those days the people I worked for had no understanding whatsoever of the machines we learned to operate.
I went back to college in 1993, and by then there were much more advanced computers available in the university’s computer lab. Very few students had their own PCs or Macs then. I bought a little word processor to write papers on at home. It probably cost a few hundred dollars and could do everything the giant Wang word processor did and more.
I bought my first PC in 1997 when I started graduate school. At the time it was really state of the art. I spend about $1,500 on the computer and a laser printer. I think it had an Intel Pentium processor, 128 mb hard drive and 64 mg RAM–something like that–and ran on Windows 95. Unbelievable! I got hooked up to cable internet and was immediately hooked. So you can see that I’ve spent most of my adult life working with computers. Of course the young kids assume people my age know nothing about technology.
I hope I haven’t bored you stiff with this little nostalgia trip. I know some of you must recall these old machines too, so I hope you enjoyed the pictures anyway. It’s amazing how technology has changed our lives in the past 50 years, isn’t it?
I have some more up-to-date reads for you that I hope you’ll find interesting.
The Washington Post Magazine published a wonderful story about a family’s nightmarish experience of domestic violence, post-traumatic stress, and recovery: After Dad shot Mom, a family deals with the haunting legacy of gun violence The article by Neely Tucker builds on the story of Lynnie Vessels, who was 7 years old at the time of the shooting as well as interviews with her siblings. Lynnie has just published a book about her recovery, To Soften the Blow.
Of course the story is heartbreaking, but I highly recommend reading it as a reminder of what life was like for women and children in the 1960s–when the terms “child abuse” and “domestic violence” were completely unknown and there was no one to turn to when it happened. It was considered private family business and people mostly didn’t interfere even when they heard women screaming and children crying.
How well I remember. I grew up in a violent home–not as extreme as the Lynnie Vessels’ was. My dad was a rage-aholic, and you never knew when he’d lose his temper and lash out: screaming at the top of his lungs and hitting. There was no one to turn to for advice on how to deal with it, and we were taught to keep quiet about anything that happened within the family.
I couldn’t wait to get out, and I left for Boston when I was 19. My other siblings left home early too, but some of them still can’t admit to themselves that our home was violent and abusive. As the eldest, I probably got the brunt of it, I guess. Now I know that my dad probably had PTSD from his experiences in WWII.
Another important and timely read is this piece by Robert Parry: The Neo-Confederate Supreme Court. Here’s a short excerpt:
If white rule in the United States is to be restored and sustained, then an important first step will be the decision of the five Neo-Confederate justices on the U.S. Supreme Court to gut the Voting Rights Act, a move that many court analysts now consider likely.
The Court’s striking down Section Five of the Voting Rights Act will mean that jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting – mostly in the Old Confederacy – will be free to impose new obstacles to voting by African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities without first having to submit the changes to a federal court.
This green light to renew Jim Crow laws also would come at a time when Republican legislatures and governors across the country are devising new strategies for diluting the value of votes from minorities and urban dwellers in order to protect GOP power, especially within the federal government.
Check it out if you can.
Ryan Lizza has a new article in the New Yorker about President Obama and sequestration: THE POWERLESS PRESIDENCY. The gist is that Obama has given up on his dream of bipartisanship and accepted that he can’t bring the parties together.
That Obama, who started his Presidency as a true believer, has now given up on the idea that he has any special powers to change the minds of his fiercest critics is probably a good thing. His devotion to post-partisan governance has long fed two mistaken ideas: that the differences between the parties are minor, and that divided government is inherently good for the country.
A fundamental fact of modern political life is that the only way to advance a coherent agenda in Washington is through partisan dominance. When Obama had large Democratic majorities in Congress during his first two years in office, he led one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history. After he lost the House, his agenda froze and the current status quo of serial fiscal crises began. Like it or not, for many years, Washington has been most productive when one party controlled both Congress and the White House.
The boring fact of our system is that congressional math is the best predictor of a President’s success. This idea is not nearly as sexy as the notion that great Presidents are great because they twist arms in backrooms and inspire the American people to rise up and force Congress to bend to their will. But even the Presidents who are remembered for their relentless congressional lobbying and socializing were more often than not successful for more mundane reasons—like arithmetic.
I’m not at all sure that Obama has really let go of his dream of unity, although I hope Lizza is right.
I missed Charlie Rose while I was writing this, so I’ll have to try to catch a rerun or watch it on-line. But Joe Weisenthal has published a few excepts of the battle between Paul Krugman and Joe Scarborough. Weisenthal says Bloomberg with air a repeat tonight at 8PM.
Here’s a piece on the human brain at The Guardian Observer: Our brains, and how they’re not as simple as we think. I found it fascinating and I hope you will too.
One more psychological article from The New Yorker: Up All Night: The Science of Sleeplessness, by Elizabeth Kolbert. It’s a problem I’m very familiar with.
Science AAAS has a article about a Lost Land Beneath the Waves (Atlantis?)
Geological detectives are piecing together an intriguing seafloor puzzle. The Indian Ocean and some of its islands, scientists say, may lie on top of the remains of an ancient continent pulled apart by plate tectonics between 50 million and 100 million years ago. Painstaking detective work involving gravity mapping, rock analysis, and plate movement reconstruction has led researchers to conclude that several places in the Indian Ocean, now far apart, conceal the remnants of a prehistoric land mass they have named Mauritia. In fact, they say, the Indian Ocean could be “littered” with such continental fragments, now obscured by lava erupted by underwater volcanoes.
The Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 islands about 1500 kilometers east of Africa, are something of a geological curiosity. Although a few of Earth’s largest islands, such as Greenland, are composed of the same continental crust as the mainland, most islands are made of a denser, chemically distinct oceanic crust, created midocean by magma welling up beneath separating tectonic plates. Geologists think they separated from the Indian subcontinent 80 million to 90 million years ago.