This post was originally published on Public Books.
From the earliest typewriters to Google Docs, writing devices have never been built for novelists. Instead, they are designed for office use, with creative writing of all sorts seen as a marginal-at-best side market. Determining what difference these repurposed office technologies make to writing is difficult, though, since no simple hypothesis about the effects of word processing on the final products of writing holds up to analysis. As Matthew Kirschenbaum puts it in his recent Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, “every impulse that I had to generalize about word processing—that it made books longer, that it made sentences shorter, that it made sentences longer, that it made authors more prolific—was seemingly countered by some equally compelling exemplar suggesting otherwise.” By tracing out the practices of writers and their relationships to the machines they use, Kirschenbaum foregrounds writing process rather than writing product.
One of the stars of Kirschenbaum’s literary history is the IBM MT/ST, short for “Magnetic Tape / Selectric Typewriter.” The MT/ST, released in 1964, was the first machine to be marketed as a word processor. This device is a remarkably useful lens for understanding the difference between word processing technologies and their predecessors. A somewhat ungainly object, the MT/ST had little in common with the word processing software I’m typing in now, or even with the dedicated word processing machines of the 1980s. For starters, it had no screen. Instead, its only means of both input and output was a modified Selectric typewriter. As with a standard Selectric, when the user typed on the MT/ST’s keyboard the machine produced a mark on a piece of paper by striking it with one face of a type ball.
What distinguished the MT/ST from a typewriter was that with each keystroke a second mark was also made, this time a magnetic inscription on a strip of tape. When the typist pressed backspace and then typed a new character, the character on paper was typed over but the character on tape was replaced altogether. This tape could then later be played back by the MT/ST, which would automatically bang out the recorded characters onto a new piece of paper. Clean copies could thus be produced without the time consuming work of meticulously retyping documents. It is here that we see the difference between word processing technologies and typewriters, and the thing that makes the MT/ST resemble contemporary word processing software. The MT/ST did not simply inscribe letters on paper, it also inscribed the command to make those letters.
The MT/ST was certainly designed without fiction writing in mind. For starters, its $10,000 price tag ensured that it would almost exclusively see use in business. Moreover, as a product of the era when executives—who as a rule did not know how to type—were never expected to use writing machines themselves, the MT/ST was not intended for creative or intellectual work at all. Instead, it was conceptualised as something like a factory machine, a tool for more efficiently carrying out rote labour. Executives thought and dictated; secretaries listened and typed. Provided with the MT/ST, fewer secretaries could produce more clean documents in less time, thereby justifying the cost of the machine to its purchasers.