Early Days of word processing

View 707 Monday, December 26, 2011

Happy New Year.


A professor in Maryland has an article in the New York Times about word processors and novelist. He doesn’t seem to have done any homework at all. He references a 1985 Stephen King preface, and is apparently intent on digging about in the Microsoft archives, but he hasn’t bothered to talk to the people who were actually writing with computers in the 1979-1984 era. It took mo no time at all to Google up “LORD OF CHAOS MANOR : Hoping for a message from a long-lost friend” from the Los Angeles Times, and it was a quite late development. The LA Times article even mentions the 1982 novel Oath of Fealty, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which was a New York Times bestseller and for a while was on the list of the best 100 science fiction novels of all time. Considering that it was written in the dawn of the computer age, it holds up pretty well after all these years, and still sells quite well in eBook editions. Of course it was written on Z-80 computers – Niven had Tony Pietsch build 2 duplicates of Ezekial, one for himself and one for his wife Marilyn on the theory that he’d have a spare if ever needed. I managed to write the first science fiction novel using a computer. The late Dr.Robert Foreward of Hughes Laboratory wasn’t far behind: he used a UNIX system and an early UNIX line editing language called TECO that I had experimented with during a visit to MIT and decided was too difficult.

The LA Times article gets one thing wrong: although old Ezekial, my friend who happened to be a Z-80 computer, was given up for dead, he was revived at the request of the Smithsonian. I got him back together and shipped him off, then went to Washington to unpack him. The Smithsonian only wanted him for a display as the first computer to have been used to write a science fiction novel, but I wanted to wake him up so he could see where he was. I did that, and he got a good look before I put him back to sleep. For years he was in the hall of communications and computers, next to an old Imsai 8080. They closed that wing for refurbishment, and I think he’s back in the basement. For several years I used to say to people “How many people have you met who have their personal computer on display at the Smithsonian? In future the answer will be all of them.”

I wrote the first articles on Writing With Computers for BYTE and an unsuccessful McGraw Hill spin-off back in 1979, and in 1980 I started doing a BYTE column. At first it was just a series of articles on small computers, but BYTE’s Carl Helmers liked it and it became Computing At Chaos Manor. Meanwhile I kept writing science fiction and Niven and I produced Footfall, published in 1985. It was a New York Times #1 best seller.

As to the origins of word processing, the main contenders in the 1978-1981 era were WANG dedicated word processors and S-100 computers running the CP/M operating system. Barry Longyear wrote his SF works on a Wang, and Asimov’s published an article by Longyear and me in the form of a disputation. I contended that it was better to use a general purpose computer rather than a dedicated word processor. Events proved me right.

After IBM came out with DOS the picture changed from CP/M to DOS as the best selling operating system and Microsoft early on saw that word processing would be a major seller, but when Microsoft Word first came out it wasn’t good enough to induce Niven and me to change. We continued to use a series of programs, from the early Electric Pencil to Tony Pietsch’s WRITE to Semantec’s Q&A Write for quite a while until the Microsoft Word Czar Chris Peters asked us what it would take to get us to go over to WORD. We told him, and he did it. Since Microsoft had integrated the CDROM version of Bookshelf, an excellent spelling checker, and a thesaurus into Word we changed over, and we’ve used WORD ever since despite a concerted effort by Word Perfect to get us into their camp. Word Perfect’s spelling and grammar checkers were (then) better than Microsoft’s, but the Bookshelf and Thesaurus features were decisive.

There’s more on this in an old interview I did http://www.whedon.info/Joss-Whedon-SciFi-com-talks-to-SF.html . If Professor Kirschenbaum want to know more about the early history of word processing, I’m easy to find.


Bette, one of several computers I write with now. Zeke, my old friend who happened to be a Z-80, ran at 1 MHZ, featured 2 64-Kilobyte 8” floppy disks, and 64 Kilobytes of memory. Bette has 4 CPU chips, a terabyte of disk storage space, and 8 gigabytes of memory. And she runs considerably faster than the 2 MHZ that Zeke eventually upgraded to.

Another place to find more on this is http://use.perl.org/~Mark+Leighton+Fisher/journal/30464.


And Eric Pobirs has found in one of my anthologies, Black Holes, I mentioned using a computer write this stuff on, including a story of my introducing Niven to small computers. I think I’m probably safe enough on my claims…




I wrote the above after a number of readers referred me to the NYT article. My thanks to all of them. Here’s one:

Word processors and Authors article (NYTimes)


"The literary history of word processing is far murkier, but that isn’t stopping Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, from trying to recover it, one casual deletion and trashed document at a time."

Mr. Pournelle,

When I read this article I thought back to all the stories you related in the old Byte magazine column you wrote, Chaos Manor. In those stories over the years I got the sense that not only were you an early adopter of technology, but you USED it regularly to get work done. So it occurred to me after reading this article in the NYTimes that the Professor from UMD, was concentrating on what seemed to be a very narrow group of well known and big name authors. People who had money to buy products like Wang word processors (Stephen King) while interesting for historic value, don’t really cover enough of the ‘range’ of the history of word processing software as it came to be defined.

So I wanted to toss this article over the fence to you. And ask, can this guy do a better job of covering the ‘history of word processing’ than he seems to be presenting in this article? I’m sure you have some both historical and anecdotal evidence to further lengthen the timeline beyond the ‘Late ’70s’. But I don’t want to be too presumptuous, I could just as easily be wrong, and off-base by thinking word processing was adopted earlier than the NYTimes covers it. But I thought at least a primary ‘source’ should be consulted, and you were the first person I thought of. Happy New Year to you. All the best. And I will always fondly remember reading, and will continue to read Chaos Manor.

Eric Likness

By the time I got Zeke, there was a technical book store called “American Word Processing” in the Silverlake district in Los Angeles. It wasn’t very large, but it carried books on small computers, and of course sold BYTE Magazine. Most Word Processors were dedicated Wang systems and were mostly used in legal offices. Barry Longyear got a Wang about the time I got Zeke, and we debated over dedicated word processors vs. “real computers” but in private (by letters!) and in published articles.


While searching for other stuff, I found this early discussion of what this place is about. It seemed appropriate to reference:






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