That arrangement too was very typical. Often it was the secretary, who was very often female, who learned to operate the word processor. She was the one who actually processed the text, if you will.
Meyer: When someone used the MT/ST, did they have to remember what they were typing? Did it print out on a page?
Kirschenbaum: Your “screen” was the sheet of paper you had in your Selectric typewriter. You did your typing on the Selectric—which is the same typewriter, for example, we see in Mad Men; it’s a famous ’60s-era electric typewriter—and if you made mistakes, you would backspace. You would get a mess on the sheet of paper that was currently on the Selectric, but the correct sequence of character strokes was being stored on the tape. Then you would put a clean sheet of paper into the typewriter and it would automatically print out, sort of player-piano fashion, the text stored on the tape’s storage.
This unit sold in the 1960s for $10,000. That’s obviously quite a lot of money, and IBM used the term word processing as a marketing device. And Deighton was the first and one of the very few individuals who had one in his home. The real market, of course, was the business world.
Meyer: Does that mean Deighton dictated the novel?
Kirschenbaum: He had a regular Selectric that he used, then he would hand his drafts to Ellenor Handley, the secretary. She would retype them on the MT/ST, and do all of the subsequent editing, revisions, correcting there, because it made it so easy to do that revising and to produce clean copy on demand.
There are three things I really like about that story and why I feel like it’s the best candidate for quote-unquote “first.”
One, it defamiliarizes our sense of what word processing is. It’s not a typewriter connected to a TV set. The key thing turns out to be the magnetic storage layer. The other thing I like about it is—there’s a term I use in the book, “suspended encryption.” That captures that dynamic of word processing: You’re writing, but there’s a kind of suspended animation to it. The text remains in its fluid, malleable state, until such time as you commit it to hard copy.
The other thing I like about the story is that it captures that gendered dynamic, that social dimension of writing. It’s not just the author alone at his typewriter. It’s really a collaborative process, there is a gender dimension to it, and there’s something very human about it, I think.
Meyer: The Deighton example also reflects that Track Changes is a popular literary history, not just a highbrow account. And something you talk about is that everyone—the popular writers, the literary writers, and their readership—is figuring out the technology together. The writers and the readers receive, say, an Apple II at the same time. Is that a distinctive episode in history?