Technology: Who Was The First?

History is marked by “firsts” and made by those who risk everything on new technology, new ideas, or new trends. Gutenberg earned his place by being the first to create movable type. Henry Ford is a household name not because he invented the automobile, but because he was the first to take that idea and make it accessible to the rest of the world. George Washington, our first president. Amelia Earhart, the first woman to make a transatlantic flight. René François Armand “Sully” Prudhomme, the first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Before the huge technology boom of the last few decades, firsts were well recorded. We know with relative certainty that Mark Twain was the first author to turn in a manuscript created on a typewriter (Life on the Mississippi) and Jack Kerouc made history with his 120-foot long roll of paper containing the first draft of On the Road. The New York Times has an interesting article on the scroll if you’re interested. You can read it here. But what about the first author to submit a document created on a word processor? Who were the early adopters of that technology?

While literary historians know that Stephen King bought one of the earliest editions of the Mac home computer in the 1980s, was he the first author to do so? And after that? Who was the first to move to PC? Or to write a book on an iPad? Do we even care? Matthew Kirschenbaum, an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, does.

Mr. Kirschenbaum is looking into the literary history of word processors. The author of the NYT article, Jennifer Schuessler, made an interesting point in the article. She says,

The study of word processing may sound like a peculiarly tech-minded task for an English professor, but literary scholars have become increasingly interested in studying how the tools of writing both shape literature and are reflected in it, whether it’s the quill pen of the Romantic poets or the early round typewriter, known as a writing ball, that Friedrich Nietzsche used to compose some aphoristic fragments. (“Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts,” Nietzsche typed.)

And it’s true. Word processing and the internet has streamlined the creative process, making it easier to write, research, and daydream. It provides us with more opportunities and more distractions than any authors in history have had to deal with and thus changes the way we think and write. Does it make our work more disposable because the very medium we’re using to create it is so quickly thrown away? Or will quality endure just like it has for centuries? It’s something to ponder, but not the point here.

Let’s get back on track:

Mr. Kirschenbaum, whose earlier book, “Mechanisms,” analyzed experimental electronic writing, said he was less interested in analyzing the stylistic impact of word processing than in recovering its early history, particularly its adoption by mainstream writers. And in his lecture, sponsored by NYPL Labs, a unit of the library devoted to experimental technology, he ticked off some of the better-documented moments in that history. Tom Clancy wrote his 1984 thriller “The Hunt for Red October,” often cited as one of the earliest word-processed best sellers, on an Apple IIe, using WordStar software. And Jimmy Carter set off what may have been the first word-processing-related panic in 1981, when he accidentally deleted several pages of his memoir in progress by hitting the wrong keys on his brand-new $12,000 Lanier, a calamity noted in The New York Times.

Given the spottiness of the record Mr. Kirschenbaum is hesitant to proclaim Mr. King the computer-age equivalent of Mark Twain, the first major American writer to complete a work using the new technology. But Mr. King’s 1983 short story “The Word Processor,” Mr. Kirschenbaum ventured, is “likely the earliest fictional treatment of word processing by a prominent English-language author.”

It’s a fascinating subject to someone who grew up in the computer boom and actually watched computers get bigger and more powerful before suddenly becoming smaller and even more powerful. But one topic in particular intrigued me most about this article. Jennifer talks about Stephen King’s story “The Word Processor” and how it came to be:

The story, published in Playboy (later retitled “Word Processor of the Gods”), certainly captured the unsettling ghostliness of the new technology, which allowed writers to correct themselves without leaving even the faintest trace. In the story a frustrated schoolteacher discovers that by erasing sentences about his enemies he can delete them entirely from the universe and insert himself in their place, a reflection of Mr. King’s fascination with his Wang System 5’s “insert,” ”delete” and “execute” keys, recounted in the introduction to his 1985 story collection, “Skeleton Crew.” “Writers are used to playing God, but suddenly now the metaphor was literal,” Mr. Kirschenbaum said in the lecture. 

 Having never written an entire book on paper (or evenon a typewriter) will I ever know how much the computer has changed the way I would have written in a different era? Who can know, but it’s something to keep in mind. Who knows? Maybe the escape, control and home keys will inspire my next book. 😉

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