word processorI’ve always been a sucker for stories about the history of American pop culture. So when TeleRead founder David Rothman sent me an email last weekend with a subject line that read, “This Was the First Word Processor Ever Used By a Novelist. It Weighed 200 Pounds and Had to Be Brought in Though the Window,” I bit.

Truth be told, I don’t know the first thing about the history of typewriters or word processors—or pencils or papyrus or stone tablets, for that matter. Matthew Kirschenbaum, however—an author and associate professor of English at the University of Maryland—has spent years researching the literary history of word processing. And he thinks he’s discovered the first novel to have ever been written on a word processor.

word processor

That book—according to Kirschenbaum, at any rate—is Len Deighton’s Bomber, a WWII novel published in 1970. And as for the word processor? That would be the IBM MT/ST, or Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter, which was essentially a precursor to the word processors of the 1970s and 80s; it “allowed typists to create and edit a document before printing,” according to a CNN Money photo feature. (That’s the MT/ST in the photo on the right, which was taken in 1964—the same year the device was introduced.)

Kirschenbaum’s story about the first word-processed novel was published on Slate last Friday—and it’s a fantastic read. I’m guessing it’s an excerpt from the book he’s currently in the process of wrapping up for Harvard University Press, titled Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing. That’s one I’ll definitely be picking up.

Kirschenbaum previously authored a book about new media and electronic writing for The MIT Press (Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination), which makes me think he’s probably the sort of writer a typical TeleRead reader would enjoy. If you’d like to learn more, I’d suggest starting with this piece about Kirschenbaum and his obsessions, which ran a little over a year ago in the New York Times.


  1. Well this story certainly struck a chord with me. I used this very same system for the very un-literary task of conducting my very first college job hunt in 1974. Once I had the form letter composed, I used a database of American colleges and universities to narrow the field down from 2400 to 300. Information from the database was merged into the form letter and the IBM Selectric dutifully cranked out all 300 letters for my signature. I even managed to get this system to type the addresses on peel-off labels. Very crude by today’s standards but it was a new adventure for me. Destiny knocking I suppose.

  2. IBM also made the MTSC, the Magnetic Tape Selectric Composer, for small typesetting jobs. It had proportional spacing, and would handle justification, though required user interaction to do so. It was the first machine I ever used to set type for a publication. (In those days, publications were “printed” on “paper.”)

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