Would best-selling novelist Len Deighton care to take a walk? It was 1968, and the IBM technician who serviced Deighton’s typewriters had just heard from Deighton’s personal assistant, Ms. Ellenor Handley, that she had been retyping chapter drafts for his book in progress dozens of times over. IBM had a machine that could help, the technician mentioned. They were being used in the new ultramodern Shell Centre on the south bank of the Thames, not far from his Merrick Square home.
A few weeks later, Deighton stood outside his Georgian terrace home and watched as workers removed a window so that a 200-pound unit could be hoisted inside with a crane. The machine was IBM’s MTST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter), sold in the European market as the MT72. “Standing in the leafy square in which I lived, watching all this activity, I had a moment of doubt,” the author, now 84, told me in a recent email. “I was beginning to think that I had chosen a rather unusual way to write books.”
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Like many other commercially successful novelists before and since, Deighton could not afford to indulge a solitary muse. Ellenor Handley had worked with him in his south London home since 1966. In an email, Handley, now 73 and retired, detailed her role in Deighton’s writing process. “When I started Len was using an IBM Golfball machine to type his drafts,” she wrote. “He would then hand-write changes on the hard copy which I would then update as pages or chapters as necessary by retyping—time-consuming perhaps but I quite liked it, as I felt a real part of the process and grew with the book.” When the MTST arrived at Merrick Square, the author and his assistant recall, it was Ms. Handley who mastered it.
Like many early technologies, the MTST began as a hybrid creation, a kind of mechanical centaur consisting of two separate devices fused to work in conjunction with one another. At the same instant a character was imprinted on the page from the Selectric’s typing mechanism, that keystroke was also recorded as data on a magnetic tape cartridge. There was no screen, but backspacing to correct an error on the page also resulted in the data being corrected on the tape. Unblemished hard copy could then be produced with the push of a button, at the rate of 150 wpm.
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“One might almost think the word processor (as it was eventually named) was built to my requirements,” Deighton told me:
“I am a slow worker so that each book takes well over a year—some took several years—and I had always ‘constructed’ my books rather than written them. Until the IBM machine arrived I used scissors and paste (actually Copydex one of those milk glues) to add paras, dump pages and rearrange sections of material.
Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to John for the tip.