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The Book-Writing Machine

5 March 2013

From Slate:

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.”

. . . .

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.

. . . .

“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.

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6 Comments to “The Book-Writing Machine”

  1. Oh, this brings back memories. The MTST was the first “word processing” machine I learned to use. Yes, 1968 or 1969. Then came mag cards. Then a Xerox machine that only showed you one line in the display. Then finally full screen displays (green ones). Every one of those improvements made things better for revisions (I was a legal secretary). The hardware was necessary, but so was the software. Word Perfect changed the legal world.

  2. I started in publishing with the wax machine and the long scrolls of paper with type. I remember taping the layout board to my drafting board, carefully aligning it. Then carefully measuring the length and snipping, then putting the paper through the waxer. Then using the t-square to align the type as I pasted it down. And…if you made a mistake? Some dicey work with the x-acto blade cutting single lines of type and moving them over to the other column!

    The advent of Pagemaker was a boon! All the page layout could be done on the computer, where right angles were built in!

  3. I am a major fan of Len Deighton, both his stories and movies from his books – primary example is The Ipcress File, with Michael Caine.

    As well as finding umpteen snippets for PG today, I managed to write about 3,000 words – so my flu fuge is over – after almost ten days of coughing and spluttering – sorry about the data overload…



  4. I remember the MTST well. It revolutionized medical transcription because the doctors always, always change their minds once they’ve spoken a phrase, and now we didn’t have to retype the whole thing. This occurred because some of us got so fast, we’d have the end of the sentence typed while he was still phrasing the middle.

  5. Fighter, his account of the Battle of Britain is excellent. Blitzkrieg his account of the fall of France and the low countries not quite as good. Have Bomber but have never got round to reading it.

  6. Interesting parallel, because one of the recurring tropes of the first “Harry Palmer” novels (The IPCRESS File; A Funeral in Berlin) are the nameless protagonist’s struggles with his office’s IBM machine. Typically his executive assistant helps him out! Life imitating art, and vice versa.

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