Jerry Pournelle’s Computing at Chaos Manor: The Real Truth About MS Word

Jerry Pournelle has a speedy powerhouse of a computer these days, but he and Larry Niven were writing sci-fi novels on 1MHz Z-80s long before Microsoft had Word. The New York Times, in its article today on the history of word-processing, has it all wrong. And Pournelle knows. He was there.

aNewDomain.net — A professor in Maryland just published a piece in The New York Times about word processors and novelists. He doesn’t seem to have done any homework at all. The article, which ran yesterday and was brought to my attention by a reader of this column, is missing a lot of background and substance.

The author references a 1985 Stephen King preface. The author is apparently intent on digging about in the Microsoft archives. But he hasn’t bothered to talk to the people who were actually writing with computers in the 1979-1984 era. He didn’t talk to primary sources. He should call me.

It took me no time at all to Google up: Lord of Chaos Manor. Sure enough,The Los Angeles Times even mentions the 1982 novel Oath of Fealty, by Larry Niven and me, which was a New York Times bestseller and for a while was on the list of the best 100 science fiction novels of all time.

Considering that it was written at the dawn of the computer age, it holds up pretty well after all these years. Now I wrote it on a pre PC, pre Microsoft, pre DOS computer — one all but ignore in The New York Times article the reader sent me.

We wrote it on Z-80 computers — we called the ones we purchased Ezekial, or Zeke(s) — and I managed to write the first science fiction novel using my “Zeke.” Based on that Zilog Z-80 1MHz CPU, it included two 64KB eight-inch floppy disks and 64 KB RAM. By contrast, my main writing computer now is Bette, a quadcore CPU system, with 1TB (one trillion bytes) of disk storage space and 8GB of memory. Check her out:

Back to history, in the late 70s and early 80s when we were writing our books on the earliest of computers, the late Dr. Robert Foreward of Hughes Laboratory wasn’t far behind: he used a UNIX system and an early UNIX line editing language called TECO that I had experimented with during a visit to MIT and decided was too difficult.

I liked Electric Pencil better.

Now, the LA Times article does get one thing wrong. Although old Ezekial, my friend the Z-80 computer, was given up for dead, I eventually revived him at the request of the Smithsonian. I got him back together and shipped him off — and then even went to Washington to unpack him. The Smithsonian only wanted him for a display as the first computer to have been used to write a science fiction novel, but I wanted to wake him up so he could see where he was.

I did that, and he got a good look around at the world before I put him back to sleep.

For years he was in the hall of communications and computers, next to an old Imsai 8080. They closed that wing for refurbishment, and I think he’s back in the basement, now.

For several years I used to say to people “How many people have you met who have their personal computer on display at the Smithsonian?” Short answer, in the future: it will be every existing one they can find.

Some postscripts:

I wrote the first articles on writing with computers before it became the regular Computing at Chaos Manor column in BYTE for decades, in the relaunched BYTE for a time this summer and now here today.

As to the origins of word processing, there was a lot going on, contrary to reporting in the Times, before Microsoft Word was in the game.

The main contenders in the 1978-1981 era were WANG dedicated word processors and S-100 bus computers running the CP/M operating system. Barry Longyear wrote his scifi works on a Wang system, and Isaac Asimov published an article by Longyear and me in the form of a disputation. I contended it was better to use a general purpose computer rather than a dedicated word processor.

Events proved me right.

After IBM came out with PC-DOS and MS-DOS for the PC clones, this was already the 1980s. Microsoft did see word processing would be a big deal, but its first version of Word wasn’t nearly good enough to get Niven and I to switch over.

We continued to use a series of programs, from the early Electric Pencil to Tony Pietsch’s WRITE to Symantec’s Q&A Write for quite a while until the Microsoft Word Czar Chris Peters asked us what it would take to get us to go over to MS-Word.

We told him, and he did it.

Microsoft integrated the CDROM version of Bookshelf, an excellent spelling checker, and a thesaurus into Word, so at least we changed over. We’ve used Word ever since despite a concerted effort by Word Perfect to get us into their camp. WordPerfect’s spelling and grammar checkers were (then) better than Microsoft’s, but the Bookshelf and Thesaurus features in Word at the time were decisive factors for us.

There’s more on this in an old interview I did. Feel free to check it out here. If Professor Kirschenbaum, who wrote the NYT article I take issue with here, wants to know more about the early history of word processing, I’m easy to find.

I’m right here with Computing at Chaos Manor at aNewDomain. Email me at Jerry@aNewDomain.net

About the author

Jerry Pournelle

An award-winning science fiction author, Jerry Pournelle is the best-known columnist in tech journalism history. His BYTE magazine column, Computing at Chaos Manor, was legendary. Now Jerry is our lead commentator at aNewDomain, where he is reprising that column. Email Jerry at Jerry@aNewDomain.net or jerry@jerrypournelle.com and check out his site at jerrypournelle.com.

6 Comments

  • I love this sort of reminiscing about the good old days. Jerry is right — there was tons of word processing back in the day.

    The advent of CP/M-based personal computers spelled the end of dedicated,CRT-based word processing machines like those made by Wang and NBI. (NBI — a particularly cool company name — stood for “nothing but initials”).

    The first CP/M-based word processor that I recall was Michael Shrayer’s Electric Pencil, which Jerry mentions. Michael wrote it to “scratch his own itch,” since, as I recall, be was himself a writer and film maker who lived in Palm Springs.

    By 1980 there were several prominent word processing programs. I just checked a list of my old publications, and I wrote an article called “Word Processors, A Comparison of Four Programs,” which appeared in a quarterly magazine called onComputing in the Summer, 1980 and was reprinted in CHIP, a German PC magazine. The four word processors included Electric Pencil, Magic Wand, and WordStar, but I cannot recall the fourth. I wrote a book on WP which came out in 1982.

    Of course there were antecedents. IBM made q typewriter that could store a document, but without a CRT, editing was hell. As Jerry mentions we did a lot of writing on time sharing systems using text editors that were primarily developed to write code.

    The first computer WP program I recall hearing of was “Expensive Typewriter” from MIT. I had it in my mind as running on one of the TX-n machines, but I just checked Wikipedia, and it ran on the PDP-1, and was preceded by “Colossal Typewriter,” written by John McCarthy and Roland Silver in 1960.

    My first experience with word processing was typing documents into punch cards and running them through an accounting machine with a board wired to list whatever was punched into the 80-column cards. To make a change, you re-keyed the card and replaced the old one in the deck. We used a 6-bit character code in those days, so everything was upper case.

    Finally, if you find this sort of thing interesting, read this 1982 article from the Atlantic Monthly by James Fallows on his use of Electric Pencil on a CP/M-based PC and the way it changed his writing and life (http://bit.ly/vmggpO). I recommend it highly. Fallows, an award winning writer on national and international affairs, has also written a lot on information technology over the years, most recently an article in the current Atlantic Monthly on the hacking of his wife’s Gmail account (http://bit.ly/ogn5n6).

  • > I used to carry a diskette with Xywrite around. Is that telling?

    Only if it was an 8-inch diskette. Those were the days — when floppy disks were actually floppy.

    Lar