Over the years that he spent researching and writing his literary history of word processing, Matthew Kirschenbaum was publicly sharing his findings via lecture, hashtag, and blog. The process of discovery that he was documenting doesn’t simply cease when a book goes to press, though, and the publication of Track Changes in May has in fact sparked a whole new round of revelation. Below, Kirschenbaum shares a major new find for this ongoing project.
In 1977 Gay and Philip Courter purchased an IBM System 6 word processor. The System 6 was brand-new that year: although IBM had first introduced the world to the term word processing, and although competitor products consisting of keyboards and screens had been on the market since 1971, the unprepossessingly named System 6 was the first IBM word processor to have a CRT display. The 9-inch screen had room for eight lines of text, deemed adequate because this was about the same amount of type typically visible on a piece of paper as it came curling out of a typewriter’s rollers, bent under its own weight.
The plan was to use the word processor for routine office work in support of the documentary film company the couple ran. The machine was temperamental, and visits from IBM repair personnel to their home atop a steep hill near the Delaware Water Gap were frequent. Courter didn’t mind, though. She had quickly realized the word processor would allow her to do something that her domestic responsibilities had made otherwise impossible: write and publish her first novel. She began work on it in earnest in early 1977, shortly after the birth of their first child, and sold the rights to Houghton Mifflin two years later; The Midwife was published in February 1981. As a first-time novelist, she knew she had to do what she could to attract notice so she also wrote up a piece for Publishers Weekly that came out at the same time about her and other authors’ experiences using early word processors.
1981 is a pivotal year in my own literary history of word processing. Lots of things had happened that year: the Osborne 1 and IBM PC both debuted; Time magazine had written about writers and word processors (a year sooner than they anointed the personal computer their Machine of the Year); Isaac Asimov had had his first home computer delivered to him as part of a promotional ploy; and the New York Times had written about Jimmy Carter’s travails with his Lanier word processor. All of that is in the book, and much more. But I had missed Gay Courter’s story . . . until she recently wrote to me.