Monday, September 3, 2007

Utnapishtim's word-processor

[IBM Displaywriter disk, circa 1984, 8" square.]

Talking with my students about the ancient Mesopotamian story of Gilgamesh leads to all sorts of thoughts about impermanence. (The great truth of the story, expressed by the mysterious Utnapishtim, is that "There is no permanence.") I like pointing out to my students that the tablets holding the Gilgamesh story are still readable (or at least largely readable) to anyone who can read cuneiform script. Also readable, a page from a 13th-century Book of Ezekiel that I bring into class (given to me by a friend who was divesting himself of his belongings). But the circa-1984 disks that hold the text of my dissertation (on E.D. Hirsch, Stanley Fish, and J.L. Austin, if you're wondering) have been useless to me for many years — except for display purposes during discussions of impermanence.

I wrote my dissertation with Faber-Castell Uniball pens and legal pads bearing the imprint of the Boston University Law School (the ultra-wide left margin was great for revision; I've never seen such pads since). I made reading copies for my committee with a Panasonic electronic typewriter. And I produced the final text with what was then called a "dedicated word-processor," an on-campus IBM Displaywriter.

Here, from IBM, is a partial description of the machine:

IBM's Office Products Division announced the Displaywriter in June 1980 as an easy-to-use, low-cost desktop text processing system. The Displaywriter System enabled operators to produce high quality documents while keying at rough draft speed. Users could automatically indent text, justify right margins, center and underscore. They could also store a document and recall it for review or revision, and could check the spelling of approximately 50,000 commonly used words. While these features are taken for granted in the post-PC era, they were novel for a time when most documents were created, formatted and revised on manual or electric typewriters. The Displaywriter's "intelligence" came in 160K, 192K or 224K bytes of memory. Single diskette drive diskette units with a capacity for approximately 284,000 characters of information were available. As requirements increased, customers could upgrade to a dual drive diskette unit. . . . A basic system — consisting of a display with a typewriter-like keyboard and a logic unit, a printer and a device to record and read diskettes capable of storing more than 100 pages of average text — cost $7,895 and leased for $275 a month.
The disks (diskette seems coy, considering the size) went into a toaster-like drive (to the right of the CPU, monitor, and keyboard in this IBM photograph). Yes, that's a disk drive, at least 12" wide (and that's the printer to its right).

I knew a guy who was doing word-processing full-time in downtown Boston in 1984. His dream was to buy a Displaywriter of his own and freelance. I hope he was saving slowly enough that he saved himself a lot of money.
IBM Displaywriter (Wikipedia)

comments: 5

thalkowski said...

Of course, if that fellow bought his IBM displaywriter, he'd be able to open up the 'technologically- orphaned' diskettes with my M.A. files and notes.

Happily I converted my dissertation notes with each new recording medium (which would be an interesting photo, now that I think of it: script - typescript - floppy disks - diskettes - zip disks - cd-rom - thumb-drive - ipod [traveling hard-disc backup]).

Anonymous said...

Why are micro-floppy diskettes 3.5 inches square, that is, wide? Because, I long ago read and cannot now source, "they" wanted the diskettes to fit into a man's shirt pocket, which is about 4 inches wide. And before that a man's inside coat pocket was about 4 inches wide. And what has that to do with legal-size, 11"x14" paper, such as your Boston University Law School legal pads, you ask. Recall how legal documents, deeds, warrants, etc., were folded and filed, or put into a coat pocket: from 14 inches in half to 7 inches, then in half again to -- 3.5 inches!

Probably more than you wanted to know, but: diskette - 8"; mini-diskette - 5.25"; micro-diskette - 3.5"; mini-micro diskette - 2.something". There was a 12" disk, I've never seen one but I once read somewhere that it had something to do with being the same size as 78 rpm records. ("Son, you sound like a broken record! Dad, what's a record?}

IBM - There is a school of thought that the reason IBM became ascendant over all of its once many mainframe competitors is because IBM was the first to make their mainframes in modules small enough to fit through an ordinary door: you didn't have to hire a crane and remove building windows. I don't know if this is true, but it does make sense.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, that would make a interesting photo, TRH.

I remember (1985) asking IT people how I could get my Displaywriter files into an Apple //c. Blank looks all around.

Michael Leddy said...

Charless, thanks for all these details! A mini-micro diskette would be something to see.

Do you blog?

Anonymous said...

Michael, I don't have a blog, but this is the second time in a week I've been asked (, so I'll probably eventually get around to it.

I worked as as an administrative computer specialist for the US Geological Survey for some years. In the early 80s, a little before PCs, we got a "mini-computer" which was still a room full of equipment. Our office had a IBM DisplayWriter, with all of the reports and publications, and works in progress, stored on floppies just like the one you had. How to transfer it over to the mini-computer? (And I'm not even going to discuss the Luddites.)

I put on a three-piece, navy-blue, pin-striped suit, made sure my shoes gleamed, my white shirt clean and starched, and suitable tie, of course, boy, did I fit in, and took all the diskettes down to the local IBM office. For hours I used their equipment to send the data, diskette after diskette, at early 80s speed from Tallahassee to their Tampa office, where the data in ASCII format was put onto reel magnetic tapes, and then sent to us.

The bill was to be in the low thousands, but we of course had no choice. --- But wait! IBM never billed us. I always claimed it was my attire.