The Grail Code 
Chasing the Holy Grail of writing technology

Writing a little while ago about the Holy Grail of typewriters made me think a little about how I used to write and how I write now—how I found the Holy Grail and how these days I sometimes toss it aside again.

Personal computers and I grew up together. I was about fourteen when we got our first real computer in the house, and I immediately saw its potential for solving the problem of the typewriter.

The real deficiency of typewriters (I used to think when I was in junior high school) was their stubborn insistence on remembering all my most embarrassing mistakes. Once you had typed something, there it was. You could try to erase it (you were probably typing on something called “erasable bond,” surely the most egregious example of consumer fraud in the history of marketing), or you could cross it out, or you could dab it (and your sleeve and your pants) with correction fluid, or you could just retype the whole page, which was what you’d end up doing anyway after you’d made a mess trying everything else.

The Holy Grail of writing technology, it seemed to me, would be some sort of editable typewriter: something that would let you see and change what you had written before it ever hit the paper.

That was just what we got with the Atari 800, a marvelous machine that had color graphics, believe it or not, and 48K of memory. People told my father that he would never need more than 16K, but one thing he had learned from working on computers since the Whirlwind was that you can never have enough memory.

In high school I did almost all my writing assignments on that computer. Not quite all, because there were a few teachers who gave an automatic F to any assignment written on a computer, on the very practical grounds that school was supposed to prepare us for the real world, and in the real world we would all have to use typewriters.

I have to admit that there was another good reason for objecting to these early efforts at word processing, which was that the output from a 9-pin dot-matrix printer wasn’t very pretty. The Holy Grail of writing technology, it seemed to me, would be something that had all the capabilities of a computer word processor but the output quality of a really good typewriter.

A daisywheel printer solved that problem. Now I had output as good as what I could get from the most expensive typewriter. But I still had some complaints. Often it took me several tries to get the formatting right. One mistake in the formatting codes, and the whole document would end up printed in bold face. The Holy Grail of writing technology would be something that showed you on the screen exactly what was going to print on the paper: what-you-see-is-what-you-get would be the ideal.

The next generation of computer, a Macintosh imitator called an Atari ST, solved that problem. Now everything showed up on screen exactly as it would on paper—italics, different fonts, every baroque complexity of formatting you could think of. The only problem was that you had to go back to a dot-matrix printer.

An inkjet printer was the next Holy Grail, and so on and so on, until here we are at Microsoft Word, with which I can do just about anything in print. I can even use a font editor to design my own type, and I’ve built up a large library of early-nineteenth-century American type styles, because nobody else seems to be doing it.

So why, after chasing a long succession of Holy-Grails-of, am I sitting here writing a draft of this article on an Underwood Standard Portable Typewriter?

That sounds like sheer perversity. And maybe it is. But over the years I’ve discovered a few things about the way I write and the way I think. Much of what I wrote for The Grail Code was first written with an Esterbrook No. 910 Cashier’s pen dipped in sepia writing fluid, which probably sounds even more perverse than an 85-year-old typewriter.

The wonderful thing about the Web is that you can be as self-indulgent as you like. In the next installment, I’ll talk about me some more. But I’ll also talk a bit about Walter Map and H. G. Wells and other people who aren’t here to defend themselves anymore. The other wonderful thing about the Web is that you can string together any set of seemingly unrelated thoughts, and no one will stop you from publishing it.

One Response to “Chasing the Holy Grail of writing technology”

  1. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » The two revolutions (and me) Says:

    [...] When I was growing up, writers wrote with typewriters. As I mentioned earlier, I was an early and enthusiastic partisan of computer word processors, but I was odd that way. You could write with a computer, but you’d better not let anyone know you hadn’t used a typewriter, or your tenth-grade Social Studies teacher would give you an automatic F even though he hadn’t mentioned anything about that rule when he gave you the assignment. (A note to all the young people out there: The people who tell you that you’ll remember your school days for the rest of your life are absolutely right.) [...]

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