My kids would have just one answer to that question. When they grew old enough to have their own computers, my wife and I bought ones for them.
For me, though, the question has two answers. There was the first computer I got to work with. And then over a decade later, I finally had a computer in my home, for my exclusive use, that I could use for writing.
Last week Lois Gresh answered the question by describing the first computer she worked upon at the National Institute of Health. The week before, Linda Nagata described her first home computer, used just for her writing.
I’m going to imitate Linda and focus upon my first home computer, but the fact that I had to choose which computer-virgin tale to tell is worth discussing. That there could be a choice of answers is a given for me, for Lois, for Linda. We are creatures of our generation. We can all remember a time when computers weren’t a part of daily life. In decades to come, the idea that people had to compose fiction on something other than a computer (or computerlike device) will be mere historical artifact. I still hear an occasional person refer to their refrigerator as an icebox, or mention dialing a phone number. But it has been an awfully long time since people kept things cold in their kitchen by having blocks of ice delivered to their doorsteps in the pre-dawn hours, and tell me, when is the last time you actually rotary-dialed a phone instead of using buttons or a touch pad or uttering a command out loud?
My kids can’t ever really understand how it was for me, bashing out my first stories on my ancient, clunky Underwood typewriter, having to hit each key with force or the relevant typebar wouldn’t slap the ink ribbon against the paper and platen well enough to leave a legible character. They have no experience typing at a precise speed so that the descending typebar didn’t get tangled with the ascending typebar as I typed the next character.
When I really got into a writing session, by the end of it, my fingertips were sore.
Things improved in stages. In college, I still had that Underwood on my desk, but at work, I was able to use IBM Selectrics. At the newspaper where I did production work, my supervisor would sometimes have me sit down at her computerized typesetting station and do some inputting while she tended to other business. I still dream of those old IBM and Compugraphic keyboards. Soon I was exceeding a hundred words a minute with almost no errors.
Understand I am not bragging. That speed would not have been acceptable at a shop dedicated to typesetting, and a hundred words a minute was a definite notch slower than my supervisor. I mention it to share the awe I felt. It was an “am I really doing this?” sort of epiphany, like a one-year-old realizing he can walk, like a six-year-old knowing he will never again need training wheels on his bicycle. Typing was now something I could do well enough to do it for money. Now the only trick was to type the right words.
And I did. My first story sale brought in a little over five hundred dollars. Most of that I spent to acquire a used IBM Selectric.
I didn’t keep the Underwood. Technically it belonged to my parents and I returned it to them once I had purchased the Selectric. It was, however, the model for the drawing I created for my letterhead and business card, which you see at upper left. I am only slightly nostalgic about it. I was glad to leave it behind. It had once been the best tool available to me, but its day was done.
The Selectric carried me through more stories and the early partial drafts of The Sorcery Within, which was to become my first published novel. In early 1983, Ace Books made an offer based on an outline and sample chapters. I toyed with the idea of using part of the advance on a computer. By then, personal computers had become available. But to a man of my limited means, the devices were still far too expensive. My novel advance was only $3500, which as editor Terri Windling described it in the offer letter, was “not enough to keep a mouse alive.” I needed that money for things like, um, rent, food, gasoline.
And so I kept plugging away. Every typo meant a dab of Liquid Paper and retyping. Every revision session meant marking up the existing draft with red pen, following by the retyping of every page with more than one or two small changes.
A new member of my science fiction club, Bob Fleming, asked why I didn’t use a computer. “Can’t afford it,” I said.
He had a solution. He was doing a lot of array-processor design for a computer maker named Cromemco. They had recently released a personal computer, even though their specialty was machines for businesses and government agencies. They called it the C-10. The company had given Bob one. Then they gave him an upgrade so that he and his wife-to-be, Cherie Kushner, could develop the spellchecking program to go with the word-processing program — software unique to the C-10. Their first one was now a spare. Bob offered it to me.
I said no.
No? Was I crazy? Not exactly. I was a young writer who had sold precisely one novelette, one foreign-language reprint of that novelette, and a novel that had yet to be published. I still needed to impress editors with such things as very clean, handsome manuscripts. The Selectric, fitted with a carbon-film ribbon, allowed me to produce beautiful manuscripts. The C-10 came with a dot matrix printer.
Let’s not even get into the particulars of dot matrix. Suffice it to say, making an editor a read dot-matrix printout was not likely to earn me another fiction sale.
But Bob was a determined son-of-a-gun. He also had considerably more financial wherewithal than I. So when I said no for the second time, he came back with a revised proposal. This time I accepted.
Because he had bought me a daisywheel printer.
That sucker was loud. It was slow. It printed slower than I could type! But all I had to do was get the words right on the screen, and the printer wouldn’t add any typos. It would generate manuscripts essentially as clean as any I could produce using the Selectric. To have that, I could deal with some noise and sluggishness.
The devices were on indefinite loan. As it happened, Bob and Cherie kept on providing me with hand-me-downs for another fifteen years or so (though never again was it a computer made by Cromemco, which bowed out of the home-PC market once IBM stomped in). You’ve heard of patrons of the arts? Well, there are still some of those people out there.
The C-10 was a heavy desktop model with a small CRT screen. Green monochrome letters. Two disc drives holding 5¼-inch floppies. One disc held the boot-up instructions, the word processing software, and just enough space to hold a document of 8,000 words or less. It had no hard drive. If I wanted to keep what I had written, I had to save it to the other floppy disc, which was capable of holding about 40,000 words.
Some of my stories and a few of my novel chapters exceeded 8,000 words. In that case, I had to make separate files, each holding a fraction of the text.
The word processor was minimal. Not much more than a text editor. (The spellchecker was the best I’ve ever used. Thanks, Bob and Cherie.) But the difference between creating one good electronic file of a chapter versus retyping draft after draft?
Well. You know. Even if you aren’t part of my generation, you know. What you young ’uns can’t know is what it felt like to cross that technological threshold and become a Writer of the Computer Age.
It still astonishes me.