Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 9, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

AN ODE TO WORD PROCESSING....Sheril Kirshenbaum is giving up her computer for the next couple of days:

This weekend finds me with the unique opportunity to use a vintage Smith-Corona Super Sterling Portable Manual Typewriter. Translation: typing with no plug, connection or correction.

....There's something absolutely genuine about what an old typewriter like this can produce. The blank page in the carriage is full of possibility and somehow in what's composed — even amid uneven spacing, missing letters, and misspelled words — I find freedom. Honesty assembled in plastic, metal, and ribbon.

This is just the opposite of my experience. Like everyone my age, I used a typewriter for the first decade of my writing life, including some very high-quality machines (thanks to my father, who was pretty obsessed with using really good typewriters). But when I discovered word processing for the first time — in 1980, I think — it was like a fog had lifted from my brain and I'd suddenly developed a direct neural connection to a writing tool. From the first moment I used it, I loved the editing and composing freedom that word processing gave me. And while I can't remember every typewriter I've ever used, I can sure remember every word processing program, starting with a Wang dedicated machine at the LA Times, followed by Scripsit and Electric Pencil on a TRS-80, MASS-11 on a VAX, Ami Pro on my first Windows box (still my favorite of the bunch), and finally Microsoft Word. Though, in truth, the parade doesn't end with Word: the vast bulk of my writing for the past five years has been done in the crude text-editing box of Movable Type, which has probably been responsible for more total words of writing than every other implement I've used put together.

But crudeness doesn't matter. Movable Type provides me with a tiny input box and no formatting tools beyond a few HTML tags, but it's still a word processor and I still love it. It feels like an extension of my brain in a way that no typewriter ever did.

Keyboards, though, are a different story. If I could buy a PC keyboard that felt like an IBM Selectric keyboard, I'd snap it up in a second. Or even one that felt like an original IBM PC keyboard. Sadly, every PC keyboard these days feels like junk. It's been years since I had one that I really liked.

UPDATE: Hmmm. This guy claims that keyboards from this company are just like original IBM PC keyboards. For $69 it's worth a try! But should I get it in black, to match my current computer, or pearl white, for that old time IBM goodness? Decisions, decisions.

UPDATE 2: Oh no! Should I get a genuine refurbished IBM Model M 1391401 keyboard instead? Apparently the Unicomp guys above bought the "buckling spring" technology from IBM, so their new keyboards should have the same feel. But do they?

Kevin Drum 7:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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You're looking for an IBM Model M. They are all over the internet and aren't hard to find. I have one myself, and I use it for typing *and* brutally beating home invaders.

You may need a PS/2->USB adapter, though.

Posted by: Will on November 9, 2007 at 8:03 PM | PERMALINK

Great. Another baby boomer obsessing over the days when he could still use his Wang.

Spare us.

Posted by: reality on November 9, 2007 at 8:05 PM | PERMALINK

The market works! All keyboards equally suck!

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on November 9, 2007 at 8:06 PM | PERMALINK

For some people, the freedom to revise that a word processor gives means that they spend all their time procrastinating by editing, rather than making progress. It's all a matter of how the machine fits your personal writer's block.

When I first started writing on a computer, I had to write the first few paragraphs in longhand to get started, since that was my habit with a typewriter. (This was in the mid-80s BTW. I am not even old enough to be a baby boomer.) Finally I was forced into writing from scratch on a computer by term paper deadline pressure.

Clicky keyboards rule. You can find IBM Model Ms for less than $69 on popular auction sites. Google "clicky keyboard" for more information. I use an old Dell model that is similarly obnoxiously noisy.

Posted by: Ben on November 9, 2007 at 8:14 PM | PERMALINK

implement I read that first as impediment. They're all impediments.

Except emacs.

Posted by: jerry on November 9, 2007 at 8:25 PM | PERMALINK

I had one of those keyboards, well, the Endurapro, with the trackpoint stick in it. It was my absolute favorite keyboard ever. It's a great keyboard, especially if you type fast. Mine met with an untimely demise (it's not waterproof). I would definitely replace it if I had some extra cash. (And I still have another one of their keyboards next to me, a mighty mouse.)

Posted by: Chief Angry Cloud on November 9, 2007 at 8:39 PM | PERMALINK

Sheril Kirshenbaum: There's something absolutely genuine about what an old typewriter like this can produce.

Bah! The typewriter is a product of the industrial revolution. Some folks prefer a good quill pen (none of those newfangled steel nibs), inkwell and parchment. Nonsense! They're all crutches for people who haven't thought out what they want to say.

There's nothing like the feel of hammer and chisel against granite. The pounding, the flying stone chips and the grain of the stone - there's something absolutely genuine about what this can produce. And I do mean granitebefore writing it out!

Posted by: alex on November 9, 2007 at 8:47 PM | PERMALINK

The advantage of the modern Unicomp Model Ms is that they're available with native USB plugs. Not all PS/2 adapters will work with older Ms -- look through the FAQ at clickykeyboards.com for details.

Posted by: Forrest on November 9, 2007 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

The clacky IBM M-type is a very good keyboard.

But the Avant keyboards from CVT are great keyboards; they're slightly updated versions of the never-surpassed Northgate line.

I have a couple old Northgates and a couple Avants that I carry with me from job to job; they will last longer than I will, and they are as close to that wondeful IBM Selectric feel as you will ever get.

If you google on "Northgate keyboard" or "Avant keyboard" you'll find a bunch of old hackers talking about how much they love these battleships, and how nothing else will do.

Posted by: joel hanes on November 9, 2007 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

If you want to spend big bucks, Creative Vision Technologies (cvtinc.com) makes really superior keyboards using the old Omni keyboard technology. Nicely clicky and smooth as silk, great touch, very sturdy. Cost: $149 for the Avant Prime model and $189 for the Avant Stellar (which has function keys on the left as well as across the top). Both are programmable.

The big disadvantage is that they're made only for PS/2, for some reason; you'll need to get one of the PS/2 to USB connectors CVT sells for $15 (the ones you get at Radio Shack or elsewhere may not do the job).

Check the FAQ for some limitations on the programming software (but the keyboards can be manually programmed as well).

Posted by: Swift Loris on November 9, 2007 at 8:51 PM | PERMALINK

(Pause to look at Avant web page)

Backwards-L return keys are Not Even Wrong.

Posted by: Forrest on November 9, 2007 at 8:54 PM | PERMALINK

never-surpassed Northgate line

Yes, I meant Northgate above. That's the company; the keyboards were called Omni.

I don't understand why everybody doesn't use keyboard skins. They don't interfere with typing in the slightest, and they're a lifesaver if you have an accident with a liquid. Plus, they keep out dust and cat hair, and they muffle the clicking sound a bit so it's less disturbing to others in the vicinity.

Posted by: Swift Loris on November 9, 2007 at 8:58 PM | PERMALINK

I second the endorsement of the Avant line. I love being able to reprogram the left-hand function keys and having the Control key where it was meant to be.

Posted by: bad Jim on November 9, 2007 at 9:02 PM | PERMALINK

Backwards-L return keys are Not Even Wrong.

I have never had a problem hitting the return key, regardless of shape.

But I refuse to get over my irritation at the way IBM moved the control key to the bottom row, instead of leaving it to the left of the "a" As God Intended, and I remap it on every system I use regularly.

Caps-Lock -- now there's a Bad Thing.

Posted by: joel hanes on November 9, 2007 at 9:04 PM | PERMALINK

Getting positively giddy about going back to using an old-fashioned typewriter? Not me. That little blurb gave me a quick sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I recalled hammering out term papers at Berkeley back in the 70s.

Bottles of white-out everywhere, erasers of various sizes all over the desk, and long, long streams of profanity coming out of my mouth every time my clumsy fingers struck the wrong key.

Give up my eMac for an old Olivetti manual? "From my cold dead hands!" as Chuck Heston would put it.

Posted by: Rob_in_Hawaii on November 9, 2007 at 9:06 PM | PERMALINK

I remap it on every system I use regularly

FWIW, when I got my first XP machine, I found I was unable to use the Avant's programming to permanently switch the Ctrl/Alt/Caps lock keys, an absolute necessity for me. I would have to do it every time I booted up. The CVT tech support guy said that was a "feature" of XP; it wasn't with Win98.

Anyway, now I use a key-mapping program from PC Magazine called TradeKeys, whose changes aren't erased by booting.

Posted by: Swift Loris on November 9, 2007 at 9:15 PM | PERMALINK

I still have two old Northgates as well, and an Avant Stellar, plus a few old PS/2 keyboards. Keyboards and display are the important parts of a computer. (and 2X whatever is "plenty of memory".)
All these are good for touch typists. A couple of my colleagues use the Dvorak layout for another +30WPM or so, but they're insane.

My experience is similar to Kevin's. We were forced to learn touch typing in school, and I got to maybe 16-20 words per minute after corrections, barely passing. Switching to a basic text editor (line mode) on a CRT terminal (with a backspace key) was an amazing change. Typing speed went up to 40-50 WPM within weeks.

Posted by: Bill Arnold on November 9, 2007 at 9:16 PM | PERMALINK

Loved Scripsit..loved being able to program in words and phrases on the F keys.

Posted by: Mudge on November 9, 2007 at 9:20 PM | PERMALINK

But I refuse to get over my irritation at the way IBM moved the control key to the bottom row,
Yeah, that was hard to forgive. The very worst are the keyboards with the CTRL/"Windows Key"/ALT layout. (It's easy to disable the "Windows Key" (in windows) with a minor registry edit.)

Posted by: Bill Arnold on November 9, 2007 at 9:21 PM | PERMALINK

This is a fun topic.

I'm a little less particular about keyboards than I am about mouses (work in a Mac division, use a Microsoft mouse on the G5 and the 8 core Mac Pro, just never bothered to get rid of the Apple mouse on the dual core Mac Pro) but the fact that I don't have too many complaints about keyboards (except when a Swedish Apple keyboard recently showed up in our stash - apparently the Swedes like really small shift buttons [you can't imagine how annoying this is]) suggests to me that someone did a really good job of designing computers keyboards in the beginning.

Typing on laptops still feels cramped to me; I'm not sure how you get around that (as a side note I bought an HP SE laptop a few weeks ago and if you're looking to buy a Windows-based notebook PC HP's lineup for this coming year is excellent [they more than any other maker of laptops have figured out what their customers want...you can get a 2+ ghz dual core machine with 4 gigs of ram and mostly top of the line components standard for slightly more than 1500 bucks]).

Posted by: Linus on November 9, 2007 at 9:46 PM | PERMALINK

I hate PC keyboards. They have no weight. Even a rubber pad failed to keep mine in place. I had to put a backstop on my keyboard tray to keep it from sliding and shifting around. And while I like laptops, I don't buy one because the keyboards are placed at the back instead of the front where they belong. I'd rather have the trackpad at the back, out of the way until I need it.

Kevin is right about Selectrics. Best keyboards ever made.

Posted by: Caslon on November 9, 2007 at 9:55 PM | PERMALINK

I'm willing to argue that the Royal electric typewriter (don't remember the model, but it was at the time that Litton made it) had a wonderful keyboard. As for computer keyboards, I will vote for the HP one from the late '80s. Still, the M's not bad.

Posted by: freelunch on November 9, 2007 at 10:23 PM | PERMALINK

I am a child of the computer age (born 1982). I had to use an old typewriter to neatly fill in a job employment form recently -- the State of Nevada, for whatever reason, distributes its form as non-form PDFs, and the blanks are too small for "hand printing" to be effective.

It was shear torture. I went through maybe 10 drafts of just the first page - even trying to type my name, address, and phone number was shear torture without a correction ribbon to undo my mistakes. Just because it had a "QWERTY" keyboard didn't mean that I had any idea how to make it hum (on a computer, I can easily type 100 words per minute -- if one accepts the fact that I'll get about every tenth word wrong and have to use the backspace key!)

Word processing allows perfection without frustration.

Posted by: Jim D on November 9, 2007 at 10:39 PM | PERMALINK

I went to an event at the local university recently where a panel of writers gathered to reminisce about the typewriter. Accompanying the panel was a display of several old typewriters, ranging from the early 1900's to the 1970's.

On the whole, the panel and commenting audience members were able to dredge up some nostalgia for their early years with typewriters, if only because typewriters were part of their early experience.

But it was clear that, try as we might, no one present could really generate any desire to go back to typewriters in lieu of word processors.

As tools to write with, typewriters are simply inferior to word processors in EVERY practical respect. I recall the angst and frustration of typing papers on typewriters -- a terribly crude process compared with composing on computer.

Many of them, however, remain impressive mechanical creations and artifacts of industrial design.

Posted by: McCord on November 9, 2007 at 10:44 PM | PERMALINK

Worst Windows machine I ever had was the one that my PS/2 Keyboard wouldn't work with. In general I have Luddite tendencies, but I love this keyboard. I love word processing. Like Kevin, I loved AmiPro better than any of the rest but I would go back to to WordStar on CP/M before I would go back to a manual typewriter.

But having said that -- all my novels have to live on a machine that is not only detached from any networks, but has had all the games removed. Even the games that exist as example programs for a 'C; compiler. Otherwise I'm too easily distracted. Fortunately, at work I have my pick of any number of ten-years-obsolete machines which are fine for writing.

Posted by: thersites on November 9, 2007 at 10:59 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, what a wonderful post. For YEARS, I had writer's block. And then, on my Mac 512KE, I discovered Acta, the Outliner. Suddenly, I didn't need to worry about order and perfection, but could write and re-arrange until the pieces fell together! It was wonderful! I finished an article one day, and then the next day -- wrote another! Very rarely in this life does one get such a sense of power and freedom. Then, of course, Word's abominable outliner killed the product category...

And thanks for the links on the keyboard. Today Apple makes a pretty good keyboard, but they are still pretty cheesy beside a good typesetter's keyboard....

Posted by: lambert strether on November 9, 2007 at 11:04 PM | PERMALINK

My all time favorite computer keyboard that I've EVER used was a SUN UNIX workstation with all the extra keys on the left side for Cut, Copy, Paste, etc. Rarely, the STOP+A command was needed to reboot everything clean. It had a lot of definite audible clicks, and I rarely misspelled anything.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on November 9, 2007 at 11:08 PM | PERMALINK

I have a pile of Dell (Model M lookalikes) keyboards that I bought surplus for an endless supply... And since then I've never broken a keyboard.

Of course, now I generally use a Mac Bluetooth keyboard, and their rev 1s have enough spring for me, but their new ones are built well, but don't have the same springiness...

Posted by: Crissa on November 10, 2007 at 12:05 AM | PERMALINK

"From the first moment I used it, I loved the editing and composing freedom that word processing gave me."

That was my experience exactly. It was 1984 or 1985, I had a term paper due and no time to get my handwritten draft to a typist (I would pay a typist because I really was THAT bad.) A geeky friend had just purchased a Mac. and I went over to his house to type my paper myself. He gave me a two minute orientation, I began typing, and that was it, I was in love.

At first, I didn't like the keyboard of my MacBook because the keys were spaced so far apart, but now I like it a lot. It has decent responsivity.

Posted by: PTate in MN on November 10, 2007 at 12:51 AM | PERMALINK

Am I the only person who HATES the old clack-clack keyboards, or any desktop-style keyboards for that matter? Good laptop-style (scissor-key) keyboards are so much better. They have low effort and short travel, so I can type for much longer periods of time without getting hand fatigue or tendinitis. And the good ones (like Apple's new aluminum keyboard, which I bought the day it arrived at my local Apple store) have the most positive feel of any keyboards made today -- much better than the mushy feel of 95% of the standard desktop keyboards.

When I get a standard-issue Dell, etc. keyboard at a job, I'll bring in my own scissor-key keyboard as long as I'm working at the job. It makes that much of a difference to the way I feel.

Posted by: dal20402 on November 10, 2007 at 12:55 AM | PERMALINK

The capslock is annoying, and I wish it had some sort of use. It's a holdover from typewriters, and when computers changed from being terminals, the more familiar tab-lock-shift layout prevailed.

Of course, having all the control keys grouped is a good idea, I hated the in-between terminal keyboards which didn't have alt next to shift. That was so aggravating to have ctrl way off to the top nowhere near the alt or function keys... Or worse, having the lock key between it and shift.

There are ways to add PS/2 ports to USB - there are many dongles on the market now, but I have a Y-Mouse that I use when I need to build a Mac and I'm going to use my big keyboard. ^-^

Posted by: Crissa on November 10, 2007 at 1:01 AM | PERMALINK

This business of asserting the moral superiority of eschewing a dominant technology reappears here and there. I recently came across the "fixies" movement in bicycles, which is about riding without gears or even a freewheel. Same encomiums about freedom and purity and whatnot. I guess snobbish contrarianism always finds a way.

Posted by: jimBOB on November 10, 2007 at 1:08 AM | PERMALINK


You mean you missed the greatest word processer of them all - WordStar?

Poor Baby!

Posted by: Rick B on November 10, 2007 at 1:09 AM | PERMALINK

jimBOB:"I recently came across the "fixies" movement in bicycles, which is about riding without gears or even a freewheel. Same encomiums about freedom and purity and whatnot. I guess snobbish contrarianism always finds a way."

My son built himself a bike like that, but he claimed it was so no one would be tempted to steal the d**n thing.

Posted by: PTate in MN on November 10, 2007 at 1:49 AM | PERMALINK

I LOVED the TRS 80. Compact for its day and one of the best e-mailing machines around....did a lot of traveling in those days and it was a machine if really appreciated for the ease of what it did.

Posted by: dweb on November 10, 2007 at 2:14 AM | PERMALINK

Working for a design studio where mice
and keyboards are clicking away I would tend toward the
other end of the spectrum. Silence.

I thought this guy had a good idea on how to silence your
mouse. http://www.abclinuxu.cz/blog/hajma/2005/3/23/81023),

But here's a company that sells silent mice for those
of us that aren't handy with a solder gun.


Posted by: wellstoner on November 10, 2007 at 3:09 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin et al - y'all never used PC-Write by Bob Wallace at Quicksoft? you could get it for free as shareware or buy it and register it, give away copies, and get money back from Quicksoft if other
people registered/bought after using your copy. It
was great for editing plain text files like programs for foxbase/foxplus/foxpro which was a great database program in the DOS days and still works fine under windows xp.

The PC-Write manuals had many cat illustrations (not a plus for me), but I liked it that
Bob was one of the original microsoft guys who left to do his own thing around 1983 - and it was interesting that he supposedly was an advocate for the use of hallucinogenic drugs (personally I prefer listening to old blues records and drinking homemade ales). Bob Wallace died several years ago - RIP.

Posted by: muddylee on November 10, 2007 at 8:31 AM | PERMALINK

Ah, the days of typing aboard ship with the carriage slip slidin' away and away - Not to mention the remarkable "whiteout" or acquired skills of using an eraser - Plus those lovely, never ever messy, mimeograph machines.

And you gripe about keyboards?

Posted by: bert on November 10, 2007 at 9:07 AM | PERMALINK

Typewriter nostalgia? I've got one of those old plastic footnote charts--the one you inserted behind the page you were typing--to dispel that.

And Goodwill or Salvation Army has all the old clickedy-clack keyboards you could want, for $2.50.

Posted by: Steve Paradis on November 10, 2007 at 9:22 AM | PERMALINK

I believe this thread is the definition of NerdFury;>

Posted by: Martin on November 10, 2007 at 9:23 AM | PERMALINK

I'm surprised that anybody would use Movable Type to compose anything but a six-line comment (like this). When I'm blogging I draft everything in a program with more word-processing control; I use the Thunderbird e-mail window. I paste in the HTML tags for lists and the URLs of any links as text, and then ship the draft into the blog editor. With luck, that means I only have to cut and paste the URLs as links, set blockquotes, and upload any images.

Posted by: James Wimberley on November 10, 2007 at 9:37 AM | PERMALINK

And a belated Kudos to drivingblind for coining the term "Nerdfury".

Posted by: bert on November 10, 2007 at 9:41 AM | PERMALINK

Two words:

IBM Selectric

(Okay, maybe that's four words.)

The Selectric had the best keyboard feel ever and the satisfying "thunk" sound of the typeball hitting paper made writing a pleasure.

Posted by: Steve on November 10, 2007 at 9:48 AM | PERMALINK

You ruined my weekend. MASS-11. A phrase I had banished to wherever I banish the thoughts of lousy software. The vilest, most aggrevating pretender to a word processing system ever perpretrated on humanity. Runoff was better. Cuneiform tablets were faster.

Tweak the layout. Print. Walk 100 feet to the laser printer. See how it has screwed up this time. Repeat.

Posted by: Charles M on November 10, 2007 at 10:16 AM | PERMALINK

Fell in love with XyWrite two decades ago. Still use XyWrite IV for DOS every day.

And for quick cutting and pasting from the interwebs there is nothing easier than Yeah Write.

Posted by: MrLipid on November 10, 2007 at 10:28 AM | PERMALINK

I too wish for a keyboard with the solid snap of the IBM Selectric typewriter--most satisfying tactile typing experience in history, IMO.

I also have some residual fondness for the old pre-GUI word processors I used back in the day like Wordstar. For one, they made html formatting tags seem like a homecoming. Ah dot-commands....

Posted by: DrBB on November 10, 2007 at 10:35 AM | PERMALINK

I think the quality of "typing", in general has a LOT more to do with the skills of the typist, rather than the technical minutiae of the keyboard: for me, the very first class I ever took in high school (41 years ago!) was a typing class - on the then-top-of-the-line movable-carriage IBM electric. I discovered that I am, at bottom, a truly sucky typist. And: after 41 years, whether on manual, electric, Selectric or word-processor/computer; my typing STILL sucks (at least I'm consistent!)! At least with a screen/cursor combo you can at least attempt to get your final product to be legible. sumtimes.

Posted by: Jay C on November 10, 2007 at 11:03 AM | PERMALINK

Re typewriters vs wordprocessors in general--the absolute worst job I ever had back when I was an itinerant office temp in the 80s was at Sentry Insurance in Concord MA. They had an actual typing pool like in an old movie or something, all on typewriters, and the thing was, we were typing up policies that were legally invalidated if there were overstrikes or erasures. So you had to throw your document out and redo it if you made a single error--talk about word-processing temp hell. This was in 1985, and why in god's name they hadn't gone to electronic system by then I'll never know. I think they just liked the cruelty of it. Seriously--it was a throwback in other respects as well: the typists were all women, and the managers treated them like children. You had to ask permission for a bathroom break or to use the single phone for the whole group, you couldn't have a cup of coffee at your desk (Refreshments during scheduled breaks only, dearie!) etc etc. Like being shifted back in time to the 50s--the woman I sat next to even had an obsession about flouridation of water; how twilight-zone is that?!

On the other hand, one of the most delightful jobs I had during the same period was typing up invoices at a body shop in East Hartford, run by an old Jewish guy and his son. Word processor, hell; they didn't even have an electric typewriter, just a pre-WWII manual that swung up out of the reception desk on a little hinged platform. The "throw" on the keys felt like it must have been a couple of inches, like pushing in rods in a kids' game, one at a time. The thing I remember so fondly though was that the old guy had just come out of the hospital after a heart bypass, and all his old-jewish-guy pals were dropping in to wish him well, which meant that I spent half my time surreptitiously taking down dialogue in my notebook for use in my fiction writing. My favorite bit was when one of them asked me how long I'd been working there and I said "Oh, I'm just temporary." "Hey, Buddy," he says, "we're all just temporary."

Posted by: DrBB on November 10, 2007 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin wrote: "If I could buy a PC keyboard that felt like an IBM Selectric keyboard, I'd snap it up in a second. Or even one that felt like an original IBM PC keyboard."

Agreed. I am fortunate to have a 1986 IBM 1390131 Model M keyboard, that originally came with an IBM PC-XT computer. It's built like a tank, and the keys don't "click", they clank. In my opinion, the best computer keyboard ever made.

My second-best favorite is a Northgate Omnikey Ultra-T that's pretty similar to the IBM, which I have stored away in bubble wrap.

My word processor history: WordStar; MultiMate (a DOS port of the Wang word processor); SideKick (the first memory resident text editor for DOS); WordPerfect v4.x up through WordPerfect for Windows various versions; and nowadays OpenOffice Writer. And I'm learning vi.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on November 10, 2007 at 11:08 AM | PERMALINK

Fell in love with XyWrite two decades ago. Still use XyWrite IV for DOS every day.

Best. Word processor. Ever. I use Xy 3.5 for DOS almost every day.

What a tragedy that it became orphaned before it was ever properly rewritten for Windows.

Nine times out of ten, I have to giggle when I read somebody's instructions for creating a Word macro, because they go on forever, whereas creating the exact equivalent in Xy would take only one or two lines of very simple code.

Posted by: Swift Loris on November 10, 2007 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

Glad to see a few people remember Ami Pro - vastly superior to that pile of crap Word. I don't think I'd go back to a typewriter - even a Selectric - but I miss Windows for Workgroups and Ami Pro. It's been all downhill since then.

Posted by: Susan on November 10, 2007 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

I believe this thread is the definition of NerdFury

Nahh, we're not even warm yet.
Now if I were to utter the magic flame-attracting phrase:

vi is superior to emacs in every way

we could have a religious battle that would put Europe's Hundred-Year-War to shame.

Fortunately for Kevin and all commenters, I did not utter that phrase. I used it as a hypothetical example. King's X! Had my fingers crossed.

Posted by: joel hanes on November 10, 2007 at 1:14 PM | PERMALINK

Ever decide to try the more efficient non-QWERTY keyboards?

Might be an interesting experience. Of course if you already type 100 words a minute or something it probably won't be that important.

Posted by: MNPundit on November 10, 2007 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

Fell in love with XyWrite two decades ago. - MrLipid

Thanks. I was trying to remember the name of the first word processing program I learned in 1985. I was at a large law firm and two women were sent to New York to buy the best program on the market. They came back with XyWrite, a difficult program to learn for a bunch of computer neophytes. You had to type in all of the commands.

One rumor was that they got some kind of kick-back for selecting this program. But, one thing for sure. They had total job security. They had to teach the program to all new hires, because every other firm in town was using the much easier-to-learn WordPerfect.

For years after I left that job I listed XyWrite on my resume. But, I eventually dropped it because no one knew what I was talking about.

Posted by: emmarose on November 10, 2007 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

Back in the old days I used to repair and adjust keyboards. I believe that the shipboard typewriter that Bert refers to was a Royal 500 all caps model. The shift key only shifted the top row and punctuation. The Teletype Model 37 had the smoothest keyboard for my money but a Teletype shakes the floor when it is running.

The worst keyboard was that of the Remington Noiseless. There was no aural feedback. It was this machine that caused Remington to lose dominance in high end typewriters to IBM.

Sic transit gloria.

Posted by: bidrec on November 10, 2007 at 4:47 PM | PERMALINK

Emacs is terrible. What an abortion.

Posted by: Ibod Catooga on November 10, 2007 at 6:02 PM | PERMALINK

You had to type in all of the commands.

Xy's command-line interface took some work to learn, but it was the program's great strength (and yours, once you learned the commands).

Just for fun, to change "John" to "George" in Word, here's the steps you have to follow:

1. Click the Find button on the menu (or press ALT-L)
2. Type "John" in the Find box
3. Click the Replace tab (or press ALT-P)
4. Click in the Replace box (or press the Tab key)
5. Type "George" is the Replace box
6. Click More (or press ALT-M)
7. Put a checkmark in the Match Case box (or press ALT-H)
8. Click Replace All (or press Alt-R)
9. Click OK in the box that reports how many changes have been made
10. Click Close to get rid of the Find box

Here's how you'd accomplish the same thing in Xy:

1. Press F5 to get to the command line
2. On the command line, type:

cia /John/George/

3. Press Enter (or F9)

"Cia" is the abbreviation for "change invisible absolute," "absolute" meaning match case. Typing "cva" instead would let you OK each change; "ci" would make the changes without matching case; "cv" would allow you to OK each non-case-matched change.

And Xy was fast, even back in the days of 64K RAM.

Posted by: Swift Loris on November 10, 2007 at 6:19 PM | PERMALINK

My middle son had a block between his brain, a very fast brain, and his fingers, a very slow connection. When he was introduced to computers and word processing words and thoughts poured out of him like releasing water behind a tall dam.

Posted by: DILBERT DOGBERT on November 10, 2007 at 9:20 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, get off a MT. Use a better blogging tool, Wordpress. To see why go here:


Posted by: Marj on November 11, 2007 at 9:51 AM | PERMALINK

It's a funny thing--I can turn out a business letter faster on my old Remington portable (the sort that requires throwing a lever in order to bring the type bars into the "ready" position) than I've ever been able to do on a computer (at least since WP 5 for DOS). I think it has something to do with being able to stop most erroneous keystrokes before the type hits the ribbon; one just takes a finger off of the key and magically, no erasing or White-Out needed.

This said, the fact remains that most of my writing gets done on an office PC afflicted with a truly flaccid keyboard. I write, I edit, I substitute, I fiddle--and writing becomes much slower, not necessarily better. Why not use the Remington? First, the rest of the office and our clients send and expect files, not sheets of paper. Second, the Remington is about seventy years old, typewriter repairmen are scarce and my own repair abilities are limited. So, I keep mine around for occasional pleasure writing and don't work it too hard (its last major job was drafting my MA thesis, 20 years ago). It's an old friend and a cool piece of mechanical crankiness, useful mainly as a totem these days. Sigh. So much for productivity!

Posted by: dware on November 11, 2007 at 11:29 AM | PERMALINK

In 1979 I used the first word processor that I had ever seen, which belonged to a University of California professor. It as made my HP and cost $13,000. It was about the size of a refrigerator. It used an 8" floppy disk with about 56k capacity.

I wanted one. A few months later I bought an Apple II ($4000), and I had one.

Posted by: Repack Rider on November 11, 2007 at 11:32 AM | PERMALINK

XYWrite! Had it when worked in DOS, and I had mine so customized I could fly. You could program custom groups of shorthand entries, using a different group for different projects, so a one or two letter entry magically became the word you needed. All my common typos would correct themselves.

Incredible search and replace capacity.

They don't make 'em like that any more, dammit.

Posted by: Repack Rider on November 11, 2007 at 11:37 AM | PERMALINK

Nice to know that, while others may digress into mere personal indulgences and whimsies, Kevin Drum consistently keeps his nose to the grindstone, relentlessly producing "GREAT political blogging" on notable events of significant interest to all (that and "cat blogging").

Posted by: Poilu on November 11, 2007 at 2:31 PM | PERMALINK

Varsity Scripsit on a Trash-80! I still have the 5.25" archive discs, even though I haven't seen a five-and-a-quarter drive in over a decade!

Posted by: Volatile Compound on November 12, 2007 at 4:34 PM | PERMALINK



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