What Was the First Novel Written on a Computer?

University of Maryland professor Matthew Kirschenbaum knows. It’s Len Deighton’s 1970 book Bomber, which the novelist composed on an IBM Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter, or MSTS. The story, which Kirschenbaum has told to Slate, is part of his research into the early history of word processing. A profile two years ago in the New York Times expands a little on what will be in Kirschenbaum’s new book, including Stephen King using a Wang PC and Tom Clancy an Apple IIe. Apparently, Frank Herbert may also have been using a computer in the late 1970s.

If it seems like there’s a pattern appearing here, it’s that all the names above are genre writers. There’s an argument to be made that science fiction, horror, and thriller writers were less likely to feel constrained in how they put words on paper: Kirschenbaum observes, “Bomber itself was a harbinger of what we would today call a techno-thriller,” with story of the book’s creation becoming “a kind of techno-thriller in its own right.”

More than that, two of those genres often embrace an analytical “closed world” approach in which every fact has its place and every place its true and established fact. (I’ve always thought that Asimov’s original Foundation stories make a lot more sense once you realize they’re locked room mysteries where the room happens to be the size of the galaxy.) If that’s your goal, the ability to search, revise, and reorganize is be priceless. As Deighton explained to Kirschenbaum “I had always ‘constructed’ my books rather than written them. Until the IBM machine arrived I used scissors and paste (actually Copydex one of those milk glues) to add paras, dump pages and rearrange sections of material.”


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