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’s 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 (IBM)
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Utnapishtim's word-processor