The DEC writer VI

I started grad school in the fall of 1978. I typed papers on my Adler electric typewriter, a high school graduation gift, until the winter of 1980, when I received this memo from Bob Brandom and Nuel Belnap, two professors in the Philosophy Department at Pitt:


Following their instructions, I secured an application from Collie, an administrative assistant, for a “project programmer number.” We would now call what I was applying for an “account.” It was an account on the University’s Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) mainframe computer, a DEC10. Brandom and Belnap had installed the DEC Writer terminal in a room in the department, and they offered grad students, staff, and faculty access to it and an introduction to its use.

A DEC Writer terminal

If I remember correctly, Bob Brandom ran the brief introductory session. He showed us how to login, how to do rudimentary file management tasks, like saving files, and logging out. This terminal had no screen. All the text printed right to the paper, and the print was a 9×9 dot-matrix array. The editor program was called “update” and it was a line-oriented editor. That meant that you were only dealing with one line at a time. First you entered the line of text. Then to change part of that line, you issued a command to change a string of text to a different string. So to change “tho” to “the”, the command was:

$ch /tho/the

Issuing this command caused the line of text to print out with the changed string.  Each line was numbered, and you could go to a line by issuing a “goto” command.

In addition to editing text, we had access to a new program for formatting text  that had just been invented at Carnegie Mellon University, just a stone’s throw away. That program was called Scribe, and it was a markup language and forerunner to HTML. To wind up with a formatted text, the text file was marked up with tags and delimiters using a syntax which is very much like HTML and other modern markup languages. For example, to indicate that the string “oh my God!” should appear italicized, one expressed that string as:

@i<oh my God!>

Compare the HTML:

<em>oh my God!</em>

To see the formatted text it was necessary first to save the text file and exit UPDATE, the text editor, then run the SCRIBE program, which takes the text file as input, and produces a formatted file as output, either to a remote printer, or to the DEC Writer terminal itself.

There is an important difference between these two output choices. Instructing the DEC10 mainframe to format the input file and produce and print the output file on the terminal was a request to carry out computations in real time. Instructing the computer to format and print remotely was to place a request in a queue that would be acted on based on the priority of the formatting and printing job among the various jobs submitted to it in the time-sharing environment by the totality of users. The priority of a user’s job in the queue is determined by the user’s allocation share of the computer’s computing resources, which is tracked and adjusted based on the user’s usage. Asking the computer to format the text immediately and print to the terminal uses a lot of the computer’s resources, and that dings the user for future requests.

The world of word processing was opened to us, and as Brandom and Belnap promised in their memo, we could now, for the first time, create, edit, and store text files, format and index text, create footnotes, endnotes, and do many of the things we’ve done with text ever since. Gone were the days of the typewriter and of a single, typed static hard copy. I saw immediately that this new technology would change the way I write.

Another world, the world of computers, was also new. From this point onward, computers increasingly became tools of my craft, and in short order, tools for accomplishing various tasks in everyday life. It would still be many years until computing reached the masses, but when it did, it hit hard.

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