From Smith-Corona to Apple: my love-hate affair with computers

By Sally Carpenter

To a writer, computers are a necessity, our instrument if you will, just as a saxophone is to a blues musician, a brush to a painter or a costume to an actor.

But do we love our computers? In museums one can see the typewriters of famous authors, but has any author put her computer on display? We seldom have a chance to get “attached” to a computer, as we must purchase a new one every few years to keep up with technology.

Few of us want to return to the days of carbon paper and Liquid Paper (except Woody Allen who still writes his screenplays with literal cut and paste) but has all those electronics really us smarter?

Here’s a brief history of my experience with computers.

 In high school I was trained as a touch typist, learning not to look at the keys or the paper in the roller as I typed. So I can’t look at a computer screen when I compose. It slows me down and stops my thoughts.

I earned my bachelor’s degree with a portable manual Smith-Corona. Later I moved up to an electronic typewriter with a memory so I could backspace and make corrections without erasing. Now that was cool.

The first computer I ever saw was in 1976. It was a small grey box that operated by inserting five-inch floppy discs. At the time I didn’t think it was an improvement over the typewriter.

The computer lab in the basement of the college library had big, bulky computers that ran on FORTRAN or some such program. One had to type long, complex commands to make it work. Printouts were barely readable dot matrix on long rolls of green-and-white striped paper with sprocket holes along the sides. One had to tear the pages apart and remove the holes. How cumbersome.

For a while I did temp work in various offices. Computers had not yet been standardized, so every business had its own unique word processing program. I hated having to learn a new system with every assignment. I remember the Wang software. To run spell check, one had to first completely exit out of a document.

On one assignment I became proficient in WordPerfect. I liked it so much that when I bought my first computer–a Brother DOS–I set it up with WP. The commands were made by holding down two keys at once–the alt, shift or control key along with a number or letter key. For a fast touch typist (I can do 75 wpm) I could keep my fingers on the keyboard and not slow down to reach for a mouse. I loved the clickety-clack of the keys. I wrote a slew of fiction as well as graduate school papers on this machine.

I’d still be using that workhorse except for one thing–the Internet. DOS cannot support the web. For a while I used a second computer a laptop with Windows for web surfing and email but I continued writing on the Brother. However, the laptop constantly broke down and when the motherboard gave out after only 2.5 years, I was through with it.

I finally had to give up the Brother about the time I started writing mysteries because many publishers (and now, all) were only taking electronic submissions. A friend gave me his old antiquated iMac when he upgraded. Now I could write, send emails, and use the web on one computer-sort of. The machine is limited in its web capabilities and can be ghastly slow with emails, but it works.

And when I can upgrade to a modern computer, I’ll be going for retro. The QwerkyWriter is a keyboard that hooks up to any tablet or monitor but looks like a manual typewriter keyboard with “clickety clack” and a “return” lever that’s the “enter” key. Everything old is new again.



7 thoughts on “From Smith-Corona to Apple: my love-hate affair with computers

  1. My experience dates back to manual typewriters, electric typewriters (remember the IBM Selectric), memory typewriters and then increasingly complex computers. Certainly it’s now a lot easier to make changes and corrections. I heard a story that when an office switched from manual to electric typewriters, all the typists gained ten pounds in a year. The manuals made us work hard!


  2. I love this walk back through time, but I have to admit I couldn’t write without a computer. And not just with a word processing program either (do we still call them that?). I’m hooked on Scrivener now, a fairly complicated way to take advantage of all that the modern age has to offer when writing (keeping track and making available web pages, photos, notes, all in one place).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I started out writing my first stories and mysteries on an electric typewriter. When my children’s grade school added a computer lab, I went in and helped so I could learn how to use the computer and I started putting my book on a floppy disk in between classes. The instructor thought it was wonderful I was a writer. 😉


      1. Hey Paty, when I started writing on computers I needed two floppy discs to hold one novel. Now I have four novels and a slew of other documents on one slim flash drive! It’s an official Sisters in Crime/LA thumb drive with the old chapter logo on it. What better place to store mysteries?


    2. Good for you, Jane. I’ve heard that a number of writers enjoy using Scrivener. Maybe if I worked with it long enough I’d get to like it but for now I’m still keeping notes on paper and in notebooks. I’m just a dinosaur!


Comments are closed.