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Continuous Paper

Print interfaces and early computer writing

Nick Montfort, presented at ISEA 2004

This is the full version of the paper Scott Rettberg presented for me at ISEA 2004 in Helsinki, on August 20, 2004. I slightly abbreviated the text he read so it would fit in the alloted time. The text that I sumitted to ISEA was abbreviated further so as to not exceed the (believe it or not) 13250 character limit. As I started researching this topic, I gave a preliminary talk at the History of Material Texts workshop; that text is online. If you'd like to correspond about the topic and correct or inform me about the use of print-based interfaces, please contact me: nickm at this domain.

The discussion of computer writing sometimes assumes that the screen is not just an important part of human-computer interface today, but an essential aspect of all creative and communicative computing — a fixture, perhaps even a basis, for new media. The screen is relatively new on the scene, however. Plenty of algorithms and even some programs that we use today predate the widespread use of cathode ray tube displays. Early interaction with computers happened largely on paper: on paper tape, on punchcards, and on print terminals and teletypewriters, with their scroll-like supplies of continuous paper for printing output and input both.

By looking back to early new media and examining the role of paper — the pun is difficult to avoid here — we can begin to see how history contradicts the "screen essentialist" assumption about computing. Perhaps we can also get an idea of how to enrich our understanding of electronic writing, by recognizing the different ways in which it has been accomplished and by understanding what elements are truly essential to creative computing.

There were a handful of early, and very influential, screen-based systems. These included Spacewar, the first modern video game, developed at MIT in 1962; Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad, also developed at MIT in 1962; Doug Englebart's NLS (oNLine System), developed at SRI and shown in the "mother of all demos" in 1968; and Grail, developed at the RAND Corporation in 1969. These were important; they were also high-budget exceptions to the rule. Other people using more run-of-the-mill interfaces were also making contributions to electronic art and computer writing.

There are three particular computer programs that will give some focus to this discussion of paper-based interfaces and early electronic writing:

After examining these three programs in some depth, three other literary and artistic computer projects that didn't involve a screen will quickly be mentioned.


The Eliza system was programmed by Joseph Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s. It was written in a language called MAD (Michigan Algorithm Decoder), using a package called SLIP (Symmetric LIst Processor) which Weizenbaum originally developed in 1963. Weizenbaum had an IBM 1050 in his office,[4] a print terminal which featured a Selectric typewriter ball. He programmed Eliza for the IBM 7094, running the Compatible Time-Sharing System that was developed at MIT's Project MAC. This operating system was one of the first successful time-sharing systems, one of the first to offer email, and, apparently, the very first to offer text formatting capabilities.

Eliza was a general-purpose system for conversation, but the Doctor script has become inextricably associated with it. When running this script, Eliza impersonated a Rogerian psychotherapist, and could play the role well, if the user was willing to play along. The system had a tremendous impact on natural language processing, artificial intelligence, the relationship of computing and psychotherapy, and the ethical uses of computers. Janet Murray identifies Eliza/Doctor as the "moment in the history of the computer that demonstrated its representational and narrative power with the same startling immediacy as the Lumières' train did for the motion picture camera," and she names Weizenbaum "the earliest, and still perhaps the premier, literary artist in the computer medium."[5]

Sherry Turkle has offered an important discussion of the phenomenon of Eliza/Doctor. She quoted two users who related to the system in different ways — one trying to trick it, another actually seeking help in sorting through her feelings — and presented the points of view of Weizenbaum (who thought the system should never be used for real psychothereputic purposes) and psychiatrist Kenneth Colby (who disagreed). However, Turkle did not discuss the material experience of the system in the early days, and the title of her book, Life on the Screen, suggests that Eliza started off as a screen-based program. Turkle states that the all-uppercase output of the program was an attempt to imitate a Teletype,[6] when, in fact, people initially interacted with Eliza using Teletypes and other print terminals. Tom Van Vleck, who was at MIT with Weizenbaum when he programmed Eliza, wrote: "I think mixed case output was seen as a 'decoration' in those days.. it made data files twice as big and had other mode switching problems with CTSS, and I think it would have actually detracted from the point Joe was trying to make about computer interaction."

Many people have interacted with Eliza/Doctor on screens. But the fact that early output was printed more or less permanently on paper, rather than transiently appearing on the screen, influences how we understand the system as literary and as psychotherepeutic. There are other aspects of early interfaces that may be important. When interacting on a slow-moving Teletype, it was possible to read the beginning of Eliza's statement and still have time to guess what the conclusion of that utterance would be, as is the case in human conversation. The versions of Eliza that are available today, even if they are authentic re-implementations from a formal, computational perspective, are not authentic to that aspect of interface.[7]

Hunt the Wumpus

Gregory Yob, who resided in Palo Alto, California, wrote of how he came to program a famous early BASIC game, Hunt the Wumpus: "[In 1973] I happened by People's Computer Company (PCC) and saw some of their computer games such as Hurkle, Snark, and Mugwump. My reaction was: 'EECH!!' Each of these games was based on a 10 x 10 grid ..." It's rather striking that these three early computer games were named after entities in literary works by Theodore Sturgeon, Lewis Carroll, and William S. Burroughs, but, while their inspirations were interestingly various, their frameworks were rather similar. The Cartesian grid would work well enough for Microsoft, when it included Minesweeper as a default game with Windows 3.1 almost 20 years later, but Yob decided that creative computer users working on print terminals back in 1973 should have a game played on a different and more interesting sort of grid. He chose the dodecahedron, he explained, "simply because it's my favorite Platonic solid and once, ages ago, I made a kite shaped like one."[8]

Just as the creators of modern online games might expect you to search for information on the Web as you play them, since you're online anyway, Yob expected that Hunt the Wumpus players would use paper, the output medium for the program, to create maps of the cave. Indeed, they did. Yob wrote that about a month after writing the game, "I went to the Synergy conference at Stanford, where many of the far-out folk were gathered to share their visions of improving the world. PCC had a few terminals running in a conference room and I dropped by. To my vast surprise, all of the terminals were running Wumpus and scraps of paper on the floor with scrawled numbers and lines testified that much dedicated Wumpus-hunting was in progress."[9]

It seems significant that Hunt the Wumpus was developed, before the era of home computing, in BASIC, an unstructured language that was approachable and easy to hack in. As the 1968 book Game Playing with Computers explains, "BASIC was developed at Dartmouth College for a GE-225 computer system and is similar to the FORTRAN language. It is a user-oriented language that may be learned in a few hours." [10] BASIC was first made available to users in June 1964. It was one of the first languages created specifically for use on time-sharing systems, in interactive sessions, and it was made freely available. Anyone who wanted to was allowed to implement it — even Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Monte Davidoff, who used a teletype to punch an implementation of BASIC, the first commercial product for the new company Microsoft, onto paper tape more than a decade later.

Some of the standard games in the time-sharing library of the mid-1960s GE-265 system were written in BASIC; others were written in ALGOL. That system included Blackjack, Tic-Tac-Toe, Battle of Numbers, Slot Machine, and Craps.[11] While Game Playing with Computers contains and outlines several BASIC programs, they are all either similar to these standard ones or they enable the computer solve various problems, such as "the 15 puzzle," the sliding-tile puzzle that Apple included with the Macintosh through System 9. Even those early grid-based games of the PCC were, therefore, real innovations, at least hinting at the possibility of new sorts of imaginative spaces — even if they looked more like mathematical word problems than like modern computer games. Yob's Hunt the Wumpus took the next step, showing that locations in a game world could be hooked up in more or less arbitrary ways. By thinking outside the rectilinear grid, Yob — even before he used a screen — became an early liquid architect of cyberspace.


A less regular cave environment was introduced a few years later by Will Crowther, who programmed Adventure in FORTRAN on Bolt, Beranek, and Newman's Cambridge-based DEC PDP-10, probably in 1975. The version of Adventure that became widely known was an expanded and modified version of this original, released by Don Woods in April 1976. He worked on it across the country, at Stanford.[12] The result was a simulated cave with "rooms" (of the sort cavers discover, not the sort that architects design) that were connected in a pattern that was anything but regular. Some formed two mazes of twisty little passages; others were easier to navigate. Not only the regularity of space, but also the regularity of the overall, governing system was broken in Adventure. There were numerous different opponents and obstacles to overcome, areas to map, and pieces to fit together. While Adventure wasn't a literary marvel, it did show that the experience of reading and of puzzle-solving could be integrated, and that textual output could do more than display instructions and pure status information. This would later lead to the interactive fiction works that functioned like literary riddles, combining strange systematic workings with a lattice of evocative language.

By 1975, screens were becoming more common, at least at companies like BBN and universities like MIT, where, a few years later, the programmers of Zork would have access to powerful Imlac terminals, screens included. But Crowther apparently programmed Adventure from home, using an ASR-33 Teletype — a rather old apparatus, even at the time.[13] It's not clear whether he wrote the program offline, for the most part, or interactively, but it was written in FORTRAN, all in uppercase, and Crowther probably went through printouts to debug it. Perhaps he even used the practice of checking off lines as he verified them to be correct, as some did at the time; whatever the case, debugging and revising Adventure is likely to have involved not just computational reasoning, but proofreader's marks.

Players also used paper in their adventuring, just as they did in their Wumpus-hunting. Tracy Kidder noted that one Adventure player's desk held "roughly drawn maps. They consisted of circles, inside of which were scrawled names such as Dirty Passage, Hall of Mists, Hall of the Mountain King ... Webs of lines connected the circles, and each line was labeled, some with points of the compass, some with the words up and down. Here and there on the maps were notations — 'water here,' 'oil here,' and 'damn that pirate!'"[14]

The experience of interactive fiction as a continuous series of textual exchanges, and the requirement that the interactor look back carefully over the text to puzzle out how to proceed, is certainly consistent with the more permanent and uninterrupted printed output that early terminals produced, if not simply a product of this interface. There are also details that relate later, home computer interactive fiction to print-based minicomputer experiences. For instance, the commercial games of Infocom — which popularized the term "interactive fiction" and made up some of the best-selling entertainment software of the 1980s — did include a "script" command that would allow players to print out the input and output text as the game progressed, just as if they were using a print terminal to play.

Other Early Excursions

Three programs were written by people who had good access to computers to begin with; it should come as no surprise that screens were not available to many other creative figures who experimented with computers in the early days, either.

Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville, who most famously collaborated on The Dreammachine in 1959, also did a computer collaboration around 1960. Sommerville programmed a computer to produce every permutation of the phrase "I AM THAT I AM." Gysin then read the list on a BBC broadcast. A British book from about half a decade later explains that programming at the time would probably have been done using a paper-based interface, and non-interactively: "It may be inquired whether direct communication with the machine from a keyboard, and direct output from the machine via a typewriter are used. The answer in both cases is yes, although for input direct human intervention in machine activities is not favoured, as this is a slow operation and one only to be used in engineering tests, or in altering a few instructions in a programme which has been previously inserted by an automatic reader."[15]

Italo Calvino was invited by IBM to write a story using a computer in 1973. Calvino had the protagonist of "The Burning of the Abominable House," the story which resulted, use punchcards to feed data into the computer. But according to Calvino's wife, the limited computer access in Paris, where they were living at the time, meant that Calvino worked by "carrying out all the operations the computer was supposed to do himself."[16] Paper seems to have been the whole mechanism, not just the interface, for his foray into computing.

Print terminals were also the medium for two teleconferences about art and computing that took place on the PLANET and EIES systems, the first in 1978 and 1979 and the second in the first half of 1981. The introduction to a journal publication of some of the transcripts explains the print terminals that were used: "Each participant used a Texas Instruments Portable Memory Terminal (Silent 700 series) Model 765 ... The terminal allows for composition off-line, followed by rapid transmission from the magnetic 'bubble memory' of the terminal through the phone link to the computer for dissemination."[17] New York artist Frank Gillette and Brendan O'Regan, Director of Research of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in San Francisco, were the main participants in these discussions, which also involved several others.


Clearly, significant computer creativity did happen by means of paper interfaces. But this does not refute the idea that computer users today, and in the recent past, have a "life on the screen." It should, instead, urge us to better understand the "life on the scroll" that the users of print terminals had — as recently as the early 1980s — and to understand how punchcard and paper tape interfaces were important to computer creativity. This topic seems particularly relevant as we hurtle past the flat panel into a life of mobile phones and hypertext-enabled MP3 players, while, at the same time, we continue to send more and more plain text emails, sometimes even printing these emails out — just as, originally, emails were printed out, rather than being displayed on a screen.

Our interface ecology is complex. To understand it, it will certainly be necessary to trace the creative use of computers back into earlier eras. Few artists are likely to return to print terminals or punchcards, but the traces of those interfaces are still present in computer systems toady. It also seems certain that as interfaces evolve, neither our office nor our literary and artistic future will become paperless, and work of both sorts will continue to be shaped by the way print-based interfaces were used, not so long ago.

  1. Joseph Weizenbaum, "ELIZA — A Computer Program for the Study of Natural Language Communication Between Man and Machine." Communications of the ACM 9(1), January 1966, pages 36-45.
  2. Gregory Yob, "Hunt the Wumpus." The Best of Creative Computing, volume 1, edited by David Ahl, 1976, pages 247-250. Reprint of an article in Creative Computing, September/October 1975, pages 51-54.
  3. Nick Montfort, Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003, pages 85-93.
  4. Tom Van Vleck, email to author, 27 February 2004.
  5. Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, New York: The Free Press, 1997, pages 68 and 72.
  6. Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, 1st Touchstone edition, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997, page 290, footnote 22.
  7. This was pointed out to me by a woman during the question period after a presentation I made on 3 April 2004 at the e(X)literature conference at UC Santa Barbara.
  8. Yob, "Hunt the Wumpus," page 247.
  9. Yob, "Hunt the Wumpus," page 248.
  10. Donald D. Spencer, Game Playing with Computers, New York: Spartan Books, 1968, page 334.
  11. Spencer, Game Playing, page 337.
  12. Montfort, Twisty Little Passages, page 89.
  13. Montfort, Twisty Little Passages, page 85.
  14. Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1981, page 86.
  15. A. D. Booth, Digital Computers in Action, Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1965, page 20.
  16. Italo Calvino, Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories, translated by Tim Parks, preface by Esther Calvino, New York: Pantheon Books, 1995, page 2.
  17. Roy Skodnick, introduction to "Teleconferencing Computers and Art," All Area 2, Spring 1983, pages 66-70.
— nm, 2004-08-20