Monday, August 31, 2009

All Hail the Technical Typist of Yore

Many years ago I produced a dissertation in Mathematics for my Ph.D. This was in 1982: the IBM PC had been introduced the year before and TeX82 had just been released. TeX as we know it today was still 7 years in the future. Device-Independent Troff was just 3 years old and only available under Unix. What all this meant was that my thesis, like that of all my fellow graduate students, was typed on a typewriter and photocopied for submission to the graduate school.

Recently the notion popped into my head that I should typeset my thesis with TeX. Don't ask me why—like many (or probably most) theses, mine was read by me, my committee, and my mother, and to tell the truth I'm not sure that my mom actually read it. Anyway, typesetting the thesis got me to thinking about the technical typists who used to produce theses and other technical documents.

It was a lot harder than you might think and not for the reasons you might think. Yes, working on a typewriter meant the cost of a typo was high: you couldn't just backspace, retype, and continue, you had to apply correction fluid to the paper to erase the error. If you accidently skipped some text from the handwritten original, you usually had to start the current page over. But that's not really what made the process hard. When typing mathematics (that is, the stuff between the dollar signs in TeX) a good technical typists would insert extra spaces around operators to avoid making the text look too cramped. And then there were the symbols. Want a γ? You couldn't just type \gamma, you had to change the symbol ball to the one with Greek letters, remember which key to press, type the γ, and then put the courier ball back in. Special symbols such as large integral signs had to be built up from 3 separate parts.

It was a difficult process that took considerable skill and training to get right. It was also expensive. A thesis like mine cost about $250 then; that would be $540 now. Today any damn fool can download a copy of TeX for free and typeset beautiful mathematical documents with almost no training at all. It's a good thing to remember the next time we're whining about having to produce a technical document.

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