Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 25/08/2003It's a bank holiday, so I hope you'll excuse me this story about Jane Austen's laptop word processor -- a bit of technology some two hundred years old. Late copy, even by my standards.

Monday 25/08/2003
It's a bank holiday, so I hope you'll excuse me this story about Jane Austen's laptop word processor -- a bit of technology some two hundred years old. Late copy, even by my standards. [No comment - Ed.]

While researching other, duller things, I came across a post by James Follett originally posted in rec.arts.uk.fandom -- a place not for the squeamish, those overly concerned with good taste or anyone with a tendency to worry about the survival of homo sapiens. Mr Follett is a writer of novels, radio plays and the like, usually with a SF or thriller aspect, and perhaps not the first person you'd expect to be fanatical about Jane Austen. But he is, and he went a-visiting the Austen cottage in Hampshire.

In it, he found a strange device, rather like a crude fan. It had ten thin rectangular ivory panels, held together by a single rivet. He recognised it -- a similar device had been passed down through generations of the Follett family, although nobody knew what it was. (This perhaps says more about the family Follett than it does about peculiar ivory devices).

But it's not a fan. It's a 200-year-old word processor. Back then, paper cost a packet: instead, prolific writers wrote their first draft on these slim slabs of ivory: you could rub out pencil or wipe off ink with a damp cloth until you got every paragraph just so. Then if you needed to rearrange them, add an intro or so on, you just shuffled the panels until you got the right result. When content, copy the results longhand to the expensive medium of paper, clean off the swatch and start again on the next passage.

Brilliant, eh? Follett reports that the device is solid enough to be used without additional support, so you can scribble away on your lap, and that his 200-year-old version looks solid enough to last for another couple of centuries.

With no consumables to renew, no batteries to replace and no software to upgrade, it is a truth universally acknowledged that no manufacturer would touch it with a bargepole these days.

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