The Retro Word Processor Escapade

The one where I resurrected several computers and operating systems from the distant past while wearing rose tinted glasses and getting nothing done.

Jonathan Beckett
Dec 10, 2020 · 4 min read

Over the last twenty years, I have posted somewhere in the region of five thousand personal journal entries to the world wide web. Five thousand moments from my life. I used to rationalise with myself that I was doing it for future generations — so they might look back and know a little of the world I inhabited. This is of course complete hogwash. I write because I like writing.

When you’ve been writing for as long as I have — regardless of the quality of the words you’re polluting the internet with — you learn a thing or two about yourself. In my case, I have learned how easily I am distracted, and how much I like new toys — or rather, old toys that are new to me.

Here’s where I need to remind you that I’m a software developer. I spend most of my waking hours either writing incredibly dull technical documents or conjuring thousands of lines of jibberish that computers can hopefully do something useful with. One of the major tricks in a software developer’s arsenal is called “Virtualisation” — a crafty trick that inflicts your computer with multiple personality disorder on purpose. You get to invent a second computer inside your “actual” computer and use both at once.

You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this.

I read an article several years ago about George R R Martin — the author of Game of Thrones. It turns out he writes his books using a copy of Wordstar, running in MS-DOS on a twenty-year-old PC. For those reading this and wondering what on earth “MS-DOS” is, it’s the fore-runner of Microsoft Windows. Imagine only being able to run one program at a time, and having no link to the internet. It turns out George’s reason for using a decades old version of Wordstar is because he hates auto-correct. He has a point — can you imagine training a modern spell checker with the character names for his sprawling fantasy novels?

The story got me thinking about distractions, and how it might be rather marvellous to transform a modern computer into a relatively simple word processor — with no notifications, no pop-up assistants, and no web browser running in the background waiting with an infinite array of rabbit holes.

Virtualisation was the answer — all I needed to figure out was the question or at least some form of validation for the time I spent creating a “pretend” computer running MS-DOS full-screen over the top of my “real” computer, and installing a long forgotten version of Microsoft Word on it — released to the public domain by Microsoft some years ago.

Oh, how pleased I was with myself. Unfortunately, the rose-tinted trip down memory lane only served to open an even deeper rabbit hole directly beneath my feet. If I could build a pretend computer running MS-DOS, what other pretend computers might it be possible to resurrect?

Emulation is the process of teaching one computer how to pretend to be another. Not just a similar computer — an entirely different computer, filled with entirely alien hardware. Within another hour, my Windows 10 machine was having something of a breakdown — with flashbacks of the Atari ST running GEM, and the Commodore Amiga running Workbench.

Suddenly I was able to run Protext, Wordsworth, Wordstar, Wordperfect, and any number of other word processors that I had not seen for the better part of thirty years. I will admit that Protext has something of a place in my heart, given that most of my college essays were written using it. What’s more, I was finally able to “own” an Amiga — the computer I had never been able to afford during my formative years.

After another hour I had re-installed an old laptop with a lightweight Linux distribution called “Elementary OS”, and installed an Amiga emulator on it. After a few minutes tinkering, it booted directly into the Amiga, with an icon for the ancient word processor on the desktop. For all intents and purposes, I had an Amiga laptop.

I spent the entire evening building pretend computers, seeking out abandoned software, installing obsolete operating systems, and tinkering with results Frankenstein would have been proud of.

I didn’t write a single word.

There’s probably a lesson here somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I can find it.

Originally published at https://jonbeckett.com on December 10, 2020.

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Jonathan Beckett

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Software and web developer, husband, father, cat wrangler, writer, runner, coffee drinker, retro video games player. Pizza solves most things.

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Medium is hungry. Feed it.

Jonathan Beckett

Written by

Software and web developer, husband, father, cat wrangler, writer, runner, coffee drinker, retro video games player. Pizza solves most things.

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