Monday, July 14, 2014

Memorex: Adventures in Unusual Formats

As 1974 was drawing to a close, Powell A. Moore wrote a letter to President Gerald Ford resigning from his post as Deputy Special Assistant to the President in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs. Moore had been a so-called “Nixon leftover,” having stayed on after Ford entered office. Perhaps he was following standard protocol or perhaps he wanted to use the latest technology, but Moore’s decision to use a Memorex magnetic card as the media to preserve the letter he had written to the President presented me with my first encounter with this piece of 1970s technology while processing the Powell A. Moore Papers during my internship this summer.

A Memorex memory card containing Powell Moore's letter resigning from the
Ford administration.

So what exactly is a magnetic card? To me it looks like a piece of undeveloped film or microfilm without any images, except in the shape and size of a punch card minus the punches. (Without “Powell’s Resignation letter to the President” written on the self-proclaimed “Flexible Folder” in which the magnetic card was enclosed, I would have had no idea what content it contained.) According to the promotional material I discovered online, Memorex released a new “writable surface” magnetic card for use with IBM’s second generation Mag Card II, Mag Card Selectric, and Mag Card Executive typewriters in early 1974. So in order to understand what properties this card has, I needed to look at how the equipment transferred information to and retrieved information from this magnetic card.

All of IBM’s Mag Card typewriters stored information on magnetic cards and had the ability to erase errors by backspacing and typing over the error, automatically saving the new data to the card. New content could be inserted into the text by only typing the changes; what is already stored will appear without the need to retype it. Editing and revising the document happens on the card, not on the sheet of paper. But unlike later word processing typewriters, there was no screen; your only frame of reference was your paper. You had buttons to help you navigate by paragraph, line, and word to get to the location where the correction was to be made. Once errors were corrected and your draft finalized, the typewriter typed your document automatically from the information stored on the card at a rate much faster than even the most skilled typist could type.

It is not possible to tell which type of IBM typewriter Moore used to prepare his letter by examining the magnetic card alone. And the Russell Library does not have the typewriter that could tell us if the card is still viable. In large part because of the cost – the Mag Card II Typewriter was priced at $11,000 in 1973 -- the typewriters and card reader systems would have been restricted to use in an office environment. And the typewriters were never produced on the scale that personal computers came to be, making the format even more obsolete than the floppy disk.

Moore’s position with the federal government led to the creation of a record on this technological format. Had he not used a Memorex magnetic card to preserve his resignation letter, I would not have learned about this small technological current that rose and crested in the 1970s.

Post by Mark Walters, Political Papers Processing Intern
Mark Walters, Russell Library summer intern.