The Kaypro II: An Early Computer With A Writer's Heart

Sep 16, 2014
Originally published on September 16, 2014 6:45 pm

Commentator Andrei Codrescu remembers the first word processor he had — the Kaypro II in the 1980s. Its inventor, Andrew Kay, died Aug. 28, at the age of 95. The Kaypro II weighed in at a mere 26 pounds and was a favorite of early computer aficionados.

Somebody called it a portable, but it was really a luggable. It looked like it could take a direct hit from a bomb, inside a bunker. Its shiny metal body protruded and protected a tiny screen; it also protected me. I felt like a kid again, writing in my secret diary.

Until the Kaypro, the hottest accessory of any self-respecting writer was the Selectric typewriter. The Kaypro was not an accessory; it let you write with light on glass, not ink on paper, which was mind-blowing. It felt both godlike and ephemeral. My goal at the time was "to do to things what light does to them," a verse by the French poet Guillevic.

It was incredibly hip. And it made writing something very different.

I lost the line breaks and the end of the page. Without the click at the end of each line, I kept writing. I could go quietly on with my thought; move whole paragraphs from one section to another without ripping up a tree's worth of paper to retype a page.

There were two instant benefits: The first was that I didn't have to reread myself every time I pulled a page out of the typewriter, and the second is that I quit smoking. Reading myself every page was like looking in the mirror. I took a break and lit a cigarette. No real writer with a typewriter self-contemplated without a cigarette. The Kaypro chased Narcissus from the pond.

My novel ended up on two pancakes, a quarter of an inch thick. Of course, since it was impossible in those days to believe that floppies would preserve your oeuvre, you also printed it. Regardless, the revolution had come: I could see the end of paper, the beginning of uninterrupted thought, the end of the hubris of the writer's persona and the death of judgment by prying eyes. And then there was AOL, and writing could be shared quickly, without waiting for the post office, publishers, bookstores or posterity.

Kaypro opened the door to the future. Can you think of a better name? Andrew, meaning "man," from the Greek, "andros," and Kay, or "key" — the Man with the Key. The Kaypro was a product of the same war that gave us the atomic bomb; writing without end, and ending humanity, the two faces of that coin. A new currency "to do to things what light does to them." Indeed.

Andrei Codrescu's recent book, The Poetry Lesson, was written on a Mac laptop with 4 gigabytes of memory. The Kaypro had 64 kilobytes.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A remembrance now - Andrew Kay was the man behind a device called the Kaypro. In the 1980s Kaypro gave many people their first chance to type text on a screen instead of directly onto paper. The Kaypro faded away years ago, surpassed by smaller machines made overseas.

Andrew Kay died last month at the age of 95. We have this fond recollection of his creation from a former Kaypro user, our commentator Andrei Codrescu.

ANDREI CODRESCU, BYLINE: Somebody called it a portable, but it was really a luggable. It looked like it could take a direct hit from a bomb inside a bunker. It's shiny metal body protruded and protected a tiny screen. It also protected me. I felt like a kid again, writing in my secret diary.

Until the Kaypro, the hottest accessory of any self-respecting writer was the Selectric typewriter. The Kaypro was not an accessory. It let you write with light on glass, not ink on paper, which was mind blowing. It felt both Godlike and ephemeral. My goal at the time was to do to things what light does to them - a verse by the French poet Guillevic. It was incredibly hip, and it made writing something very different.

I lost the linebreaks and the end of the page. Without a click at the end of each line, I kept writing. I could go quietly on with my thought, move whole paragraphs from one section to another without ripping up a tree's worth of paper to retype page.

There were two instant benefits. The first was that I didn't have to reread myself every time I pulled a page out of the typewriter. And the second is that I quit smoking. Reading myself every page is like looking in the mirror. I took a break and lit a cigarette. No real writer with a typewriter self-contemplated without a cigarette. The Kaypro chased Narcissus from the pond.

My novel ended up on two pancakes, a quarter of an inch thick. Of course since it was impossible in those days to believe that floppies would preserve your oeuvre, you also printed it. Regardless, the revolution had come. I could see the end of paper, the beginning of uninterrupted thought, the end of the hubris of the writer's persona and the death of judgment by prying eyes. And then there was AOL and writing could be shared quickly without waiting for the post office, publishers, bookstores or posterity.

Kaypro opened the door to the future. Can you think of a better name? Andrew, meaning man from the Greek Andros, and Kay or key - the man with the key. The Kaypro was a product of the same war that gave us the atomic bomb. Writing without end and ending humanity - the two faces of that coin - a new currency. To do to things what light does to them, indeed.

BLOCK: Andrei Codrescu's latest book is "The Poetry Lesson." He wrote it on an Apple notebook with four gigabytes of memory. The Kaypro had 64 kilobytes. Andre figures his toaster now has more memory than that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.