Germany, UK, USA – whichever way you look at it, the computer is a foreign import here. But one of its forebears was a genuine Swiss creation: the portable writing system called Scrib, specially developed for journalism.
Thomas Weibel is a journalist and Professor of Media Engineering at the Fachhochschule Graubünden and the Hochschule der Künste in Berne.
The two men who met on board a Swissair flight to Boston in 1976 had a lot to talk about right from the start. Jean-Daniel Nicoud was a professor at the EPFL in Lausanne, and Michel Bongard was technical director of the firm Bobst S.A., also based in Lausanne. Both were technophiles: Nicoud had earned his doctorate on algorithms and programming languages and was working on the development of computer hardware and software, and Bobst, originally a packaging company, had successfully diversified into the new field of phototypesetting for newspaper production. The flight to Boston was long, one word led to another, and by the time they landed Nicoud and Bongard had agreed to work together to develop a portable computer for newspaper offices that could be used to write, save and transmit articles over the telephone. It was the birth of the Scrib, a compact, portable word processing system made in Switzerland, possibly the world’s first laptop.Together with the EPFL, Bobst began developing a prototype circuit board, processor, memory, screen and keyboard. Just a year later, their machine was ready. Weighing just 16 kilograms in its sturdy leather case, the Scrib was a minor revolution. In olive green and beige the device, with its ergonomic, 25-millimetre high keys looked like an electric typewriter and recorded texts of up to 8,000 characters on a micro cassette; a second cassette deck enabled the tape to be rewound quickly. On the rear of the device, facing away from the writer, was a 7-inch screen with reversed display which could only be viewed with the aid of a fold-out, slightly magnifying concave mirror and which was able to display characters in normal type and also in bold, underlined and in double-width. An integrated miniature printer meant it was even possible to print out the articles for checking purposes, on narrow rolls of special paper. When the article was ready for typesetting, the reporter made his way to a phone booth and dialled the number of his editorial department; his colleague answered the call, and both put the specially designed loudspeaker and microphone caps of the corresponding acoustic coupler over the ends of the telephone receiver. The text, converted into modulated tones, was then transmitted at 300 bits per second (around one line of newspaper text) – a positively breath-taking speed for that time.Text transmitted by telephone in a matter of minutes: the Scrib was ideal for day-to-day journalism. Reports and articles that previously would, at best, have made it into the day after tomorrow’s edition, suddenly made the competition seem slow and old-fashioned. There was just one thing the Scrib’s ingenious developers hadn’t considered: if a reporter managed, after the late press conference or the football match, to grab one of the few telephone booths nearby and send his article, it transpired that, every few lines, the analog time pulse of the PTT payphone had mangled the journalistic prose into illegible fragments of characters. The inevitable consequence was protracted discussions with the typesetting department after the sending process, to correct the numerous issues.Nevertheless, the Scrib was a success. 1,000 units were manufactured; in 1978 the Scrib even won the ‘Design Award’ at the Western Electronics Show and Convention (Wescon) in San Francisco. However, the maker Bobst was increasingly beset by financial difficulties, and was eventually taken over by US company Autologic. A small French company bought up the remaining Scrib stocks and sold the devices to editorial departments who had realised that the future of journalism depended on the efficiency of workflows. For a full ten years the Scrib, this original portable writing system developed specifically for journalism, was a fixture in the offices of forward-looking newspaper publishers until, one by one, the devices started giving up the ghost. “The last two that we had here in the editorial office”, joked Daniel Goldstein, former head of the foreign affairs section at Bern’s Bund newspaper, “were like the auxiliary policemen in the old gag: One could write, and the other could read.”
Once upon a time, television stations didn’t broadcast round the clock. Late at night and in the morning, there was a break in transmission. The symbol for these time-outs was the PTT television test card. A look back at a not too distant echo of a time when life wasn’t moving quite so fast – the test card hasn’t been gone all that long.