Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.

Alex Cruickshank's writing machines: Panasonic KX-E700m

April 2019

I no longer own this machine but it's worth writing about anyway because it kick-started my reacquaintance with vintage electronic writing devices. I bought this in 2014 as part of an article I was writing about living with only 1990 technology for a day. You can read part one and part two of that article for more background.

Although computers were becoming widely-used in business in 1990, machines such as this were only just past their heyday. The Panasonic KX-E700m is a video-typewriter, or dedicated word-processor, dating from the mid-late 1980s. I'd used something similar (a Hermes TopTronic Video 51) to write up my O-Level Computer Science project at around that time, so I felt right at home when I bought the Panasonic.

Panasonic KX-E700m

It's a typewriter with a disk drive and monochrome amber monitor, but that description doesn't do it justice at all. It's a work of electro-mechanical art. I bought the Panasonic KX-E700m, used it for a while and fell in love with it. It was so limited in its abilities that all I could do with it was write. The keyboard was pretty decent: solid yet reasonably light. Not the best I've used but not bad at all, the main drawback for me being the lack of a wrist-rest. After decades of typing I need something to prevent RSI, and the raised keyboard of the KX-E700m wasn't ideal in that respect.

Still, it worked and I wrote letters and documents on it for several months. Initially all I could do with those documents was print them out. My KX-E700m was equipped with a floppy drive but it didn't work. After a while I decided to fix this fault, so I dismantled the machine and found that the drive belt had turned to soft liquorice in texture, a consequence of its age. I tried replacing the entire drive with a standard PC unit but that didn't work. The pin-out must have been different and there's no way I could have figured it out with the diagnostic tools at my disposal. So I measured the old drive belt and bought one of a similar size that I thought might work. It did, and I could then save documents to 3.5-inch floppy disks.

Panasonic KX-E700m

However, I couldn't read them on anything else. The disk format was a proprietary Panasonic one and no software I owned could access it. Still, this was a step forward. The KX-E700m has an internal storage memory of only 25KB (less than 4,000 words) but I could store over 300KB on each disk, which made a big difference.

I put the machine to one side whilst working on other gadgets and getting on with life. When I returned to it a few months later, the screen didn't work. It powered on but the signal was out of sync, so all I could see was a lot of wavy lines across the display.

Panasonic KX-E700m

Technology of a certain age is prone to capacitor failure, because the electrolyte inside the capacitor barrels dries out over time. I opened the machine again, and the monitor too, then worked my way through every capacitor on all the circuit boards, replacing dozens of them in a shotgun approach. This fixed the fault. There was still some very minor shimmering of the text on the screen but it was barely noticeable.

The KX-E700m travelled with me from New Zealand to Berlin. More accurately, it followed three months behind me in a container ship. It arrived in good condition, and when I rediscovered it I decided to have another go at resolving the data transfer issue. It took a couple of days of solid effort and coding, but by the end I had created programs for converting text files to and from the Panasonic's disks, including two-way conversion of extended characters. It was a surprisingly tricky challenge, especially working out the machine's file length indicators, but I succeeded. I could copy text files from an old PC running DOS to the KX-E700m, edit them and then copy them back again.

Panasonic KX-E700m

[For readers of a nerdy disposition, the KX-E700m uses 3.5-inch floppies but a non-DOS format with proprietary FAT, 74 tracks, single-sided with 9 sectors per track, total capacity of 333KB. File start/end delimiters were easy enough to resolve, as were the control codes for bold, underline, etc. The hardest part was decoding the file size information, which had to be precise or the files simply wouldn't load. I solved this by creating documents of known size on the Panasonic, copying them to disk, imaging the disks on a PC using IMD and inspecting the changed bytes in the imaged files. It turned out that file sizes are recorded in two bytes, in a little-endian hex format, with a 273-byte overhead and 14-byte offset for each file. In financial terms this was all a huge waste of my time, yet I felt a wave of satisfaction when it finally worked, when I copied a chapter of my novel from a Linux box via the DOS PC to the KX-E700m, edited the file and then copied it back again. Seeing that text appear on the amber screen was very rewarding. Yes, I know. I really should get out more.]

At this point I considered the KX-E700m to be finished. It did everything I wanted it to do. Unfortunately I have far less space in Berlin than I had in New Zealand. I'd already sold a number of vintage computers and writing devices since arriving in Germany, but still I had too many. Reluctantly, earlier this year I decided to sell the KX-E700m.

Panasonic KX-E700m

It was snapped up on ebay almost immediately by a 1980s-1990s enthusiast who cares for it just as much as I did. I've given him the data transfer programs and all the information I had about the machine. He's sent me photos of the Panasonic KX-E700m taking pride of place on a desk near his 1980s hi-fi equipment and other items from that era.

The KX-E700m was made in 1987 or thereabouts. It's 32 years old and is still being used to write documents and letters, still fulfilling its primary function. I doubt that any of today's writing technology will still be doing that in the year 2051. They just don't make 'em like they used to.

Alex Cruickshank has been a professional writer since 1994 and appreciates it when his cast-offs go to good homes.

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