Writing papers in pre-LaTeX era?

I wonder how people wrote papers in the pre-LaTeX era? I mean, when typewriters and simple computers were (60th-70th?). Did they indeed put formulas by hand in the already printed articles?

MathOverflow Asked by psihodelia on February 3, 2021

28 Answers

28 Answers

In the 1960s I was writing at North American Aviation memos and then a book explaining application of Kalman Filters to celestial navigation for the Apollo Lunar Mission which had complex matrices, etc. The typists at North American Aviation told me these equations could not be typed. I bought a set of Type-it symbols and a used IBM Executive typewriter which had half spacing for superscripts and subscripts. I enlisted my wife and she typed my memos and book, mainly to show it could be done. The typists ended up being very grateful to me, because I showed upper management that if they would provide some of the typists with the same Executive Typewriters and boxes of Type-it symbols they could save money by not having these memos, etc. sent to printers!

Answered by Stephen Schloss on February 3, 2021

Am I the only one here who has used ChiWriter? It was already 1992 but in Russia TeX/Latex was still a rarity. It was my first paper (my MSc Thesis was handwritten, actually). ChiWriter is a WYSIWYG editor, and it was a real torment to type the formulae...

Answered by Nikita Sidorov on February 3, 2021

I used Microsoft Word to write my dissertation. It had Equation Editor which I think I used for mathematical symbols. This was in the early 90's. I was using a Macintosh and I think they had a specific version for the Macintosh. I after that I wrote all my papers with TeX and later LaTeX.

Answered by Kristal Cantwell on February 3, 2021

A colleague of mine once wrote a book, and let his secretary do the typing. However, she knew very little about (La)TeX, so he hand-wrote up the LaTeX source code for her to type in ...

Answered by Peter Mueller on February 3, 2021

Henry Whitehead told me that the key tools for a mathematician were a pencil and erasor ("rubber" in English).

I paid for my thesis to be typed on an old Banda system which meant I could produce multiple copies, even if in a horrid shade of purple. It was widely circulated widely in 1961, so that many people knew then about the function space results on the category of Hausdorff k-spaces.

My book "Elements of modern topology" (1968) (now "Topology and Groupoids") was written in pencil, and typed on a machine with two keyboards, with a shift by moving a lever. Also I did not have the facilities to produce great figures, so had to pay from royalties for some to be redrawn, when the publisher's draughtsman did not get it quite right.

A great change with Latex is indexing. The method for the above book was to go through the page proofs with index cards, noting the term and page number, then sort them all by hand, and finally get the result typed.

In those days one knew that printing mathematics would be expensive, because it was all set by hand in monotype, and so maths books, and journals, would be expensive. Now that the typesetting is all done by authors, guess what happens? Maths books and journals are still expensive, but the publishers do well! It is not clear if they have all got onto the advantages for specialised books, such as maths, of Print-on-Demand, which produces a book at a time from a pdf file, so there is little warehousing cost.

I heard of one major publisher who retyped in Latex a whole book from a pdf file which was produced by Latex! Guess what happened!

Answered by Ronnie Brown on February 3, 2021

By the time I did my PhD these LaTeX was well established. I had done my masters several years before, and had that typed up for me (using a "golf-ball" selectric). The diagrams and symbols that the secretary couldn't manage I added by hand at the end. Before that I wrote my honours thesis (which was on ultraproducts, and way way beyond the means of typewriters of the day) by hand.

Answered by Alasdair McAndrew on February 3, 2021

I typed my thesis in late Winter 1963, on an IBM Executive in the Bowdoin College Math Dept office after hours. This was before the Bouncing Ball, but it had two or three removable type-bars at the side, and we had a couple of dozen special bars, each with its own character. If you wanted to type “$alphabeta$”, you’d have to remove the alpha-stick and attach the beta-stick. I think that there were relatively few characters I had to put in by hand: $mathfrak{p}$ maybe, and certainly the inclusion symbols. It took me 45 minutes or so per page, and according to the rules at Harvard, there could be no corrections on any page (not even white-out).

Answered by Lubin on February 3, 2021

Perhaps a good look at the process around 1963 is this unpublished note of Barry Mazur's "Remarks on the Alexander Polynomial" which has resurfaced recently thanks to another MathOverflow question.

Answered by Jamie Weigandt on February 3, 2021

There was, of course, a time when cut and paste meant cut and paste! I don't remember that but I do remember replacing sections of my thesis with sellotape. Another skill we have lost is trying to replace a small whited-out section of text with a word or two conveying the correct meaning but fitting in the gap!

My thesis from 1983 was typed by my supervisor's secretary on an IBM golfball with the occasional symbol written in. I didn't start using $TeX$ until the first Apple LaserWriter.

Answered by Michael Murray on February 3, 2021

I typed my first papers (mid to late 80s) on an Olivetti typewriter. I was and still am a two-finger typist and the whole process was an unmitigated pain. To add to the misery, owning a typewriter in communist Romania was a political liability because one could potentially type and distribute political messages making the recognition of the author a bit harder to achieve than in the case of hand-writing. To prevent this from happening, every year we had to show up at the headquarters of the secret police with the typewriter alongside and type a few lines dictated to us by some employee of that institution. The reason you ask? They were obtaining samples of typed words from each typewriter in use so that in case that one brave owner would type and spread some political manifesto they could trace back the text to the appropriate typewriter.

Typing was the easy part. Submitting your paper to a Western journal was a different ball game.

Answered by Liviu Nicolaescu on February 3, 2021

The first draft of my thesis was written out in longhand (1982). The actual thesis was done in a long forgotten early TeX competitor called Scribe (1983), I guess I just hadn't come across TeX yet. It had escape commands for various things. After my thesis the first Macintoshes came out, and I think I wrote a paper or two in MacWrite, and one or two other word processors.

Answered by Lee Mosher on February 3, 2021

All these young people talking about being old! I paid a secretary through the nose to type my thesis in 1964, doing much of it myself, and using carbon paper to get a copy. Lots of handwritten graphs of spectral sequences. The memory of that horrid process may be one reason I never published my thesis. It is roughly 150 pages of dense calculations.

At Chicago in the 1960's and 1970's we had a technical typist who got to the point that he, knowing no mathematics, could and did catch mathematical mistakes just from the look of things. He also considered himself an artist, and it was a real battle to get things the way you and not he wanted them.

My collaborators and I published five long Springer Lecture Notes in Mathematics volumes between 1972 and 1986, and all are cluttered with hand written symbols, although the Selectric decreased the number in the last of them. The first of them (in which I introduced operads) is especially painful reading now.

Somebody on this thread mentioned translations by non-mathematicians. I could never find it again, but I once read a paper about CW complexes that was translated from a Chinese original. It talked about the $n$th bag of bones.

Answered by Peter May on February 3, 2021

I'm feeling old (like Felipe). In 1981 I typed my thesis on an IBM Selectric, typing the text on each page, then reinserting it and using the symbol typeball to fill in the symbols. And as an added handicap, I typed much of it with my daughter on my lap (from age 4 months to 6 months). Luckily, my arms are long, so I could keep her far enough from the keyboard that at worst she occasionally managed to press the space bar.

A few years later, my first book was typed by a wonderful technical typist at MIT, after which it was typeset in Hong Kong. I ended up proof reading it (at least) 8 times, twice for the handwritten version, twice for the typed version, twice for the galley proofs, twice for the page proofs. So with 8 proofreadings, after it appeared, there were only about 400 typos (in a 400 page book), some of which I went back and checked, and sure enough, they were there in the original handwritten version. Sigh...

I know this thread isn't supposed to be about TeX, but I have to mention what a thrill it was to be able to type my Advanced Topics... book on a MacPlus and have the processed TeX (plain, not LaTeX) appear on my screen in only 10 seconds per page. Quite a change over the years, since now all 500 pages of that book take less than 10 seconds on my laptop.

Answered by Joe Silverman on February 3, 2021

here's how Albert Einstein did it:

Answered by Carlo Beenakker on February 3, 2021

The PhD students here got an e-mail last week asking for someone to LaTeX a paper which had been handwritten by an older professor (poss. emeritus.)

Additionally, PhD. theses circa 1979 certainly had handwritten $gamma$s.

Answered by Jonathan Kiehlmann on February 3, 2021

"Did they indeed put formulas by hand in the already printed articles?"

Here is a page from Richard Feynman's PhD thesis, which he wrote in 1942:

Richard Feynman's PhD thesis, page 70

Answered by AgCl on February 3, 2021

Jn the mid 1990s I set up my doctoral dissertation, which was on digital circuit simulation at the anolog level, using nroff and eqn. It took awhile to get the hang of it, but once I did I could work pretty quickly. One of the nice things about the nroff-eqn package was that you could exert very fine control over the typesetting. I've also done a lot of mathematical writing using MSoft Word and its Equation 3.0 package. It has a WYSIWYG interface, which is OK, but its great weakness is that you can't cut/copy and paste to extract pieces of equations for use in others, so you have to re-create symbols from scratch at every occurrence. After these experiences, learning Latex, which I have done since participating in MO, was easy.

Answered by drbobmeister on February 3, 2021

I remember in 1978 my Dad finished his thesis (in philosophy); my Mom typed it, but there were a few places where he needed to draw in some symbolic logic symbols. "That's a great horseshoe!" he said.

Answered by Jeff Strom on February 3, 2021

I strongly recommend having a look at Joe Roberts, Elementary Number Theory, MIT Press, 1977, apparently available at

It's a great Number Theory textbook, but, more to the point for this discussion, it's done entirely in calligraphy (by Gregory Maskarinec).

Answered by Gerry Myerson on February 3, 2021

Answered by lhf on February 3, 2021

Here's my favourite. Try skipping around in the scan.

Answered by none on February 3, 2021

And then there's the case of Serge Lang. Lang was an amazingly fast and accurate typist -- he could type at 90 words per minute. He developed an elaborate system using exacto knives, and glue. I remember having a conversation with him about the possibility of him switching to TeX. He replied that since he had developed an efficient and congenial system for him he didn't see any advantage to learning a new one.

Answered by Victor Miller on February 3, 2021

Ken Ross used to maintain a small museum of old mathematical typesetting technology. He's very friendly: you could e-mail him and ask for dates for the various technologies. His favorite mathematical-typesetting invention was actually a pair: Xerox machines and Scotch tape.

Answered by Theo Johnson-Freyd on February 3, 2021

Hard as it may be to believe now, typewriters that ordinary people used had no "+" or "1." In my last paper, I neglected to write in the "+" in my main theorem. The referee didn't notice.

There were guidelines for underlining in various colors, to indicate various alphabets and effects.

Answered by Carl Weisman on February 3, 2021

On my university some people used troff ( for that. At least until the early nineties. There are all sorts of math macros in that too. It's not as nice looking as $TeX$, but it does the job. We used Solaris, so it came with that program. I myself have only used $TeX$ but I have typeset old stuff in troff.

Answered by Henno Brandsma on February 3, 2021

To elaborate on Felipe's answer:

My father was a mathematicians, and, before the IBM Selectric typewriter, I can tell you that he bought an expensive manual German typewriter along with boxes of these plastic sticks, each with a metal head containing a math symbol. Very slow and very painful.

Later, department secretaries (there used to be more of them) would have IBM selectric typewriters, which would use a metal coated plastic ball, and you would switch the ball to get different symbols. This normally worked pretty well, except sometimes the teeth on the bottom of the ball (which was serrated for some reason) would break. This would mess up the typing action, so it would no longer type the symbol or character properly.

And even after TeX came along, there were only mainframes back then with ASCII terminals and line printers. I was one of the first people to type my thesis on TeX, and it required the following conditions: a) MIT AI lab was freely accessible by anyone (I was at Harvard, not MIT) 24 hours a day b) They had a machine running LISP and MACSYMA and wanted people to test it, so they gave out free accounts, usable only outside regular business hours, to anyone who asked c) TeX was installed on this machine d) People who worked in the MIT AI Lab would leave their offices open or unlocked, so if you walked in there in the middle of the night, you could go in there and use their Symbolics LISP machine.

The last remaining challenge was getting access to the laser printer (which was the size of a room) that was inside the locked machine room. Luckily, I had a friend (MIT math graduate student who has been mentioned and cited often on MathOverflow) whose girlfriend (now wife) is the daughter of an MIT CS professor. I asked if I could borrow the father's key to the machine room. Miraculously, the answer was yes.

I then gave up TeX for many years. At Courant they had an amazing typist named Caroline Connie, who could type up long difficult papers at record speed.

Answered by Deane Yang on February 3, 2021

Look at some of the early "Lecture Notes in Mathematics" to see examples. (Your university library probably has these, right?) The authors were supposed to supply Springer with "camera-ready copy". The oldest one I have on my shelf seems to be 355 (Maurice Sion, 1973). Some symbols are typed in, but others (script letters, $subset$ inclusion symbols) are written in by hand.

Here is a page from a paper of mine, Indiana J. Math. from 1977


Answered by Gerald Edgar on February 3, 2021

IBM selectric typewriter and every dept had a technical typist. You make me feel old, dammit.

Answered by Felipe Voloch on February 3, 2021

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