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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?

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I wrote my thesis in the pre-LaTeX era, in a now-obscure language called TeX. –  Kevin Buzzard Mar 31 '10 at 11:00
In really ancient times there was handwriting. Then typewriters and carbon paper. The IBM Selectric typewriter had removable key balls, allowing substitution of common math symbols. Otherwise the symbols got inserted afterwards by hand. For typescripts to be typeset, there were conventions about fonts (greek, etc.) involving for instance underlines by colored pencils. This bypassed clumsy handwritten insertions. And then people like Jim Milgram invented pre-TeX word processors for math. –  Jim Humphreys Mar 31 '10 at 12:46
My copy of Matsumura has the tensor product symbols, \mathfrak ideals, etc. written in by hand. It's a little distracting but whoever did it has great handwriting! –  Ryan Eberhart Mar 31 '10 at 12:52
Cherry & Kernighan's eqn (the formula-handling part of troff) was written in 1974, while I think that Tex wasn't distributed much until the early 1980s. Eqn is still used, but not by mathematicians that I know of. It's not really what psihodelia was after, but I'd be curious to hear of mathematicians using eqn in the 1970s. –  Charles Stewart Mar 31 '10 at 13:16
I was going to suggest that this question had run its course and should be closed, but Liviu Nicolaescu's answer has shown that it still has potential for interesting variants. –  Ryan Reich Jul 15 '12 at 3:39

24 Answers 24

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, who could type up long difficult papers at record speed.

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Re: typists. My grandmother paid her way through college (associate's degree from Iowa State, if memory serves) by typing term papers (including math and science papers) for the boys at the school. She was born in the teens, so that would have been in the late 1930s, I guess. –  Theo Johnson-Freyd Mar 31 '10 at 16:37
I was an undergrad at MIT and typed my undergraduate thesis using TeX '78 (the precursor of the TeX we now use). This was revolutionary at the time and I had to go through very similar hoops as Deane in order to use TeX and print the output. The last draft of my undergraduate thesis was printed the night before the deadline at the "Dover" printer in the 9th floor of the MIT LCS and using the "rms" account in one of their computers, which was notorious for not having a password! (That printer, by the way, played an important role in the free software movement!) –  José Figueroa-O'Farrill Mar 31 '10 at 17:23
I wrote my thesis in 1983, and I think I used the same printer as José! And I think I used TeX '78, too. I had no idea about the "rms" account, but maybe it was Stallman who would leave his office open for me to use his machine. I did, of course, learn to use emacs at that time. I find it quite ironic that after abandoning both TeX and emacs immediately after I wrote my thesis 27 years ago, I now use emacs and LaTeX quite happily and prefer them to all of the alternatives, even for non-mathematical documents. It amazes me how Stallman and Knuth were able to build such durable software. –  Deane Yang Mar 31 '10 at 20:53
These stories are incredibly charming and heart-warming. Good ol' rms. –  Kevin H. Lin Apr 1 '10 at 8:12
I forgot to say that I got to thank rms personally about this many years later when I went to hear him spread the gospel according to Saint Ignucius in London :) –  José Figueroa-O'Farrill Apr 1 '10 at 22:43

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.

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'bag of bones' - funniest thing I've read all day :) Thanks for the image. –  David Roberts Jul 13 '12 at 4:25

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


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I paid the technical typist in our department to type my PhD thesis on her IBM selectric typewriter. After it was complete, I noticed that she had omitted an entire paragraph of one of the proofs in an early chapter. To correct this would have required her to retype a large chunk of the thesis, so I let it pass. During my defense, the external examiner remarked that this particular proof was a little terse ... –  Simon Thomas Mar 31 '10 at 13:38
Where I work we have a full time staff of technical typists. There job has certainly changed a lot. Most of us submit manuscripts to them in TeX. They inspect them carefully and fix unfortunate formatting, plus make sure that the format adheres to the requirements of our tech reports. When I wrote my thesis (1974), I had to hire a technical typist. My friend Joe Buhler was on the forefront. He got access to some sort of wheelwriter (it had a wheel instead of a ball like a selectric). Someone at Bell Labs had made a backend for troff for that -- it told you where to write in the symbols. –  Victor Miller Mar 31 '10 at 13:51
@Felipe: You are old. My first Ph.D. student, in a really novel development, had her thesis typed by her husband on an Apple II computer... Not using TeX, but in some word-processing software (this was before Microsoft, if you can believe it). –  Gerald Edgar Mar 31 '10 at 14:04
@Gerald: I know I am but I don't need additional reminders :-) –  Felipe Voloch Mar 31 '10 at 14:38
I would like to see someone do a documentary on these technical typists. –  Jeff Strom Nov 30 '10 at 19:47

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.

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Challenge: Find places in Lang's books where you can tell that a word or equation or etc. has been corrected by him gluing the replacement on top of the old thing. I'm pretty sure I noticed a few such things in his Algebra book. –  Kevin H. Lin Apr 1 '10 at 8:17
At my grad school, there is a similar professor... but not in a good way. I guess he felt he was so good with ASCII characters that he just keeps using it, at least for his lecture notes. To write $x^2$, he writes $x$ on one line, and a 2 one line above and one space to the right. –  Graphth Dec 2 '12 at 16:48
This comment is a little bit late, but my advisor was a postdoc in Berkeley, and his office was adjacent to Lang's office. He said that he had to wear earplugs to try to block the noise of Lang's typewriter. –  Peter Samuelson Aug 22 '13 at 2:20

"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:

alt text

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Even some books (Springer's LNM series has many of those) have this kind of editing. –  darij grinberg Dec 3 '10 at 16:18
Whoopee! My first comment on a "real" answer; just reached my latest MO goal of getting 50 points . . . Isn't RPF's dissertation amazing? What more can I say . . . –  drbobmeister Dec 5 '10 at 20:27
Link to the image is broken, and I couldn't find a replacement after 10 minutes of searching. Anyone else want to find one, feel free to put a link in a comment if necessary. –  David Roberts Jul 13 '12 at 4:37
There is a copy of Feynman's thesis on Google Books. Search for "The Principle of Least Action in Quantum Mechanics" there. It won't show you whole pages, but if you enter the word "corresponding" into the search box then the three little sample texts Google Books shows you include a few handwritten mathematical expressions. This should be useful in case someone does manage to post another page to this question and the link to that becomes broken. –  KConrad Jul 13 '12 at 5:11
@KConrad: Thanks. Here is a link: cds.cern.ch/record/101498/files/… (probably only viewable for people from universite) –  moose Aug 14 '14 at 16:16

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.

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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.

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Michael Kleber once pointed out to me the great danger of this invention: At least some articles translated from Russian before the fall of the USSR had the text translated by professional (non-mathematical) translators, and the formulas snipped out and taped on. Apparently, one always had to have the Russian original to compare to, because it was quite common to lose a symbol of two in this process. –  Ben Webster Mar 31 '10 at 17:21
Xerox machines and Scotch tape. I remember this. It is important to wash your hands first. Because even if your hands look clean, there will somehow be fingerprints acquired by the tape. –  Gerald Edgar Mar 31 '10 at 17:29
I recently resorted to this while writing up some notes for someone else in a hurry, as they involved some moderately messy calculations done by hand, and I didn't have any white correction fluid to hand. –  Yemon Choi Jul 14 '12 at 7:01

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.

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


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Daaaaaaaaaaang. –  Vectornaut May 23 '12 at 18:23

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.

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On my university some people used troff (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.

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There's one faculty member in my department who still uses some variant of troff. –  David Eppstein Mar 31 '10 at 16:28
A good thing of troff is that it's mark up in plain text format, interspersed with commands for formatting. This works well on Unix-like systems with all the text power tools at one's disposal (like sed, vi, awk, etc). But publishers prefer $\LaTeX$ as they can easily apply style files, etc. –  Henno Brandsma Mar 31 '10 at 18:26
I'm told that UC Berkeley's resident expert on the empty set still uses troff. –  S. Carnahan Mar 31 '10 at 18:43

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.

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Isn't Knutson's book on algebraic spaces witten like this? –  Harry Gindi Mar 31 '10 at 19:50
All of the books published by WA Benjamin were like that. It was wonderful that you could buy advance math text for \$3.95 (some as expensive as \$4.95 -- of course this was in the early '70s). –  Victor Miller Mar 31 '10 at 22:46
Of course tuition to Harvard in 1960 was only $1,250. So even a book under $10 was expensive. But Benjamin books did seem reasonable. –  roy smith Nov 30 '10 at 21:17

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 “$\alpha\beta$”, 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).

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I strongly recommend having a look at Joe Roberts, Elementary Number Theory, MIT Press, 1977, apparently available at http://www.ebook3000.com/Elementary-Number-Theory--A-Problem-Oriented-Approach_52452.html

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

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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.

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In junior high school my Dad did not want me to waste my time learning to type. "Your wife will type your thesis", he said. –  Lee Mosher Jul 13 '12 at 4:25

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.

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I used ChiWriter: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ChiWriter

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Oh... what memories. I used it too at some point. –  Sasha Kirillov Dec 1 '10 at 3:52
This is what I used for my first paper in early 1990's. I liked writing between lines, or more precisely, going up or down the line to insert a super-or subscript. I believe some version of TeX was already around, but we just got rid of the iron curtain and had some catching-up to do. My master's thesis was typed (by someone else), I had to fill in the symbols. –  Margaret Friedland Jul 13 '12 at 15:56

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.

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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.

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At that time, I was timesharing between Princeton and MIT, and was telling Bill Thurston and Allen Wilks about the great innovation called TeX. They basically both told me to fly a kite -- troff was the last word for them. In two years, things changed... –  Igor Rivin Dec 2 '12 at 5:37

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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