My research project ‘Cold War Computing and the American Novel’ explores the relationship between postwar American writers and the institutional centres that gave us mass computing and global networking. In an interdisciplinary study of writers who had direct ties to the institutions of the Cold War military-industrial complex, I describe how American fiction after World War II helped to invent and to shape the concept of a digital age. The generous funding of BAAS has allowed me to visit the Boeing Historical Archives in Seattle, Washington, in support of my on-going research.
The Boeing archive houses some of American novelist Thomas Pynchon’s earliest published writings, and while it is well known that Pynchon wrote for Boeing between the years of 1960 and 1962 while drafting his first novel V. (1963), researchers have yet to fully understand the relationship between Pynchon’s
The generous funding of BAAS has allowed me to visit the Boeing Historical Archives in Seattle, Washington where I was able to identify the ‘hallmarks’ of Pynchon’s technical prose, says Dr. Katie Muth, recipient of the 2015 BAAS Founders’ Award
technical writing and his imaginative prose. The technical articles Pynchon drafted for the Bomarc Service News were not widely circulated, given the sensitivity of the material they contained, so few scholars interested in this period of Pynchon’s writing career have been able to read the entire run. As far as I know, Boeing holds the only complete run of its internally produced service bulletins, and I was fortunate enough to spend a few days with the Service News in April 2015.
The Bomarc Service News was the informational publication supporting the Bomarc Service Program administered at first by Boeing’s Pilotless Aircraft Division and, later, by the Aero-Space Division in support of the IM-99A/B Bomarc missile jointly developed by Boeing and the Michigan Aeronautical Research Center (MARC) for the United States Air Force. In service from 1959 to 1972, Bomarc was Boeing’s first mass-produced surface-to-air supersonic missile and, under NORAD’s automated early warning system Semiautomatic Ground Control Environment (SAGE), became the company’s first foray into large-scale systems integration. Boeing not only manufactured the missile but also produced launching bays, analogue computers, and other infrastructure essential to the missile’s automation; critically, Boeing provided as well full service support for missile maintenance and deployment. The Bomarc Service News was launched in April 1959 and was designed as a ‘semi-technical’ support manual to facilitate information exchange between Boeing’s Technical Representatives and the Air Force servicemen tasked with operating and maintaining the Bomarc missile.
About the Bomarc Service News, a fascinating historical document in its own right, there is much more to say, of course, but since my particular research interest involves Pynchon’s contributions to the publication, I will move on to describe what I found in the pages of the BSN and some of the challenges I faced in identifying Pynchon’s articles. For pieces published in the Bomarc Service News are without by-line. If one hopes, therefore, to say something about how Pynchon wrote for the BSN—and about the relationship of that writing to his fiction—one first must figure out what Pynchon wrote for the BSN, and this task is not straightforward.
About fifteen years ago, Adrian Wisnicki looked at the BSN and determined a number of articles he suspected to have been authored by Pynchon. Wisnicki established sensible criteria for attributing authorship, but his criteria depended on qualitative assessment of visible rhetorical and typographical features—use of dashes and ellipses, funny anecdotes, arcane historical detail, and so on. I decided to test Wisnicki’s attributions using computational analysis, which offers the added potential to identify quantitatively some of the deeper textures of Pynchon’s technical writing.
This part of the story gets a bit technical itself, and is much condensed for the sake of space. Having sampled a series of articles that seemed Pynchonesque and a series of articles that seemed less so, I used an authorship attribution tool to test each batch against Pynchon’s known non-fiction prose and against articles written for the BSN prior to Pynchon’s employment at Boeing. This enabled me to make a strong guess about which articles Pynchon actually wrote. Many, but not all, of these coincide with Wisnicki’s attributions. More interestingly, however, the authorship attribution algorithm—in concert with some additional analysis, computational and human—has allowed me to identify the most important features distinguishing Pynchon’s likely contributions to the BSN from those of other Boeing staff writers. In other words, I was able to identify the ‘hallmarks’ of Pynchon’s technical prose. These, it turns out, are not quite what readers of Pynchon might expect. And they have, I will argue, important implications for the way we understand Pynchon’s early novels and stories and for the way we read postwar American fiction more broadly.
I am currently in the process of writing up my findings for publication and look forward to updating readers of American Studies in Britain with further details once that publication is in press. In the interest of not giving too much away just now, I’ll close by saying that this research trip has proven surprising and more fruitful even than I’d initially hoped, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the BAAS. I owe, too, a debt of gratitude to Michael Lombardi and Thomas Lubbesmeyer at Boeing, whose patience in guiding a newcomer through midcentury military history seems only to be outdone by the generosity of their assistance, even in matters most elementary.
 Lysle A. Wood, “Dear Reader,” Bomarc Service News 1 (April 1959): 3.
 Adrian Wisnicki, ‘A Trove of New Work by Thomas Pynchon? Bomarc Service News Rediscovered’, Pynchon Notes 46–49 (2000–2001): 9–34.
Katie Muth teaches twentieth and twenty-first century fiction at the University of St Andrews. Her current research project explores the relationship among technical writing and other technical work, institutions of Cold War science, industry, and education, and the postwar novel. Other research interests include critical theory, experimental fiction, periodization, and the ethics of literature.