This Modern Magic: JP and the Computer Revolution


Jean Paton was well aware of the computer revolution and what could be accomplished, as she put it, “by this modern magic.” She was profoundly ambivalent about the new technology and ultimately rejected it.

Paton was proud of her long-standing interest in computers, often citing that she approached Remington Rand in the 1950s for help in setting up the Reunion File, her national mutual consent adoption registry, and that she enrolled in an RCA computer correspondence course in the 1960s. In 1984, Paton had even purchased a Commodore 64, an 8-bit home computer with 64 kilobytes of memory, replacing her trusty IBM Selectric electric typewriter, but she quickly abandoned it for an electronic typewriter, a Brother EM-200.

Two years later, Paton confessed to a correspondent that she wished she were into computers, but thought it was “perhaps too late for me to get buried in its particular language.” She would get by with her memory, correspondence, and files. By 1993, she had acquired a Canon Starwriter 80, a word processor. Armed with two word processors, Paton “resisted a computer with all my strength,” although several correspondents urged her to join them. She parried their well-intentioned hectoring with a variety of justifications: The house was too small. There was no room for a computer in her office. Words spoken on the phone or written on paper were more efficacious than those sent electronically.

Still, Paton remained tempted to join the computer revolution. In September 1997, at almost ninety years of age, she informed adoption activist and friend Sandy Lott that she had enrolled in two evening college courses—a four-week class on the Internet and a slightly longer one on Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows. Paton found that the two subjects overlapped and initially did not mention finding them difficult. She was pleased, however, that “no one at the college has a trace of trouble accepting my being there.”

But formal education in the world of computers proved overwhelming. A month later, Paton reported that the college experience had been “fairly negative” and that she felt “fairly helpless” in class. She decided to skip learning about computers. The following year, Paton quipped to southern California adoption activist Marcy Axness, “I am a computer, in one way. All I have to do is get up and move to the proper file drawer (hopefully) and reach in and find I have a paper that one day I wrote on this or that, all ready for the copier.”


About E. Wayne Carp

I am the Benson Family Chair in History and Professor of History at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA. To read more about me, please visit my website,

Posted on December 1, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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