Some Thoughts On The Advent of Word Processing

I can still remember that as a teenager in the 1980s I used a typewriter for school and to document things. This was the time before I got my first home computer and printer after which I don’t think I used the typewriter much if at all anymore and did all of my ‘word processing’ on my C64 and attached needle printer. I can hardly imagine how it must have been before that time when people wrote books and other long documents without this truly revolutionizing functionality.

But when did this all start? After all, when I started to use word processing on a home computer, it was already a mass market application. So I started to investigate a bit.

An article in Slate from back in 2013 on the first book that was actually written with a text processing system started me on this train of thought. The article states that Len Deighton was the first author to use an IBM text processing system for ‘Bomber’, a WWII novel. That was in 1968, so well ahead of the home computer revolution that only started 8 years later. What also becomes clear in the article is that the IBM MT/ST system he used was not a computer at all but an electro-mechanical device. So text processing, or word processing, as it would be called a bit later, didn’t start out in the computing domain, which was at that time still mostly focused on non-interactive mathematical and accounting tasks (i.e. batch processing). Instead, it evolved from the mechanical and electro-mechanical typewriter.

However, it is not that some people in computing did not recognize the potential of computers to be used as text processors. As early as 1961, the ‘hackers’ at MIT wrote the “Expensive Typewriter” program for the PDP-1, a bulky $100.000 machine, perhaps as a proof of concept. The PDP-1 was one of the first ‘interactive’ computers, i.e. the human ‘operator’ could give commands and get responses on a teletype. There was no ‘screen’ yet, so text editing was not done the way how we understand it today, i.e. on a screen with a cursor that can be freely moved to any part of the text that can scroll up and down as required. But the documentation of the ‘Expensive Typewriter’ has been preserved and is available in the archive of the Computing History Museum which gives one a pretty good idea of how it has worked.

Two major things had to come together to make word processing for people at home or in the office work with a computer: The price of the machine had to come down significantly, the invention of the ‘glass-tty’, i.e. the monitor, and its size had to come down significantly. The cost reduced version of the PDP-8 that became available in 1968 that was available for around $10.000 did the former, but from what I can tell, most machines were not used with an interactive CRT-monitor and keyboard that would have allowed interactive editing. Others experimented with interactive ‘What You See is What You Get’ graphical editors in 1974 at Xerox Parc by inventing the ‘Bravo‘ editor for the Alto. But the machine was for experimental purposes only and too expensive for mass production.

So those doing word processing used dedicated machines all the way to the end of the 1970s, that were at, first, extensions of typewriters and then specialized computing hardware from Wang and others. And then the personal computer changed everything at the end of the 1970s. Jerry Pournelle is credited with writing the first science fiction novel on a personal computer and he made his first word processing experiences at home with an Altair 8800 in 1976 with ‘Electric Pencil‘. Years later, he recounted the event on his blog. Also, he talks about the topic in this television interview in 1979. So 1976 is likely to be the year that some people started to use word processing on relatively inexpensive personal computing platforms they could afford for home and office use.

Things developed pretty quickly after that. In 1978, Wordstar saw the light of day for the CP/M operating system which quickly replaced bulky and expensive dedicated word processing equipment. And around 5 years later, personal computing equipment became cheap enough for word processing to become a mass market phenomenon. This is where my own story of using a word processing program begins. I am not entirely sure but I think the first word processor I used was GeoWrite and the Graphic Environment Operating System (GEOS) on a C64 once I had enough money at the time to buy a floppy disk drive that replaced the datasette and a printer to actually output my documents. 10 years, from novelty to mass market!

And here are some extra links to sources on the topic: