Word processing did not develop out of computer technology.
It evolved from the needs of writers rather than those of
mathematicians, only later merging with the computer field.
The history of word processing is the story of the gradual automation
of the physical aspects of writing and editing, and the refinement of
the technology to make it available to individual and corporate users.
The invention of printing and moveable type at the end of the Middle
Ages was the initial step in this automation.
But the first major advance from manual writing as far as the
individual was concerned was the typewriter. Henry Mill, an English
engineer of the early eighteenth century, is credited with its
The fact that almost nothing is known about his early version today
is evidence of its lack of success.
Christopher Latham Sholes, with the assistance of two colleagues,
invented the first successful manual typewriter in 1867.
It began to be marketed commercially in 1874, rather improbably by
a gun manufacturing company, E. Remington and Sons.
The main drawback of this model was that it printed on the underside
of the roller, so that the typist could not view his work until he had
Acceptance of the typewriter was slow at first, but was facilitated
over the next several years by various improvements.
These included: the shift key, which made it possible to type both
capital and lower-case letters with the same keys (1878); printing on
the upper side of the roller (1880); and the tab key, permitting the
setting of margins (1897).
Eventually, at first in the corporate sector, the typewriter began to
Businesses, which had hitherto had their records and correspondence
written and copied by hand, found their paperwork could be done
more quickly and legibly on the typewriter.
Typewriting was put within the reach of individuals by the
development of portable models, first marketed in the early 1900s.
Thomas Edison patented an electric typewriter in 1872, but the first
workable model was not introduced until the 1920s.
In the 1930s IBM introduced a more refined version, the IBM
Electromatic. It "greatly increased typing speeds and quickly gained
wide acceptance in the business community."
This was soon followed by the M. Shultz Company's introduction of
the automatic or repetitive typewriter, perhaps the greatest step from
the typewriter towards modern word processing.
The Shultz machine's main innovation was automatic storage of
information for later retrieval.
It was a sort of "player typewriter," punch-coding text onto paper
rolls similar to those used in player pianos, which could later be used
to activate the keys of the typewriter in the same order as the initial
With the automatic typewriter, it was possible to produce multiple
typed copies of form letters identical in appearance to the hand-typed
original, without the intermediary of carbons, photocopiers or
The bulky paper roll machine was succeeded by a device called the
Flexowriter, which used paper tape.
This had a key that allowed the deletion of mistakes from the tape
and copies by punching a "non-print" code over the code for the
character erroniously typed.
Long passages of text could be deleted or moved by literally cutting
the tape and pasting it back together.
In 1961 IBM introduced the Selectric typewriter, which replaced the
standard movable carriage and individual typestrikers with a
revolving typeball (often refered to as a "golfball" or "walnut"). This
could print faster than the traditional typewriter.
In 1964 IBM brought out the MT/ST (Magnetic Tape/Selectric
Typewriter), which combined the features of the Selectric with a
magnetic tape drive.
Magnetic tape was the first reusable storage medium for typed
With this, for the first time, typed material could be edited without
having to retype the whole text or chop up a coded copy. On the tape,
information could be stored, replayed (that is, retyped automatically
from the stored information), corrected, reprinted as many times as
needed, and then erased and reused for other projects.
This development marked the beginning of word processing as it
is known today.
It also introduced word processing as a definite idea and concept.
The term was first used in IBM's marketing of the MT/ST as a "word
It was a translation of the German word textverabeitung, coined in
the late 1950s by Ulrich Steinhilper, an IBM engineer.
He used it as a more precise term for what was done by the act of
IBM redefined it "to describe electronic ways of handling a standard
set of office activities -- composing, revising, printing, and filing
In 1969 IBM introduced MagCards, magnetic cards that
were slipped into a box attached to the typewriter and
recorded text as it was typed on paper.
The cards could then be used to recall and reprint text.
These were useful mostly to companies which sent out
large numbers of form letters.
However, only about one page-worth of text could be
stored on each card.
In 1972 Lexitron and Linolex developed a similar word
processing system, but included video display screens
and tape cassettes for storage.
With the screen, text could be entered and corrected
without having to produce a hard copy.
Printing could be delayed until the writer was satisfied
with the material.
The floppy disk marked a new stage in the evolution of storage
Developed by IBM in the early 1970s for use in data processing (that
is, traditional number computation), it was soon adopted by the word
Vydec, in 1973, seems to have been the first manufacturer to produce
a word processing system using floppy disks for storage.
Previous storage media could only hold one or two pages of text, but
the early disks were capable of holding 80 to 100 pages.
This increased storage capacity permitted the creation and easy
editing of multipage documents without the necessity of changing
Floppy disks could also be used to hold programs.
The most important advance in word processing was the change from
"hard wired" instructions built into the machinery to software on
When the programs were part of the equipment they were difficult to
change and expensive to upgrade.
Programs on disks could be updated more economically, since a
rewritten program could be loaded into and used with the same
hardware as the old one.
Before disk programs most word processing packages were
"dedicated" systems, which were bulky and expensive, and did not
admit computing functions other than word processing.
Disk programs made it practical to develop packages for use with
personal computers, first made available in completely assembled
form in 1977.
Thus the separation of the software from the hardware also opened
up the field to individuals.
Word processing is now "one of the most common general
applications for personal computers."
Over the next ten years many new features were introduced in the
One important innovation was the development of spelling check and
mailing list programs.
Another advance, introduced by Xerox in its Star Information
System, allowed working on more than one document at a time on
the same screen.
Some programs now even incorporate bookkeeping and inventory
functions, combining word processing with data processing and
completing the marriage of the word processor to the computer.
The combined field is known as information processing.
The introduction and evolution of the specific word processing
programs available today is not covered well in the literature.
Authors seem to assume that their readers will automatically be
familiar with recent developments, despite the fact that if they were
they would not be buying the literature.
Word Perfect is part of the Corel Office Package and was once the
preferred word processing program
Microsoft has Word
helped create one of the early screenbased word processors in the mid1970's.
Here are some of his recollections
about that time
Word processors evolved from typewriters.
The earliest ones were merely electric typewriters
with a tape recorder that could be edited.
They were first used for automatic typing of letters.
Later, they were used to playback material that was
typed correctly when corrections were added.
The "manual" way, at the time, was to have a typist
type something, have it proofread, and then retype it
with corrections, hoping that no new errors were
introduced with the retyping.
The word processor insured that the parts that were
left alone did not change.
Those early word processors were very much
designed to control the typewriter to which they
The operators were specially trained typists.
Most of the early products were "page oriented" as opposed to
This meant that they dealt with documents as a series of
separate pages, and the page breaks were very important
For example, if you added text to the middle of a page such
that it pushed other text off the bottom, you had to "cut" the
extra and move it to the next page.
If that pushed text off that page, you had to do it again and
This page orientation was very helpful for carefully lining up
letters, newsletters, and the other documents that made up
most of the target market.
The machines were expensive and were justified for the
repetitive work of fundraising form letters and the exacting
requirements of newsletters and small newspapers.
The early units often used IBM Selectric printing mechanisms
that had changeable fonts (by replacing the typing ball) and
were used as simple typesetting machines for newspapers.
General purpose personal computers were still in the future,
and each computer was built specially to do word processing.
With the advent of inexpensive video computer screens, the
connection to the typewriter as input device was broken.
Some early devices tried to avoid this break, and simulated the look
and feel of a typewriter by making the screen act as much like a piece
of paper as possible, even going as far as having margin setting
levers that were under the screen just like those under paper on a
These devices kept the page orientation.
Some of the early screen-based word processors broke with this page
oriented tradition and dealt with the entire document as one long
string of text, with the pagination done at print time.
Explicit pagination was left to extra commands, such as explicit page
These machines were WYSIWYG versions of the RUNOFF programs
on large timesharing computers.
Features we take for granted today, such as having margins and other
paragraph settings spanning a certain amount of text, had to be
Much debate went on between the page and document oriented
camps, continuing to this day with some page-layout vs. word
In all cases, the design goal of the word processor was to produce a
final paper output. The initial uses were not even the authors, they
were the typists and typesetters.
History of Word Processing
History of Word Processing