A Brief History of Word Processing
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  Background

A word-processing program helps you write and edit sentences and paragraphs. Whatever you’re writing and editing (such as a business letter, report, magazine article, or book) is called the document.

A word-processing program’s main purpose is to manipulate paragraphs.

To manipulate pretty drawings, get a graphics program instead.

To manipulate a table of numbers, get a spreadsheet program.

To manipulate a list of names (such as a list of customers), get a database program.

To use a word-processing program, put your fingers on the keyboard, then type the paragraphs that make up your document, so they appear on the screen. Edit them by using special keys on the keyboard. Finally, make the computer send the document to the printer, so the document appears on paper. You can also make the computer copy the document onto a disk, which will store the document for many years.

How “word processing” was invented

Back in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s, computers were used mainly to manipulate lists of numbers, names, and addresses. Those manipulations were called data-processing (DP), so the typical computing center was called a data-processing center (DP center), run by a team of programmers and administrators called the data-processing department (DP department).

Those old computer systems were expensive, unreliable, and complex. They needed big staffs to do continuous repairs, reprogramming, and supervision. They were bureaucratic and technological nightmares. The term “data-processing” got a bad reputation. Secretaries who wanted to write and edit reports preferred to use simple typewriters, rather than deal with the dreaded “data-processing department”.

When easy-to-use word-processing programs were finally invented for computers, secretaries were afraid to try them because computers had developed a scary reputation. The last thing a secretary wanted was a desktop computer, which the secretary figured would mean “desktop trouble”.

That’s why the term “word-processing” was invented. Wang, IBM, and other manufacturers said to the secretaries, “The machines we want to put on your desks are not those dreadful computers; they’re just souped-up typewriters. You like typewriters, right? Then you’ll like these cute little machines also. We call them word processors. Don’t worry: they’re not data-processing equipment; they’re not computers.”

The manufacturers were lying: their desktop machines were computers. To pretend they weren’t computers, the manufacturers called them word processors and omitted any software dealing with numbers or lists.

The trick worked: secretaries acquired word processors, especially the Wang Word Processor and the IBM Displaywriter.

Today’s secretaries are unafraid of computers, understand IBM PC clones, and run word-processing programs on them.

3 definitions of “word processor”

Strictly speaking, a “word processor” means “a computer whose main purpose is to do word processing”. But some folks use the term “word processor” to mean “a word-processing program” or “a typist doing word processing”.

In ads, a “$500 word processor” is a machine; a “$100 word processor” is a program you feed to a computer; a “$12-per-hour word processor” is a typist who understands word processing.

Word-processing programs

During the early 1980’s many folks used Electric Pencil (the first word-processing program for microcomputers), Wordstar (which was more powerful), Multimate (the first program that made the IBM PC imitate a Wang word-processing machine), Displaywrite (which made the IBM PC imitate an IBM Displaywriter word-processing machine), PC-Write (shareware you could try for free before sending a donation to the author), and Xywrite (which ran faster than any other word processor). But by 1991, most of those users had switched to WordPerfect 5.1, which ran on the IBM PC (and several other computers) and could perform many fancy tricks.

All those word-processing programs were awkward to learn and use. Beginners preferred simpler word-processing programs such as PFS Write (for the IBM PC), IBM Writing Assistant (which was a modified version of PFS Write), Q&A (which also included a database program), Bank Street Writer (for the Apple 2), and Mac Write (which was invented by Apple for the Mac and sometimes given away free). But those word-processing programs couldn’t perform as many tricks as WordPerfect 5.1, which remained the business standard that secretaries were required to learn and use.

In 1992, Microsoft invented Windows 3.1. It was the first version of Windows that was good enough to become popular. Companies and consumers began switching from DOS to Windows and wanted a good Windows word-processing program.

Unfortunately, WordPerfect 5.1 used DOS, not Windows. Windows 3.1 included a word-processing program called Write, but it was stripped down.

The first good word-processing programs for Windows were Ami (which is the French word for “friend”) and an improved version called Ami Pro, both published by a company called Samna, which got bought by Lotus, which got bought by IBM.

Microsoft invented a word-processing program called Microsoft Word. The DOS version of it was terribly awkward, but the Mac and Windows versions of it improved rapidly and eventually became even better than Ami Pro. WordPerfect eventually became available in a good Windows version, but too late: by then companies had already decided to switch to the Windows version of Microsoft Word.

Ami Pro still exists but has been renamed Word Pro.


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