A Brief History of Word Processing
(Through 1986)
by Brian Kunde

Note: This paper was written in December, 1986 for a CIS 50 - Sec. 61 class at Foothill College, Los Altos Hills, California. It reflects the industry situation of that time, and should not be used either as a guide to current industry standards or to the present state of the art.

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[Text] [Appendix A] [Appendix B] [Notes] [Bibliography]

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[Next] [Contents]

     Word processing did not develop out of computer technology. It evolved from the needs of writers rather than those of mathemeticians, only later merging with the computer field.1 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 Ages2 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 invention. The fact that almost nothing is known about his early version today is evidence of its lack of success.3
     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.4 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 finished.5
     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).6
     Eventually, at first in the corporate sector, the typewriter began to catch on. 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.7 Typewriting was put within the reach of individuals by the development of portable models, first marketed in the early 1900s.8
     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.9 It "greatly increased typing speeds and quickly gained wide acceptance in the business community."10
     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 typing. 11 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 typesetting.
     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.12
     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.13.
     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 information.14 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.15
     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 processing" machine.16. 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 typing.17 IBM redefined it "to describe electronic ways of handling a standard set of office activities composing, revising, printing, and filing written documents."18
     Since the invention of the MT/ST, advances in technology have made word processing systems less expensive to produce, leading to intensified competition among developers and an increase in the development rate of new packages.19
     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.20
     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.21
     The floppy disk marked a new stage in the evolution of storage media. Developed by IBM in the early 1970s for use in data processing (that is, traditional number computation), it was soon adopted by the word processing industry.22 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 storage receptacles.23
     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 disks. 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.24
     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.25 Disk programs made it practical to develop packages for use with personal computers, first made available in completely assembled form in 1977.26 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."27
     Over the next ten years many new features were introduced in the field. One important innovation was the development of spelling check and mailing list programs.28 Another advance, introduced by Xerox in its Star Information System, allowed working on more than one document at a time on the same screen.29
     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.30 The combined field is known as information processing.31
     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. WordStar, put out by Micropro International, has emerged as the industry standard in software packages, though others surpass it in one feature or another.32
     There are now more than sixty complete word processing systems on the market, and more than thirty software packages for use with various computers,* all with different capabilities and claims about their efficiency. These are listed in Appendix A. It was not possible to describe all their features without turning the appendix into a book; however, such descriptions may be found in the sources from which the list was compiled (see the notes). To partially remedy this lack, a list of features standard in most current word processing programs has been provided in Appendix B.

*The totals given here probably vastly underestimate the number actually available. [Back to Text]

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Appendix A: Currently Available
Word Processing Systems and Software.

[Next] [Previous] [Contents] [Back to Text]

1. Complete Systems33:

Note: dedicated systems are starred (*).

A. Available in Both Stand-Alone and Multiterminal Versions.

MODEL:                              VENDOR:

 Datapoint                          Datapoint
*Dual Display                       Dictaphone Corporation
 Information Syst. Ser. 1000 & 2000 Savin Corporation
*Infowriter                         Honeywell
 J100, J200, J300, J500             ATV Jacquard, Inc.
*Magna III                          A B Dick
 Multivision                        Applied Digital Data Systems
 Northword                          North Star Computers
 Omniwriter, Textpac Level          Royal Business Machines
 OP 1/15                            Ontel
 SDS 420                            Scientific Data Systems
*Wang Text Processing Systems       Wang Laboratories, Inc.
 Worksaver                          NCR
 210A/B                             Data Terminals & Commnctns.
 2000-15-S                          XMark
 8200 Wordpal & EZ Type             Compal, Inc.

B. Available in Stand-Alone Version Only.

MODEL:                              VENDOR:

 Algo 2100                          Algorithmics
*Alphaplus                          LES Data LTEE/LTD
 CAT III                            Cado Systems
 DECMATE                            Digital Equipment Corporation
*Displaywriter                      IBM Corporation
 Easyone                            Delta Data Systems Corp.
*Editpak 1000                       Technology International Corp.
 ET 351                             Olivetti
 EW100                              Toshiba
*EZ-1                               Lanier
*J425                               ATV Jacquard, Inc.
 Lexitron VT 2303                   Raytheon
*Lexoritor                          Lexor Corporation
*Micom 2001E                        Philips Information Systems
*No Problem                         Lanier
 OC8820 with Superword              Monroe Systems for Business
*Omega 685                          Compucorp
*Omniwriter, Wordpac Level          Royal Business Machines
*Ofiswriter 400                     Burroughs Corporation
 Parrot                             Shasta General Systems
 Series 8000                        Megadata Corporation
 System 3000, 3000S                 NBI
 Word Processing 1/65               Rothenberg Information Syst.
 4/20 & 4/30                        Vector Graphic
*500 Series Information Processor   Exxon Office Systems
*1200, 1400 & 1800 Word Processors  Exxon Office Systems
*8100                               CPT Corporation
 8364 W/Color-coded Word Processing Intelligent Systems Corp.

C. Available in Multiterminal Version Only.

MODEL:                              VENDOR:

 Dataword II                        Basic 4
 Decword/DP                         Digital Equipment Corporation
 F 32:16 W/FOR:Word Software        Fortune Systems Corporation
 HP Word on HP3000                  Hewlett-Packard
*Magna SL                           A B Dick
*Oasys 8/64                         NBI
 Prolink                            Prolink
 Series 21                          Mohawk Data Sciences
 System 7                           Wordplex
 Wordmate                           Microdata Corporation
 700, 800, 900 Series               Durango Systems
*5520 Information System            IBM Corporation
 8000 Series "Star" (network)       Xerox
 8840/5                             Nixdorf Computer Corporation

D. Phototypesetters and Other Non-Standard Systems.

MODEL:                              VENDOR:

 Aquarius II-stand-alone            Syntrex Inc.
 The Intelligent Typewriter (line)  Exxon Office Systems
 MCS 8400 (photo)                   Compugraphic
 Stand-alone (elect typwrtr extnsn) Olympia
 Type-990 (software for minis)      Texas Instruments
 Varityper (photo)                  Am Varityper
 Quadritex (photo)                  Itek Graphic Systems

2. Software Packages34:

MODEL:                              VENDOR:

Apple Pie Editor and Formatter      Hayden Book Company
Apple Writer III                    Apple Computer, Inc.
Comprehensive Electronic Office     Data General Corporation
DisplayWrite 2                      IBM Corporation
Easywriter Professional & II        Information Unlimited Software
Executive Secretary                 Sofsys
FinalWord                           Mark of the Unicorn
Lazywriter                          ABC Sales
Leading Edge                        Leading Edge Products, Inc.
Microsoft Word                      Microsoft Corporation
MultiMate                           MultMate International
NBI                                 NBI
Omniword                            Northern Telecom
Palantir Tier I & Tier 2            Designer Software
Para Text                           Para Research
Peachtext (formerly Magic Wand)     Peachtree Software
Perfect Writer                      Perfect Software
Samna Word II & III                 Samna Corporation
SCRIPSIT 2.0                        Radio Shack
Select Word-Processing              Select Information Systems
Spellbinder                         Lexisoft
Text Wizard                         Datasoft
VisiWord Plus                       VisiCorp
Volkswriter                         Lifetime Software, Inc.
Word-11                             Data Processing Design, Inc.
WordPerfect                         Satellite Software Intl.
WordStar                            MicroPro International
WordVision                          Bruce & James Program Pubs.
XyWrite                             XyQuest

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Appendix B: A List of Features Standard in
Most Current Word Processing Programs35.

[Next] [Previous] [Contents] [Back to Text]
  • Wordwrap: automatic arrangement of text in lines of specified length without the necessity of touching the return key.
  • Discretionary Hyphenation: option of inserting a hyphen to break a word that ends a line: the hyphen does not print if later editing moves the word to the middle of a line.
  • Justification: automatic alignment of text to both the left and right margins.
  • Adjustment: realignment of text to new margin and tab settings.
  • Alignment: positioning text or numbers to specified margin and tab settings.
  • Decimal Alignment: positioning columns of numbers with the decimal points vertically aligned.
  • Indents: the setting of temporary margins within a document differing from the primary margins used.
  • Centering text on a line.
  • Insertion: the entry of new text within previously typed material without erasing the existing material.
  • Overstriking: the substitution of new text for old by typing over the old text.
  • Deletion: erasure of text from the screen, or of whole documents from the disk.
  • Search and Replace: moving directly to specified words or parts of words within a document and replacing them with different words or word portions.
  • Copying or Cutting: the duplication or moving of blocks of text within a document.
  • Boilerplate: the separate storage and retrieval of blocks of text from which standard documents can be built.
  • Pagination: automatic division of a document into pages of specified numbers of lines.
  • Page Numbering: automatic sequential numbering of pages.
  • Headers and Footers: option of creating standard blocks of text that will automatically appear at the top or bottom of each page in a document.
  • Footnoting: automatic sequential numbering of footnotes and positioning of the footnotes at the bottom of their appropriate pages during pagination.
  • Table of Contents and Index Generators. Programs that create these based on the text of a document.
  • Form Letter Merging: automatic combining of a form letter with a mailing list to generate multiple copies of the letter with the different addresses and other variable information filled in.
  • Automatic Spelling Checker and Corrector. Program that compares words in the text against an on-line dictionary, flagging items not found in the dictionary and offering alternative spellings and a means of correcting the errors.

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[Next] [Previous] [Contents] [Back to Text]

Note: see bibliography for full information on sources cited.

  1. Price & Urban, page xxiii. [Back to text.]
  2. Munday, page 4. [Back to text.]
  3. Munday, page 4. [Back to text.]
  4. Munday, pages 4-5, and Price & Urban, page xxi. [Back to text.]
  5. Munday, page 5. [Back to text.]
  6. Munday, page 5. [Back to text.]
  7. Price & Urban, page xxi. [Back to text.]
  8. Munday, page 5. [Back to text.]
  9. Munday, page 6, and Price & Urban, page xxi. [Back to text.]
  10. Munday, page 6. [Back to text.]
  11. Munday, page 6, and Price & Urban, page xxi. [Back to text.]
  12. Flores, pages 8-9, and Price & Urban, page xxi. [Back to text.]
  13. Munday, page 6. [Back to text.]
  14. Flores, page 11, Munday, pages 6-7, and Price & Urban, page xxi. [Back to text.]
  15. Munday, pages 6-7, and Price & Urban, page xxi. [Back to text.]
  16. Blissmer, page 66, and Munday, page 7. [Back to text.]
  17. Munday, page 7. [Back to text.]
  18. Blissmer, page 66. [Back to text.]
  19. Munday, page 9, and Price & Urban, page xxii. [Back to text.]
  20. Flores, page 12, and Price & Urban, page xxi. [Back to text.]
  21. Flores, pages 12-13, and Price & Urban, page xxii. [Back to text.]
  22. Flores, page 12. [Back to text.]
  23. Price & Urban, page xxii. [Back to text.]
  24. Munday, page 9, and Price & Urban, page xxii. [Back to text.]
  25. Blissmer, page 66, and Price & Urban, page 458. [Back to text.]
  26. Blissmer, page 427. [Back to text.]
  27. Blissmer, page 438. [Back to text.]
  28. Blissmer, page 438. [Back to text.]
  29. Price & Urban, page xxiii. [Back to text.]
  30. Price & Urban, page xxiv. [Back to text.]
  31. Price & Urban, pages 120 and 466. [Back to text.]
  32. McWilliams, page 167, and Marshak, page 137. [Back to text.]
  33. Price & Urban, pages 274-402. [Back to text.]
  34. McWilliams, pages 167-170, Marshak, pages 184-193, and Price & Urban, pages 403-433. [Back to text.]
  35. Marshak, pages 194-198. [Back to text.]

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Annotated Bibliography:

[Previous] [Contents] [Back to Text]

Note: Only book sources were used. I anticipated getting a lot of information out of computer journals, but they were poorly covered in the indexes.

  1. Blissmer, Robert H. Computer Annual: An Introduction to Information Systems 1985-1986. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1985. Treatment of word processing is limited, since this book covers the whole computer field, but it gives a few items of information I did not find elsewhere. Contains an interesting chronology of "The Evolution of Computer Systems," illustrated with photographs.

  2. Flores, Ivan. Word Processing Handbook. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1983. Deals mainly with the technology of word processing, explaining how the systems work and how to use them. A subsection of the introduction, "The Evolution of Word Processing," covers the history of the field from the same technical viewpoint. Its description of the development of the technology and what each system did is lucid and well illustrated with diagrams. Flores is weak on the dates the systems appeared and the names of their developers.

  3. Marshak, Ronni T. Word Processing Software for the IBM PC. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1985. A good overview of currently available word processing programs that can be used with the IBM personal computer, with ratings of each and comparisons of their features and prices.

  4. McWilliams, Peter A. Word Processing on the KayPro: A Special Edition of The Word Processing Book For Owners and Prospective Owners of the KayPro II, 4 or 10. Los Angeles: Prelude Press, 1983. Includes a section entitled "A Brief and No Doubt Inaccurate History of Word Processing." If McWilliams had only added "useless" to the title of the section he would have summed it up exactly. There is some actual history in the book, but rather than put it in the history section McWilliams has thoughtfully spread it throughout the text so you can't find it.

  5. Munday, Marianne Forrester. Oportunities in Word Processing. Lincolnwood, Illinois: National Textbook Company, 1985. Includes a short chapter entitled "History and Development of Word Processing," the best discussion of the subject I found. Gives little on the evolution of specific software systems.

  6. Price, Jonathan, and Urban, Linda Pinneau. The Definitive Word-Processing Book. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1984. Includes a brief history of word processing in the introduction, comparable to the one in the Munday book, although shorter and generally less exact in the information given. Weak on developments since 1973. Gives little on the evolution of specific software systems. Includes an appendix similar in nature to the Marshak book, not as well organized, but covering the whole range of word processing systems rather than just those usable with the IBM PC.

BPK, 12/13/86, rv.3/12/98.


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A Brief History of Word Processing (Through 1986)

1st web edition posted 2/14/1996
(updated 5/27/1997).
2nd web edition posted 3/12/1998
(updated 5/15/2008).

Published by Fleabonnet Press.
© 1986-2008 by Brian Kunde.