When we think of word processors Microsoft Word immediately comes to our mind. It is easily the best known and used in all word processors in history. But to know the origins of this piece of software we must first define it.
What is a word processor?
It is simply a system that allows modifications on the written text without necessarily having to rewrite it. Since the invention of the printing press, every time we wanted to modify a text we had to write the whole text again, which was both time-consuming and expensive.
Word processors were not born with computers, in the same way that instant messaging was not born with smartphones, they were simply the things that popularized the technology.
Ok, so what was the first word processor?
First let’s divide word processors by the technology on which they were based. Throughout history, there have been three types of processors: mechanical, electronic and software.
There is no trace of the very first alleged word processors. The oldest record we have is from 1714, when an English engineer named Henry Mill got a patent for a machine capable of “writing so clearly and accurately you could not distinguish it from a printing press.” But the patent does not say much more. More than a century later, another patent appeared in the name of William Austin Burt called the “Typographer”. It had a lever that allowed selecting the character to be printed, then it was pressed against the paper. A handle on the side served to jump between lines and allowed up to fifteen lines per page.
The invention was destroyed in 1830 in a fire at the patent office, but Burt himself built a replica that is stored in the Smithsonian. His typographer, which was quite ahead of its time, would pass unnoticed for decades, giving way to the first typewriter that would begin to have the form and function that is more or less known by everyone today.
Towards the end of the 1800’s Christopher Latham Sholes created the first “typewriter” that, although huge, everyone would identify at first sight. In his time, the prestigious Scientific American magazine described it as a “literary piano”.
The keyboard of the first model though was totally different from today’s standard QWERTY keyboard. The layout was like this:
3 5 7 9 N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
2 4 6 8 . A B C D E F G H I J K L M
It did not have the numbers 1 and 0, because the letters “I” and “O” were used instead. As Sholes and his partners’ models improved, they would eventually arrive at the QWERTY keyboard arrangement to speed up writing.
These mechanical systems could not “process text” beyond changing the position of the new characters, re-fill empty spaces or jump lines easier when writing. The following decades would see the introduction of electricity in typewriters to help the writer with the mechanical part.
It wasn’t until the early 1930s when machines capable of actually processing text began to appear. You could start to erase written characters in a rudimentary way thanks to a new tape articulated with a special key. In addition, a new mechanism called “the ball” was invented. It was a rotating spherical shape that printed characters, replacing the tedious mechanical swarm.
In 1964, IBM launched the MT/ST to the market, which added a magnetic tape to these machines. Its name meant precisely that: Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter. The entered text would be stored on the magnetic tape for later reuse. Finally, automation began to appear on the first word processors. It allowed rewriting text that had been written on another tape and you could even send the tape to another person for them to edit or make more copies. It was a revolution for the word processing industry.
In 1969 the tapes were replaced by magnetic cards, oMagCards. Memory cards were introduced in the side of an extra device that accompanied the MT/ST, able to read and record what the operator introduced.
Just before the arrival of the PC market, IBM developed the “floppy disk”. One of the early adopters was Vydec, creating in 1973, at last, the first modern text processor, aptly called “Vydec Word Processing System”. With multiple functions built-in such as the ability to share content by diskette and print it, the Vydec Word Processing System sold for $12,000 at the time, currently $60,000 adjusted for inflation.
The Vydec Word Processing System came with a table, printer and diskette readers built-in.
Not long after that came the software innovations brought by Xerox, Apple, Microsoft, Star, IBM, etc. Processing systems that would create much more complex and capable text were developed and prices began to fall, making them more accessible to the public.
In 1978 WordStar appeared on the market. The first word processing software became popular among computer owners with CP/M, then DOS, then Windows. WordStar was slowly replaced by WordPerfect in the mid-80s, becoming the “standard” for DOS.
The growing popularity of the Windows operating system took Microsoft Word along with him. Originally called “Microsoft Multi-Tool Word”, it quickly became a synonym of “word processor”… and the rest, as they say, is history.