Word Processing and Personal Computers

Believe it or not, word processing predated the personal computer revolution by over a decade. In 1964, IBM combined its Selectric typewriter (1961) with a magnetic tape drive in the IBM MT/ST, making it possible for the first time to edit text without having to retype everything.

Ad for IBM MT/STIBM was also the first to use the term word processing as a label for what the MT/ST did.

The next step forward was IBM’s Mag Card (magnetic card) introduced in 1969, which stored documents as they were typed, making it easy to reuse the text.

A big step forward came in 1972, when Lexitron and Linolex debuted a word processing system that used a video display for entering and editing text along with tape cassettes for file storage. For the first time, you didn’t have to put a document on paper to edit it!

IBM invented floppy disks in the early 1970s, and in 1973, Vydek produced the first word processing system to use a floppy disk for storing text. With a capacity of 80-100 pages per disk, it was now possible to store multiple document on one piece of media.

Floppy disks also made it possible to store software for the word processing hardware so that fixes and updates didn’t require an expensive hardware update.

Enter the Personal Computer

Apple IIThe personal computer revolution began with the introduction of the Apple II in June 1977. It was followed by the Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80 in August 1977 and the Commodore PET in October 1977 (it had been shown at the Winter 1997 Consumer Electronics Show in January and demonstrated at the West Coast Computer Faire in April 1977 but didn’t come to market until October).

Prior to 1977, there were computer hobbyists who built their own microcomputers. The revolution was that in 1977 you could buy a computer and not have to build it yourself.

Commodore PET 2001

The earliest personal computers used audio cassettes to load software and save/open documents. Apple introduced the Disk II in June 1978, Radio Shack brought out its first floppy drive in July 1978, and Commodore debuted its parallel port 2040 dual floppy drive in 1979. Commodore’s drive was unique in that its disk operating system (DOS) was built into the drive.

Floppy drives made it much easier and faster to load software and save files than working with cassette tape.

The First Word Processing Software

There were a lot of word processing programs written for personal computers in the early years, but only one has roots prior to home computing. Electric Pencil got its start on the MITS Altair 8800, a kit computer for hobbyists.

  • Electric Pencil, December 1976 for MITS Altair 8800, ported to TRS-80 in 1978
  • EasyWriter, 1978, a clone of Electric Pencil for the Apple II
  • Apple Writer, 1978, published in 1979 by Apple for the Apple II
  • WordStar, 1978, published 1979, originally written for CP/M, went on to become the de facto standard until WordPerfect pushed it aside

Electric Pencil cover artI have not been able to find a word processing app for Commodore from this era, but for the most part word processing software and floppy drives came along hand-in-hand. Good thing, because that would also make it easier to keep track of your documents and for programmers to add spell check and other nice features.

Electric Pencil, EasyWriter, and WordStar all went on to be ported to the IBM PC, which was introduced in August 1981.

Word Processing Improves

Each computer system had its pros and cons, but when it comes to word processing, the early Apple II models and TRS-80 Model I were the most challenging. Whatever the reason – most likely to keep costs down – didn’t support lowercase text. By default you wrote everything in ALL CAPS. Some word processing apps included software to allow the shift key to do its thing, while other depended on the user installing a shift key mod.

Commodore PET 2001 keyboard

Original Commodore PET keyboard layout.

Commodore PET 2001-N with a real keyboardThe original Commodore PET had a horrid keyboard with square keys in a grid – not at all like people were used to from using typewriters. There were some third-party replacement keyboards, and when Commodore introduced the PET 2001N in 1979, it had a “real” keyboard complete with a numeric keypad – but at the expense of the built-in tape drive – and supported up to 32 KB of memory, a big step up from 8 KB in the original model.

Both the Apple and Commodore models displayed 24 or 25 rows of text with up to 40 characters, the TRS-80 could display 32- or 64-character lines, but only 16 rows of text.

Over time, the keyboard problems were resolved. In 1979, the PET got a real keyboard. In 1980, the TRS-80 Model III arrived with lowercase text support. Apple brought up the rear, finally delivering the Apple IIe with a functional shift key in January 1983.

The Word Processing Legacy

Whether you’re using a desktop computer, a notebook, a tablet, or a smartphone, a lot of what you do involves text. Things we take for granted – like words not being cut at the end of a 40-character row – were innovations in the early days of personal computing. Many early computers didn’t even have arrow keys (let alone mice) to move your cursor, relying on special key combinations for that.

With our touch interface and on-screen keyboards, we have gone beyond spell check to word prediction, and it’s even possible to move your finger from letter to letter to spell a word without lifting your finger from the screen.

Email, Google searches, Facebook postings, tweets, and more – they all make use of word processing ideas that go back decades.

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