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Word Processing: The Enduring Killer App

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I started writing before computers were commonly available. But, unlike some who are nostalgic for the era of pen and ink, I feel only joy about relying on machines in my struggle to communicate with written language.

Wang Laboratories, USA, 1978; source: Powerhouse Museum,
Wang Laboratories, USA, 1978; source: Powerhouse Museum,

My handwriting was inelegant from the start. I never bothered to ask if neatness counted, because it didn’t matter–my penmanship in elementary school could not, even with abundant time, ever aspire to crisp clarity. Hard as I tried, the results were always disappointing.

Later in high school and college I moved on to typewriters, which offered their own torment, such as the anguish of spotting a misspelled word on a freshly completed page, or worse yet, realizing that a paragraph needed to be restructured or deleted. I noticed early, to my great annoyance, that a typewritten manuscript read differently, and often called for revisions that were not obvious in a handwritten draft. It took some time before I appreciated that this was actually a good thing, as the additional editing tended to make my writing better. But I still wince at the memory of retyping papers over and over to deal with multiple rounds of edits.

When I got my first office job in the late-1970s there were secretaries who would take a handwritten draft and return a typescript. This often meant the secretary appearing at my desk with illegible words circled in the draft. “Really? That’s what that says? I never would have guessed.”

Around 1980 the secretary started using “the Wang,” one of the first popular office word processing systems. It simplified the secretary’s job greatly, as edits now only involved changing words on the screen and reprinting the document. But it didn’t take long before I began to imagine what it would be like to write directly on the machine with no secretarial mediation. This was a little bit radical for the time, as “aspiring professionals” were supposed to avoid “clerical work.” But the lure was strong: writing freed from messy scribbles and the labor of manual retyping; writing that actually encouraged multiple rounds of self-editing.

Ngram graph showing frequency of "word processing" in books published from about 1975 to 2008
Ngram graph showing frequency of the term “word processing” in books published from about 1975 to 2008

My dreams were fulfilled in the early 1980s when I was able to use personal computers in a local university computer lab. I always had a quick answer when the lab overseer asked what I wanted to do: “word processing!” This was one fantasy that not only came true, it exceeded my fondest hopes, even when saddled with a clunky DataPoint terminal during a job in the mid- to late-1980s.

I am, of course, far from alone in embracing computer-aided writing, and the change in our homes and our workplaces has been profound. One way to think about the extent of the change is the degree to which it has faded into the background of everyday life.

Today, word processing is increasingly assumed and requires less notice. A quick search of a very large online collection of books dating from about 1970 to 2008 shows the rapid rise and fall of the term “word processing” over that time. We’re using it more and more but marvelling at it less and less.

Except for me. There is nothing like a memory of past suffering to make one feel gratitude for present blessings.

Comments (13)

  1. This was an enjoyable read. Googled “word processors” this past weekend to refresh my memory–because I had no clue as to what I used before switching to Word. As for penmanship, I can sympathize. I will do anything to avoid using my handwriting–it’s not a pretty sight. (Parents were so sure I was going to be a doctor…)

    • Sharad: Interesting that you were unfamiliar with “word processing.” More evidence to my claim that the activity has become tightly integrated into our everyday lives, like electricity, almost.

  2. As an editor and publisher I can not even think of how was the work done before the word processor era. On the other hand, I confess: Writing my own literature and poetry I do with a fountain pen… Ink, yes. As I am still in my early years of writing, meaning – childhood. In Hebrew, in Talmud language (Aramaic) we say “Gerssa Deyankuta”, meaning: Infancy version.

    • Carmela: “Infancy version” would be a great way to describe my handwriting! Thanks for your comment.

  3. I remember in high school and college writing out my papers in longhand, one side of the paper only. For my first “edit,” with different colored ink, I would circle bits and draw arrows to where they would be better placed, not to mention adding words here and there or crossing bits out.

    Why one-sided? — Well, my next step would be to physically cut the paragraphs or sections apart with scissors and tape them back together in a better order (the original cut-and-paste technique, I’m sure), then I would re-write it all in longhand or type it all out, and go through the process again as many times as it took until I was happy with it.

  4. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on a “word processor,” in the early 1980’s. Each “file” could not exceed15 pages, and if a chapter was longer than that, I had to figure out how to begin the next file so that it looked as if it continued on the same page. In addition, my university had rules against using computers. I had to purchase a very expensive daisy wheel printer so that it looked like a typewriter, and the paper could not look as if it had been fed through a printer with sprockets. We found something called “keen edge” paper so that when you tore off the side pieces, it looked like a regular piece of paper. Adding the footnotes at the bottom of the page was pure hell, but we found a program that would do it. In spite of all of these difficulties, it was heaven compared to a typewriter, and corrections were, as you say, very easy.

    • Doralynn: You are right to point out that the early days of word processing also involved some pain, relative to the current state of affairs. Ugh–those daisy wheel printers!

  5. My university was prescient enough to buy, in 1978, a machine running Unix, and a C/A/T phototypesetter, so that people could use troff to produce typeset output, including mathematics. The local access was
    a remote typewriter. So in 1979 I typeset my PhD thesis (though the library only wanted the ugly typewritten version).

    Here is the kicker: I still have some of the files (which are plain ASCII), and they still process just fine on the latest linux or Mac systems, both of which contain troff’s descendant groff.

  6. I wanted to do an honnours degree in history and the footnotes had a very specific format and had to be at the bottome of each page. To cope with moving paragraphs and thus messing up the footnote numbering I bougth a word processing package and my only proviso was that it had to be able to do footnotes and automatic renumbering. I got WordPerfect, and it was great. Without it I would have given up on the degree.

    • Annette: I understand totally. Footnotes and typewriters are not a good combination!

  7. I still have a Wang (top desk) which I bought in april 1981.MOD 5506-3 Type 5505-3 Ser. GF 5625. Very nicely built in a desk/writingtable also from Wang. And: it is still in good working order and looks as brand new. I have all the manuals, the wellknown large discs etcetera.

  8. I bought my Wang in April 1981. I still have it and is in good working order (as new). Nicely built in a special Wang desk/writingtable. Everything is there: all manuals, the wellknown large discs etcetera. MOD 5506-3 Ser. GF 5625 Type 5505-3

  9. I forgot to mention that I have also (in good working order) the Wang printer (also bought in April 1981) with several packages containing original Wang 5204 Ribbon . MOD 5541W Ser. HY 5821

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