About Word Processors


The word processor never got “invented” as such, it just slowly developed out of things like typewriters and even slowly merged from electronic appliances into software. To understand the origin of the word processor you and I would recognize, the one with bold, italic, underline, we need to follow the journey of future space tourist Charles Simonyi.

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Episode transcript:

Charles Simonyi wasn’t the first space tourist. He wasn’t even the first Hungarian in space. But he’s one of the few humans ever to go into space twice. First in April 2007 aboard the Soyuz TMA-10. And a second time in March 2009 aboard the Soyuz TMA-14. Both times as a tourist. Imagine having the time and money to not only pay to go to space once, but twice.
Now imagine as you’re looking down from the International Space Station at that big blue marble below, you glance over at one of the working astronauts plugging away at a log on their laptop. You notice the word processor they’re using and say, “I made that happen.”
That’s probably not what Simonyi said. But he could have. Because Charles Simonyi is not only a two-time space tourist. He also created the modern word processor. Twice. And the second one stuck.
Wait wait wait. Some of you have listened to our episode on the Mother of All Demos. So you know that in 1968, during that demo, Douglas Engelbart showed off a Word Processor.
How is that not the first word processor?
Well. First of all the word processor never got “invented” as such, it just slowly developed out of things like typewriters and even slowly merged from electronic appliances into software.
So Engelbart’s word processor wasn’t the first, it was just the first software demo. It was pretty barebones too. And it never became a product. Rember, the mother of all demos ended up being just a demo. To know who made the modern word processor. To understand the origin of the one you and I would recognize, the one with bold, italic, underline, we need to follow the journey of future space tourist Charles Simonyi.
Simonyi left Hungary in 1965 at age 17 on a short-term visa. He’s in wild violation of that term because he didn’t go back. He started working in Denmark in 1966 on minicomputers and then made it to the US in 1968 to the University of California at Berkeley where he studied under computer scientist Butler Lampson. Simonyi got his BS in Engineering Mathematics and Statistics from Cal in 1972. By then, professor Lampson had taken a job at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, aka Xerox PARC.
Lampson brought Simonyi to Xerox PARC where they were working on developing the Xerox Alto. As we’ve talked about in other episodes, the Alto was the embodiment of the ideas from Douglas Englebart’s Mother of All Demos, and the inspiration for the Mac and Windows PC.
So how did we get from Engelbart’s halting, if impressive, basic word processing to the modern day dominance of Microsoft Word? And why is Charles Simonyi the link between them?
Let’s help you Know a Little More about Word Processors.

Almost every one of you listening to this used a word processor today. Most likely it was Microsoft Word. Or it might have been Google Docs or notepad or text pad or one of literally thousands of other pieces of software that let you compose text. Word Processors are background to computing these days. We don’t even think of them anymore.
But many of you recall that knowing how to use a word processor was once a rare enough skill that you’d highlight it on a resume.
And some of you remember when a word processor was a machine itself, not a piece of software.
Before that it was just typewriters.
We could do a whole episode on typewriters and maybe someday we will. But let’s fast forward through the 1714 patent for Henry Mill’s writing machine, William Austin Burt’s Typographer and Christopher Latham Sholes typewriter or as Scientific American called it at the time the “literary piano.”
Those machines just put letters on paper. So what would you call the first word processor? Something that could erase characters without you having to pull out the whiteout? Typewriters started doing that in the 1930s.
A German IBM typewriter salesperson named Ulrich Steinhilper is often credited with popularizing the term Text-verar-beitung in the 1950s, translated as Word Processing.
But the phrase didn’t really catch on right away.
Perhaps a word processor is the ability to store characters before they’re committed to paper. IBM’s MT/ST for Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter did that in 1964. You could store your typing for later re-use.
Or maybe it was avoiding the need to use paper at all. Something Douglas Englebart showed off in his Mother of All Demos.
But let’s keep following IBM. Because IBM let you store your words on something you could share and edit.
In 1969, IBM moved from magnetic tape to magnetic cards, and in 1971 Introduced the floppy disk. That seems to be a pivotal moment.
That same year, 1971, the New York Times identified word processing as a business buzz word. It was a more specific version of data processing, which was another business buzz word for using computers to run your business.
That floppy disk encouraged other companies to get into the game.
Vydec took advantage of the floppy disk with its Vydec Word Processing system in 1973. For $12,000, much less than a mainframe, you could write, edit and when ready, print documents and even share the floppies with others.
Linolex systems founded in 1970 also adopted the floppy to make standalone word processing systems. In 1975, one year before the introduction of the Apple computer, Linolex sold 3 million units.
Most of these systems had limited screens. In 1978, Lexitron was the first to include a full size CRT monitor and the new smaller 51/4 inch disks.
But Wang Laboratories became synonymous with word processors for a time, with text displayed on a CRT and almost all the modern functions of word processor software today.
None of those are what we’re looking for. They’re all electronic machines doing what we can do with an app today. Something that looks on the screen like what you’re going to print on the paper. And is on a system that does other things besides word processing.
We’re looking for Bravo.
Bravo was the first What You See is What You Get editing system on a multipurpose computer, the Xerox Alto.
And it was created at Xerox PARC by Butler Lampson, and future space tourist, Charles Simonyi and colleagues in 1974. It used the mouse to mark locations of text and then the user would type in commands to affect that text. Bravo was what you would call a modal editor, meaning it had more than one mode. In insert mode, you entered the text, then pressed escape and it was inserted into the selected area of your document. In command mode, you told the program what to do. You had to click twice to select text. Once at the beginning of the text and once at the end. You couldn’t drag the cursor while holding the mouse down like you do now. So mark a sentence with the mouse then enter the command to make it bold for instance.
Side note. One quirk of this was that in early versions of Bravo, the command EDIT was interpreted as one letter commands for: everything, delete, input t. Thus replacing all text with the letter t. You could only undo the most recent command, so once you did this you could undo the insertion of t, but not the deletion of all your selected text.
Anyway they eventually fixed that.
And Bravo wasn’t fully WYSIWYG. It was WYSIWIG in so much as the format looked the same on the screen as the paper, things like justification, fonts, spacing. It did not look exactly like the page since the Alto monitors displayed 72 pixels per inch and Xerox PARC’s laser printers gave you 300 PPI. A special display mode would attempt to show the text as it would appear on the page, though with occasional variances.
BravoX followed in 1979 and was modeless so you didn’t have to switch between command and insert mode.
And Gypsy followed that with a truly modeless word processor. That meant when you typed a character it always typed that character in the document. There was no command mode. No accidentally replacing all your text with Ts. You could also hold down the mouse button and drag the cursor across text to select it. No need to click at the beginning and the end anymore. You could also double click on a word to select it. Once you had your text selected you could then press the CTRL key and B to bold it, I to italicize it or U to underline it. Gypsy also introduced the ability to cut, copy and paste text. Other commands were available in a clickable menu as they are today.
While the Alto never reached mainstream commercial success, word processing began to take off.
In December 1976, filmmaker Michael Shrayer began selling Electric Pencil for the Altair, considered the first word processor for personal computers. It was 14 lines of 64 characters on a monochrome monitor the size of a small black and white TV. Starting in 1977, Science Fiction author Jerry Pournelle used Electric Pencil to edit his novels. He is generally credited with being the first published SciFi author to use a word processor on his published works.
In 1978, the founder of MicroPro International, Seymour Rubinstein, took four months and wrote his own word processor called WordStar for owners of computers running CP/M. Wordstar was rewritten for DOS, and competed with Wordperfect for the word processor market.
But the two companies that would make Word Processing mainstream were Microsoft and Apple. And they would need each other to do it.
Apple’s first attempt at a modeless WYSIWYG word processor was LisaWrite. You “tore off” stationery to start a document and then edited from there. The Lisa did not succeed so many more people are familiar with MacWrite. It shipped on every Mac from 1984 to 1986. And then Apple spun off MacWrite into a new company called Claris in 1987, which continued to publish versions of MacWrite until it was discontinued in 1998.
But you don’t use MacWrite today. You probably use Microsoft Word.
A product of computer scientist and future space tourist Charles Simonyi.
In 1981, Simonyi was still working on research at Xerox PARC with luminaries like Robert Metcalfe, who is credited with inventing ethernet. After Bravo, Simonyi moved on to other projects. He gave input and tech support to the project but he was devoting more time to his idea of meta-programming which he wrote his doctoral dissertation on for Stanford in 1977.
So Metcalfe suggested Simonyi visit Bill Gates at Microsoft. Gates had seen the Alto and was busy trying to incorporate its ideas into Microsoft’s products like Windows. And Gates wanted to start an applications group. He asked Simonyi to start the application group and make his first project a WYSIWYG word processor. Not one that would languish in Xerox PARC, but one that everyone could use.
Simonyi took the job and brought with him a Xerox PARC intern named Richard Brodie as the primary software engineer.
Simonyi made some interesting choices with Word (and Excel which his group also developed.) They ran on a sort of virtual machine which made them easy to port between platforms. And Word supported high-resolution displays and laser printers even though most users didn’t have either.
It was first released as Microsoft Multi-tool Word on October 25, 1983 for Xenix systems, a Unix variant licensed from AT&T by Microsoft, followed by a version or MS-DOS. Free copies of Word were bundled into PC World Magazine in its November 1983 issue, making it the first application distributed in a magazine on disk rather than in printed code.
Microsoft demonstrated Word for Windows that year but its main market was still in DOS. But unlike most DOS programs Word was designed to be used with a Mouse. It had an undo function and the ability to display bold, italicized and underlined text on screen instead of just with markup. But its interface was too different from Wordstar, the one everybody knew.
So Simonyi’s team kept improving it.
By 1985 Word had unlimited undos and the fastest cut and paste in the business. And it also had that largely unused support for high-resolution displays and laser printers and it was easy to port. So it was a no-brainer to bring Word to the brand new Macintosh once it had been out long enough to prove it wasn’t another Lisa. Word for MacOS had all the capabilities of a solid DOS word processor with all the true WYSIWIG of a MacWrite. It was the best of both worlds. And filled a gap for the Mac user that Apple had barely been able to fill. For at least four years Word for MacOS outsold Word for DOS.
That let Apple stop spending resources on MacWrite and it gave Microsoft a revenue stream outside DOS.
The first version of Word for Windows was released in 1989. And by 1990 it was the market leader for word processors.
Word processors after the 1990s are mostly the same with attempts to make what they do easier. But most people type, delete, revise, copy and paste. The biggest innovation in word processing since then has not been to the manipulation of the text so much as the number of people who could work on one document. We’ll get to that in a separate episode on Collaborative editing.
And Charles Simonyi? He stayed at Microsoft introducing things like object-oriented programming, which he had learned at Xerox, and the Hungarian notation conventions for variables which he had introduced in his doctoral thesis.
And finally left Microsoft in 2002 to form Intentional Software, marketing intentional programming concepts which include a WYSIWIG component to programming.
While there he booked a couple tickets to go to space.
Microsoft bought Intentional software on April 18, 2017 and Simonyi became a Microsoft Technical Fellow which he still is today.
So there you go. From typewriters to Engelbart’s Demo, to Simonyi’s work on Bravo and Microsoft Word.
Without them. I’m not able to write the words I’m saying to you write now.
In other words, I hope you know a little more about Word Processors.

Know A Little More is researched, written and hosted by me, Tom Merritt. Editing and production provided by Anthony Lemos and Dog and Pony Show Audio. It’s issued under a Creative Commons Share Attribution 4.0 International License.