History of Word Processing
Dan Bricklin helped create one of the early screen-based word processors in the mid-1970's. Here are some of his recollections about that time.
Last modified: 4/8/98

Here are some of Dan Bricklin's recollections about the development of Word Processing. Dan helped develop an early Word Processor in the mid-1970's, the WPS-8. It was later sold (in new hardware) as the DECmate.

Word processors evolved from typewriters. The earliest ones were merely electric typewriters with a tape recorder that could be edited. They were first used for automatic typing of letters. Later, they were used to playback material that was typed correctly when corrections were added. The "manual" way, at the time, was to have a typist type something, have it proofread, and then retype it with corrections, hoping that no new errors were introduced with the retyping. The word processor insured that the parts that were left alone did not change.

Those early word processors were very much designed to control the typewriter to which they were connected. The operators were specially trained typists. Most of the early products were "page oriented" as opposed to "document oriented". This meant that they dealt with documents as a series of separate pages, and the page breaks were very important barriers. For example, if you added text to the middle of a page such that it pushed other text off the bottom, you had to "cut" the extra and move it to the next page. If that pushed text off that page, you had to do it again and again.

This page orientation was very helpful for carefully lining up letters, newsletters, and the other documents that made up most of the target market. The machines were expensive and were justified for the repetitive work of fundraising form letters and the exacting requirements of newsletters and small newspapers. The early units often used IBM Selectric printing mechanisms that had changeable fonts (by replacing the typing ball) and were used as simple typesetting machines for newspapers.

General purpose personal computers were still in the future, and each computer was built specially to do word processing. With the advent of inexpensive video computer screens, the connection to the typewriter as input device was broken. Some early devices tried to avoid this break, and simulated the look and feel of a typewriter by making the screen act as much like a piece of paper as possible, even going as far as having margin setting levers that were under the screen just like those under paper on a typewriter. These devices kept the page orientation.

Some of the early screen-based word processors broke with this page oriented tradition and dealt with the entire document as one long string of text, with the pagination done at print time. Explicit pagination was left to extra commands, such as explicit page breaks. These machines were WYSIWYG versions of the RUNOFF programs on large timesharing computers. Features we take for granted today, such as having margins and other paragraph settings spanning a certain amount of text, had to be invented. Much debate went on between the page and document oriented camps, continuing to this day with some page-layout vs. word processing programs.

In all cases, the design goal of the word processor was to produce a final paper output. The initial uses were not even the authors, they were the typists and typesetters.