The history of word processing

By Templafy | 11. December 2018

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According to Frank Bruni, a columnist for the New York Times, one of the most influential classes he ever took was not the one where he first read Plato or discovered The Great Gatsby or learned to appreciate Modern Art or Bach Sonatas. The class that so influenced Bruni was—drum roll please—the summer school program he attended as a teenager to learn how to type.

In an essay titled “What I Learned in Secretarial School,” Bruni extolled the drudgery and humility that was entailed in learning how to properly place one’s hands on a typewriter’s keyboard and type, without looking at the keys, phrases like “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

According to Bruni, who has been a Times White House reporter, Rome bureau chief and restaurant critic and is the author of three best-selling books—his ability to get started as a writer owed much to his fluid abilities as a typist. “I developed a reputation as a fleet writer when really I was a fleet typist. The talents were somehow intertwined. Confidence in my typing gave me confidence in everything else.”

Fast forward nearly four decades, and you might be asking “Why wasn’t he allowed to look at the keys?” or “Who cares about the quick fox and the lazy dog?” or even more fundamentally, “What’s a typewriter?”
 

Read next: Behind the orange icon: the history of PowerPoint

 
 

Going back to Gutenberg

 
To get the answers to those questions, you need to know a bit more about the history of typing and the history of word processing, including the history of word processing software (and inevitably Microsoft Word). And for all of that, even in this brief history of word processing, it’s helpful to very briefly go back a few centuries to when Johannes Gutenberg in 1439 invented moveable type.

Before Gutenberg, all books were completely handwritten. There was no printing as we know it today. Making a second copy of a book involved hiring a scribe to copy the entire book again by hand. Gutenberg essentially invented the printing industry by replacing handwritten letters with blocks of type. Setting the type was laborious, but once it was done the pages could be reproduced much faster, cheaper and in much larger quantities. A Bible Gutenberg completed in 1455 cost the equivalent of three years’ wages of the average clerk—expensive, but a fraction of the cost of hiring a scribe. Books and pamphlets began to fly off the presses, helping to usher in the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment or really the world as we know it today.
 
 

The invention of the typewriter

 
Still, someone had to write the text in the first place which required putting pen or pencil to paper. It took more than four centuries for that to change, but eventually it did with the development in the late 1800s of the first successful typewriters. Now someone could sit at a typewriter, insert a blank piece of paper and perfectly formed letters would appear on a page as you pressed each key against an inked ribbon inside the typewriter. Typewriters took off in the business world. Instead of handwritten letters or contracts, in which penmanship might lead to errors or legal issues, the cleanly written pages that flew out of typewriters greased the wheels of commerce.

As typewriters became essential in the business world, the demand grew for fast, accurate typists. Training programs similar to the one Bruni attended proliferated. Practicing phrases like “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” were helpful because they were a way to train your hands to correctly hit all the right keys without looking (which would slow you down). Businesses employed thousands of typists.
 

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Being a good typist was about more than just speed

 
However, to be a good typist, you had to be more than just fast. You had to know…
 

  • How to insert the paper in the typewriter so each page started in the same place.

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  • How to correctly set the line spacing and the margins—especially the right margin where, when you reached it, a bell would ring warning you to hit the carriage return to move down a line and back to the left margin. (Woe to you if you ignored the bell).

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  • Also, because business documents followed specific formats—especially business letters—a major part of your training was to learn that template: the placement of the date, your contact information, the recipient’s information, the salutation, the body of the letter, the closing, etc. The worst thing you could do was get the formatting wrong and go back and retype everything.

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Typewriters had no memory capabilities, making retyping documents a fact of life. But that began to change in the 1960s with typewriters like the hugely popular IBM Selectric series that essentially launched the era of word processing. These new memory typewriters could store information on magnetic tapes and later cards. When a mistake was made, the typist would simply backspace the typewriter and retype the correct text over the original error. The typewriter could remember the correct version so when the typist would insert a new blank sheet, the typewriter would automatically print out a flawless version of the desired text.
 
 

The rise of word processing

 
In the 1970s, the invention of larger storage devices (the first floppy disks) and cheaper computer memory led to word processing solutions capable of storing and managing whole documents. That was followed by the addition of cathode ray tube (CRT) screens and computerized printers. Now you could easily view the entire page as you were typing, go back and forth to make edits and instantly print out the results. The modern era of word processing took off.

At first, there was a boom in dedicated word processors, which are essentially computers with proprietary software whose sole function was to churn out typed documents. Companies who made them, such as Vydec and Wang Laboratories, became hugely successful. Individuals still used typewriters, but dedicated word processors took over for large offices and large-scale document production.
 


 
 

The PC revolution

 
Then came the PC revolution starting with Apple in 1977 and then the IBM PC in 1981. Word processing quickly became one of the most popular applications for these new devices with programs such as WordStar, WordPerfect, MultiMate and Microsoft Word in hot demand (the first version of Microsoft Word appeared on its own in 1983 and later became part of Microsoft Word Office). These programs were not cheap—sometimes $500 and up. There were endless debates over which was the best word processor, but each one made it possible to duplicate many (if not all) of the functions of a dedicated word processor.

Just as Gutenberg revolutionized printing, and the typewriter revolutionized the production of business documents, the PC revolutionized word processing. Now for the price of the software and a thousand dollars plus for the PC, you could avoid spending tens of thousands of dollars on a dedicated word processing solution. The market for dedicated word processors plummeted and the history of the word processor as it had been known was essentially over. PCs began to replace typewriters and word processors in offices throughout the world.

For your average everyday typist, word processing on a PC was infinitely easier. No longer did you have to manually insert a carriage return at the end of a line as the software automatically moved on. Misspell a word? Use find and replace to make the correction. Move paragraphs around with cut and paste.

The addition of spell check and in the early 1990s, autocorrect, made it even easier to churn out documents with no mistakes. Yes, if you wanted to be really speedy, you still needed to master “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” But now it wasn’t absolutely necessary.
 
 

What’s been lost in the history of word processing

 
Still, in the evolution from typewriting to word processing (and now in the era of the cloud-based online word processor), something has been lost. And it’s not insignificant.

Typewriters were so limited in their formatting capabilities that, everyone learned how to format them the same way. So, inevitably, one business letter looked very much like any other business letter.

Today, just the opposite is the case. With a program like Word, you can create any look you want. That’s, of course, good and bad—and it can be really bad if you care about the image and the brand you are conveying with your business documents.

In many businesses today, failure to follow basic formatting and templating leads to what we at Templafy call “document anarchy”: business documents are produced using different fonts, different logos, different colors. The visual clues that help tell the recipient who the document is from and what it’s about—clues that are essential to fast, accurate communication—get lost entirely. That’s where Templafy comes in.
 
 

Templafy improves word processing for enterprises

 
If you want to save users time, help protect brand image, make compliance easier, and much more; Templafy provides a way for large organizations to centrally manage both the appearance and the content of the thousands of business documents that get generated each day.

Templafy enables an organization to maintain a central, cloud-based library of up-to-date digital assets—such as document templates, logos, slides, photographs, illustrations, and text elements—and then simplifies and personalizes their distribution across your organization.

When your employees open Microsoft Word, Outlook or other programs the correct templates are right there for them to use with the fonts and line spacing already set up.

When revisions are needed to the format, the logo or the disclaimer text, Templafy provides a single place to make the changes and roll them out across your entire organization. For documents like offer letters, contracts, budgets, sales proposals and more, Templafy ensures that the correct templates, graphics, and text elements are readily available to use.

Templafy also streamlines the process of creating new documents, providing prompts and options to guide users through the setup of any document with easy access to centrally managed text elements, slides, charts, tables, etc. Prefigured design solutions guide users to create professional-looking work. Your users still use Word to write the document, but Templafy assists them in creating documents that follow the latest company brand and legal standards.

We don’t train typists any more, the way Frank Bruni was trained when he was a teenager. We aren’t going back to the days of the typewriter when every business letter everywhere looked the same.

Whether you think the loss of that kind of control is good or bad, one thing is for certain: it’s not coming back.

But if you care about the image you convey with your business documents—and you also want to streamline their production and ensure they are legally compliant—the templating capabilities provided by Templafy offer a great solution.
 
 

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