In the beginning, there was the word processor

Now, most of us use Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or OpenOffice/LibreOffice Writer, but once upon a time word processors were new, exotic programs.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Once upon a time, and it wasn't that long ago, instead of word processors like today's favorites such as Microsoft Word, Google Docs or OpenOffice and its brother LibreOffice, we had to use typewriters. Some of us, dare I admit it, wrote by hand on paper. The horror! The horror! But, then along came word processors and the world changed.

In my case, I made the change-over in 1980. I went from using my "prized" IBM Selectric II to using two word processors at almost the same time. I've always been a glutton for punishment.

The first, and the one that counts as a real word processor, was WordStar. I first used it on an Osborne 1 "luggable" computer. This was a portable computer only in the sense that if you absolutely had to move it, you could "lug" its 24-pounds from one place to another. Of course, you had to have a power outlet where-ever you went, we were a long, long way from having batteries that could power something like the new iPad for ten hours.

WordStar, which was God's gift to touch-typists, made it possible to use the control key-at the time the only "alternative" key most PC keyboards had--to copy, cut, and paste text. While there were earlier word processors, Electric Pencil, WordStar was for many of us the first word processor we could use on a general purpose PC.

It was also the first popular What You See is What You Get (WYSIWYG) word processor. So long as you didn't want, oh say, fonts. Fonts were pretty much beyond us in these days of daisy-wheel and dot-matrix printers.

At the same time, I was also learning vi. This text-processing program still lives on in every Linux and Unix system ever made. To this day, both WordStar and vi's control sequences are locked into my fingers. Indeed, I still use vi for editing Linux configuration files and some light word processing.

As for graphical user interfaces? What are you talking about? Oh sure, there were mini-computers like the Xerox Alto, but in the early days of the PC world we used character-based interfaces and we liked it. Steve Jobs would, of course, look in on the Alto and see the mouse-based, bit-mapped graphics future that lead to the Macintosh. But, at the time we were just happy to have any kind of word processing.

I'm not the only one who felt that way. I asked some of my fellow technology writers in the Internet Press Guild, a non-profit organization promoting excellence in technology journalism. Most of us were there in the early days of word processing and are still fond of our first word processors.

Some of us, like Mac McCarthy, actually used dedicated word processors before they used word processing software.

Mac McCarthy, Publisher of aNewDomain and co-creator of the Dummies books.

I worked as a Kelly Girl during the late 70s, at one point for the consulting arm of Ernst & Ernst in Los Angeles. The department advised hospitals on efficiencies; one example was a hospital that stacked up all the payment checks it received and deposited them once a week; the auditors figured out that the amounts were so large that it would be worth it to them to hire someone to take the checks to the bank each day.

This unit would generate lengthy reports for their clients--they told me that the clients didn't believe they were getting their money's worth unless the report was at least 200 pages long.

So the two accountants who worked on a project would handwrite their reports on yellow pads and send them to me and another guy who were the typing pool for this unit. We'd type up the notes (and, often, edit them for grammar and spelling), send them back, then get back marked-up edits, which we'd retype, then these drafts would go to the bosses, who'd mark them up some more -- and we'd retype them again. (We were using Redactron dedicated word processors, which used cassette tapes to record the documents. In some cases it was faster to retype the whole document rather than try to edit in the changes... long story there too.)

We discovered that the accountant-consultants all knew how to type, but were forbidden to type up their initial reports because the division chief believed typing was for clerks and secretaries; so they were obliged to hand-write everything. Which of course added at least one time-consuming step, plus took them longer to write, plus they hated handwriting everything. The department, and the idiot boss, needed a consulting firm to come in and do an efficiency report on them!

Used to drive me and my colleague crazy.

The Redactron was a Selectric connected to a box about three feet high next to our desks; we'd type on paper, the box would record what we typed on cassettes, we could correct while typing or go back and make changes (up to a point), then print out a finished, cleaned page. Our process was to type each page of the document, then take a break while the thing typed a clean copy of that page, which took about a minute. It as nice to have a little break every ten minutes or so.

My colleague sat out of my sight, behind me. He was such a fast typist that I could not tell, without looking, whether it was him or the automated system typing given page at about 130 wpm. I typed at 110, but 130 was markedly faster. He actually typed with no errors, too, but would let the machine retype a page so he could get a cigarette break. Heh.

My first desktop-based word processor was Peachtext, on an Apple II, for a consulting project!

Keith Dawson, freelance writer

had an even more exotic introduction to word processing:

My first word processor was TRIX AC, running on the supercomputer cluster at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. TRIX was a local implementation of SNOBOL, and the AC dialect supplied word processing commands on top of it.

When I moved to Digital Equipment Corporation in 1976, a first I used EDT running on RSX-11M, and later on VAX VMS. (The formatting language was Runoff.)

A couple of years later my word processor of choice was the one built into the VT-71 smart terminal, talking to a TMS-11 typesetting system. These all ran on DEC's RSX-11D operating system. The VT-71 was a wonder. It featured word wrap (hooray!), virtual scrolling through arbitrarily long manuscripts (paging happened invisibly), and even hyphenation & justification. This was all implemented in 32K of memory. Core memory. 1978 or so.

Daniel Dern, freelance writer

points out that: Arguably, many of the programs people are talking about are "text editors" rather than "word processors." E.g., vi, TECO, vs PC-Write, etc.

During my year as technical editor at Prime Computers, I wrote (after several others had failed) the manual for their text editor, EDITOR, and word processing macros language, RUNOFF (a variant/descendant of roff, nroff, etc):

It was a lot of fun. I got to commission original art, use fun quotes. And oh yeah, I documented the heck out of it, boiling down a lot of info and mis-info to a stack of 3x5 index cards of verified facts.

I discovered that the text editor had a programmable string editor in it, which, for example, could easily be coded to display "n bottles of beer on the wall," beeping at the end of each verse.

And I received the ultimate tribute for my work. Prior to my doing this manual, the typist/secretarial pool (at least in Tech Pubs) passed down a hand copied list of ~8 commands -- getting at least 3 wrong--for these tools. After I wrote the manual, when a new admin/sec came in the admin/sec's already there would hand them my manual, and say "read this, and come see us if you have any questions."

Higher praise, etc.

Most of us though got our start with word processors in the PC area... or just before.

Curtis Franklin, Jr., Executive Editor, Enterprise Efficiency

First word processor for me was TECO running under RT-11 on my DEC LSI-11/02. I wrote my first thesis in vi, then moved on to WordStar, something I've blocked from memory (but it was based on the Wang word processor) and XyWrite.

The tragic thing is that I can't really remember my last physical address, but I can still remember my most common TECO setup string.

Barbara Krasnoff, Features & Reviews Editor for ComputerWorld

As I recall, when I started at PC Magazine in 1981, they gave me a typewriter for my first two weeks there, and then they dropped a PC with a 10MB hard drive on my desk with a copy of WordStar on it and no instructions.

Eventually, we were switched over to XyWrite, and that's where I stayed, with occasional changes to PC-Write. Played with a lot of others along the way, but once I started with Microsoft Word, I pretty much stayed there, although I'm now using LibreOffice Writer on my personal laptop (and Google Docs more often than not).

Sean Gallagher, IT editor of Ars Technica

In college, I attempted to use Apple Write II. The great thing about using a word processor on the Apple II Plus was that it could display both uppercase AND lower case text. But professors did not like getting papers printed on a dot-matrix printer in 1982, so I returned to my primary word processor: an Olivetti electric typewriter and large quantities of white-out. When I joined the Navy, I sold my Apple II Plus and bought a KayPro PC that came with WordStar (and a handy keyboard template for the commands, which I promptly lost). I wrote a few letters on that before being told by my XO [Executive Officer] aboard the Iowa that computers were clerical devices and no officer should be caught dead using one, after which I left it in storage during deployment and went back to the IBM Selectric. I would cast longing glances at the Xerox 860 in the ship's office every now and then.

And then I ended up ashore as Zenith 286s started being bought by the boatload, and ended up teaching my new boss how to use WordPerfect 4.0.

Of all these old word processors, I should add, as opposed to the text processors like vi, only WordPerfect is still being sold today.

Dennis Fowler, retired freelance writer

My first computer was a KayPro II, which we named "Ozzie" after a character in a romance I'd written, the sale of which paid for him and a daisy wheel printer. It came with Perfect Writer and WordStar 2.? or maybe 3.? as well as Perfect Calc and a bunch of other stuff.

This was in about 1982 or 83. I tried Perfect Writer, but it wasn't anywhere close to WYSIWYG. While the KayPro couldn't provide such bells and whistles as boldface, at least it showed page breaks. What printed out depended on what daisy wheel I put in the printer, of course. I churned out four more romances on it, plus I don't know how much other stuff.

We liked Ozzie so much we almost immediately bought a second KayPro II, which we, of course, named Harriet. She was Peggy's computer.

I used WordStar darn near forever, still remember ^K^D to save and quit, and a bunch of other keystroke commands.

Steve Cherry, Senior Associate Editor at IEEE Spectrum

WordStar on a KayPro and, almost contemporaneously, on an IBM PC, still with two floppy drives. (Thank heavens for code overlays in .COM files.)

A few years later, my cousin and I moved to PC-Write, which was thoroughly WordStar compatible - including the extended diamond - when it was clear WordStar would never be upgraded (I guess it was, eventually). I think we needed new printer drivers or something.

I moved on to WordPerfect 4.0 when I realized I could do an entire newsletter in it, but I recreated the WordStar diamond via keyboard macros, which I would do yet again when I switched from WordPerfect 5.1 to XyWrite.

And in fact, I refused for almost another decade to give up my IBM AT keyboard because later ones moved the Control key from where God himself had placed it, next to the A key, for the left pinkie finger.

Wayne Rash, Bureau Chief at eWEEK's Washington Bureau

My first word processor was a Lexitron that was in the ship's office on the USS Samuel Eliot Morison (FFG-13) in 1981. I didn't use it much, partly because typing wasn't my job (that belonged to the Chief Yeoman) and partly because I didn't have time. But after seeing what a word processor could do, I built a Heathkit H-89 and got a copy of WordStar to run on the version of CP/M that ran on Heath systems.

Everything was on 100K hard sector floppy disks. Hard disks did exist, but they were the size of washing machines and nobody could afford one. So the program was on one disk, and the data on the other. Before that the best I could do was an IBM Selectric and a spool of correction tape.

Rich Santalesa, Senior Counsel at Information Law Group and former editor at many computer magazines.

My first "word processor" was Bank Street Writer on the C-64, which was quickly ditched in favor of a kick-ass (for the time) word processor running on my spanking Commodore-128.... from there it was WordStar for ages... then WordPerfect and that crazy WP we used at Computer Shopper, XyWrite if I recall, followed by Word versions pretty much since, though OpenOffice is running on all my Linux systems now.

Tom Henderson, freelance writer and owner of ExtremeLabs

WordStar on an Altos 8" was my first micro word processor. Seymour Rubenstein's [One of WordStar's two inventors] phone # was written in hand, across the face page of the manual.

My first text editor was "ed". The first one I pitched across a room was "vi", but it only broke the Televideo 950. I wrote five books on WordStar on an Osborne 1, including a book about the Osborne 1.

If there was something I could tattoo on myself, it would be: ^KX. [WordStar's Save file and exit program command.]

Not everyone in the early PC era had WordStar as one of their first programs though. Take, for example,

Alfred Poor, freelance writer and editor of HDTV Almanac

I'm an outlying data point on this one. I never used WordStar, as far as I can remember. XyWrite was certainly one of my all-time favorites, but that came very late in the process. There were flirtations with other word processors including Word Perfect, and I actually paid for more than one version of the shareware success story, PC Write.

But the first word processor that I recall buying and using for writing was a program for the Apple ][ that was way ahead of its time. This was before the Apple 2e; the Apple ][ could only display text in uppercase. This program used a graphic display however, and showed upper and lowercase on the screen. A miracle and nothing less! It also did a bunch of other useful things that were magical at the time. It could create indices automatically for an index or table of contents, handled proportional spacing (on my Starwriter daisy-wheel printer), mail merge, spanning multiple floppies, macros, and much more. The program was SCREENWRITER II from Sierra Online (Ken and Roberta Williams' company that was much better known for its gaming software).

Robin "Roblimo" Miller, former Editor in Chief of Slashdot

My First "word processor" was a $99 9Brother that would store four lines of text and display them on a little LCD screen above the keyboard. I went from that to an IBM clone kit with two floppy drives -- and WP 5.1 courtesy of the Johns Hopkins Medical School. This was, of course, DOS.

Unlike most people, instead of jumping from DOS to Windows, I moved to Linux. And Nedit. And soon, StarOffice. Then OpenOffice -- and I believe Point & Click Linux was the first book written entirely in OpenOffice. Now I use LibreOffice.

Evan Koblentz, a reporter at Law Technology News

My first word processor was an electric typewriter in the early 1980s. :)

My first computer word processing software was AppleWorks, on an Apple ][+, in the mid-1980s. Then (surprise) WordPerfect for DOS 5.0, then WP for Windows, then Word for Windows, then OpenOffice, and now LibreOffice at home and still Word at work.

But whenever I don't need serious formatting (such as every day when I interview people via phone and take notes), I just use a text editor.

Norman C. Berns, CEO of ReelGrok, an online community built for working filmmaker

Does anyone remember Perfect Writer? Or am I giving away my age? Ran on my KayPro under CP/M (does anyone remember CP/M?) and seemed, well, perfect. Of course all the formatting had to hand coded, but I didn't know better yet. Still, it was fast and good. When I finally got Word, it seemed like a giant step backwards. Well, actually...

Lynn Greiner, freelance writer

Yes! I loved Perfect Writer. And the hand coding (primitive html tags) was very useful; I could write in the text editor on my NEC PC8201A notebook computer (remember those), including the codes, and when I slurped the file into Perfect Writer and printed it, everything was all pretty. I was really sad when the company was bought, and the products killed.

David Chernicoff, ZDNet Contributing Editor

A TRS-80 Model 4 running TRS-DOS and a word processing program, that if I recall correctly, was called Write! In a lot of ways it was like writing HTML; you had to specify explicit formatting from paragraphs, to font, to page breaks.

Jason Perlow, ZDNet Senior Technology Editor

The first time I ever used word processing software of any kind was on my Apple ][ + computer that my parents bought for me as a Bar-Mitzvah present on my 13th birthday in 1981.

It was an Apple ][+, with 80 column text, CP/M card, dual 5.25" 180K floppy drives and a green phosphorescent monitor. It had 64K of RAM -- the deluxe model with the additional 16K language card -- and ran on a MOStek 6502 processor that clocked at 1Mhz. I think your average $10 disposable digital watch you can buy at Walgreens has at least several times the computing power of that thing.

The first software for word processing I ever used on the Apple ][+ was the original WordStar, which ran on the CP/M operating system, which had commands very similar to the MS-DOS on the original IBM PCs.

I remember the commands being extremely cryptic and the software was very hard to use by today's standards, but I was glad to have it because my penmanship in elementary school was so atrocious that it was the only way I could hand in my homework without getting horrible grades.

I remember the first time I handed in an assignment that was printed out--on an Okidata 9-pin ML-93 dot-matrix printer, and my English teacher thought I was from another planet. In the early 1980s nobody in elementary or Junior High school had ever handed anything in typed, we were expected to hand write everything until we entered high school and took formal typing classes, on manual and electric typewriters.

I had already learned how to type via hunt-and-peck. I remember that my parents had to call the principal and conference with the teacher to get permission for me to hand in word processed assignments, and I had to prove in the school's computer lab I could type on their Radio Shack TRS-80's that my parents weren't doing my homework for me.

Thus began my career as a computer journalist and IT professional.

Steven again: As I look over these stories, I'm struck by two things. First, how when we started in the 80s "typing" was still done by secretaries, never by professionals. How things have changed!

The other is just how influential WordStar was. While I suspect more people recall WordPerfect as their first word processor, in the early days WordStar really was the word processor to beat.

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