Monday, 9 December 2019

The birth of the word processor (1)

Nowadays anyone can have a pretty powerful word processor in their web browser and before that the likes of Microsoft Word and Wordstar were essential software installed on millions of computers. Before the electronic word processor however there was the typewriter, rooms full of typists typing away. Typewriters had a number of disadvantages of course. To amend a document (to fix a typo or change some details like a date) it had to be typed out again entirely. However there was a technology by IBM which could solve this problem.

The Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter was a version of the highly popular IBM Selectric electric typewriter and was the first device to be marketed as a word processor in 1964.  The MT/ST stored documents on magnetic tape. Each tape cartridge could store up to 25K which doesn't sound a lot these days but was perfectly adequate for a page of text. Later on IBM released the MagCard system which were punched card sized magnetic cards.

Documents would be edited by the typist loading the document on the typewriter (the typewriter being electric could print it out from storage) and then the typist would amend the document by crossing out or overwriting text. This was then stored on the tape cartridge. Once the edits had been made on draft copies then the final version could be printed out on the nice paper. With two drives even mail merge could be performed.

The IBM MT/ST was successful in the 1960s but by the 1970s the technology was obsolete and had been surpassed by screen based word processors by the likes of Wang, however this is where the road to Word, Apple Pages et cetera began.