Word Processing: The Enduring Killer App

I started writing before computers were commonly available. But, unlike some who are nostalgic for the era of pen and ink, I feel only joy about relying on machines in my struggle to communicate with written language.

Wang Laboratories, USA, 1978; source: Powerhouse Museum, http://ow.ly/lT4On

Wang Laboratories, USA, 1978; source: Powerhouse Museum, http://ow.ly/lT4On

My handwriting was inelegant from the start. I never bothered to ask if neatness counted, because it didn’t matter–my penmanship in elementary school could not, even with abundant time, ever aspire to crisp clarity. Hard as I tried, the results were always disappointing.

Later in high school and college I moved on to typewriters, which offered their own torment, such as the anguish of spotting a misspelled word on a freshly completed page, or worse yet, realizing that a paragraph needed to be restructured or deleted. I noticed early, to my great annoyance, that a typewritten manuscript read differently, and often called for revisions that were not obvious in a handwritten draft. It took some time before I appreciated that this was actually a good thing, as the additional editing tended to make my writing better. But I still wince at the memory of retyping papers over and over to deal with multiple rounds of edits.

When I got my first office job in the late-1970s there were secretaries who would take a handwritten draft and return a typescript. This often meant the secretary appearing at my desk with illegible words circled in the draft. “Really? That’s what that says? I never would have guessed.”

Around 1980 the secretary started using “the Wang,” one of the first popular office word processing systems. It simplified the secretary’s job greatly, as edits now only involved changing words on the screen and reprinting the document. But it didn’t take long before I began to imagine what it would be like to write directly on the machine with no secretarial mediation. This was a little bit radical for the time, as “aspiring professionals” were supposed to avoid “clerical work.” But the lure was strong: writing freed from messy scribbles and the labor of manual retyping; writing that actually encouraged multiple rounds of self-editing.

Ngram graph showing frequency of "word processing" in books published from about 1975 to 2008

Ngram graph showing frequency of the term “word processing” in books published from about 1975 to 2008

My dreams were fulfilled in the early 1980s when I was able to use personal computers in a local university computer lab. I always had a quick answer when the lab overseer asked what I wanted to do: “word processing!” This was one fantasy that not only came true, it exceeded my fondest hopes, even when saddled with a clunky DataPoint terminal during a job in the mid- to late-1980s.

I am, of course, far from alone in embracing computer-aided writing, and the change in our homes and our workplaces has been profound. One way to think about the extent of the change is the degree to which it has faded into the background of everyday life.

Today, word processing is increasingly assumed and requires less notice. A quick search of a very large online collection of books dating from about 1970 to 2008 shows the rapid rise and fall of the term “word processing” over that time. We’re using it more and more but marvelling at it less and less.

Except for me. There is nothing like a memory of past suffering to make one feel gratitude for present blessings.