From Clay Tablets to the Word Processor: How Writing Tech Evolved Over Time - Write!

From Clay Tablets to the Word Processor: How Writing Tech Evolved Over Time

By in Tips&Tricks, ,

As daily users of text processors of all types, there’s an unbelievable amount of features and functions that we take for granted. Imagine your life without spellchecker. Now imagine typing without automatic line breaks. Now imagine typing, and not seeing the result immediately. It’s difficult to conceive from this point in time that all those things were once new and exciting features.

The evolution of writing technology is something we should take a step back and admire, not in the least because it’s humbling to take in all the advancements that came about before us. Here is how writing technology evolved over time, starting with the earliest known forms of passing information.

Earliest Writing Tech

Before any kind of material was used to be written upon systematically, a virtually limitless number of items were used to preserve and transmit information: rocks, bones, sea shells, and wood, to name a few. All of them were used more or less as they were found.

The earliest known material produced specifically to be written upon are clay tablets used by the Sumerians around 3,000 BCE. The tablets were used purely for pragmatic purposes — mostly to record data about cattle, grain, and other tradable goods entering and leaving merchants’ storage. This was done by making impressions with a stylus that had a wedge-shaped tip. Though it seems quaint by modern standards, this was a significant technological breakthrough at the time, and the first push towards creating a standardized visual representation of language.

clay

Around the same time, in ancient Egypt, the papyrus was developed from a reed indigenous to the Nile region. Though not as durable as clay, the material was easier to produce, transport, and store, and Egypt quickly became the biggest papyrus supplier throughout the Mediterranean. But Egypt’s production monopoly and papyrus’ durability issues meant that other, more sturdy materials, were used in Greece and Rome. Namely, parchment made from sheepskin and calfskin, which remained a standard surface for writing in Europe until the 11th century, before being displaced by paper. Because of how cheap it is to produce, paper remains unchallenged.

papyrus

Utensils used for writing were somewhat uniform compared to the material they were being used on. Reeds or rushes with a hollow center were used to transfer ink until the quill made its debut in the sixth century CE. It was quickly adopted for allowing a more even distribution of ink compared to other methods, and its abundance. For over a thousand years, quills remained chief writing tools used in Europe, until being gradually driven out by the split steel-point pen and the pencil, both of which were first introduced in the 18th century.

Typewriters

The first push towards automating certain aspects of writing were typewriters. The earliest typewriter was invented by Henry Mill in 1714 and patented as “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another.” The invention was a commercial failure, and was thus not well-documented. Numerous attempts to create a mechanical writing machine followed, but the first commercially successful model wasn’t released until 1874.

The Remington No. 1 standardized a lot of what we regard as typical typewriter design — the QWERTY layout, for one. Early prototypes of this model featured a design flaw that caused typebars to get jammed when being pressed in rapid succession. Worse, typewriters were ‘blind’, meaning that what was being typed was not visible to the typist, and the jam could only be discovered when it was too late to correct. The solution was to scramble keys to hinder typists’ speed, and that’s how QWERTY was born. This layout was so widely used that other manufacturers were forced to adopt it, too, and it remains in use to this day, even though it’s specifically engineered to be inefficient.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

No 1’s model was succeeded by Remington No. 2 in 1878. It introduced another keyboard staple — the Shift key. Previously, each key was assigned one letter, effectively meaning that typewriters had two keyboards — one with lowercase, and one with uppercase letters. The Shift key allowed to cut down on the number of used keys and simplify the typewriter’s internal mechanism. Later Remington models introduced other keyboard mainstays like the Tab key, and Shift lock (now known as Caps Lock).

remington-no-2

1983 saw the release of Blickensderfer 5, one of the first truly portable models, marketed to have a “Scientific” keyboard. By that point, QWERTY was too widely used to consider anything else, and the manufacturer was forced to create a QWERTY model to stay in business. Customers who bought the Blickensderfer 5 with a QWERTY layout had to sign a form stating that they know that the model they’re purchasing featured the less efficient keyboard.

typewriter

Blickensderfer released the first-ever electric typewriter in 1902. It was marketed aggressively as an alternative to manual typewriters, and introduced features that were part of much later electric typewriters: light touch, even script and automatic carriage return. This model was seminal, in that it allowed for much higher typing speed than other models due to a design that allowed for keys to be pressed before the previous motion on the typewheel was completed. However, electricity was not widely adopted at the time, and currents varied from city to city, so the model could not be put into serialized production, and was thus unsuccessful.

Electric typewriters saw wide acceptance in 1935 with the release of IBM Electric. It incorporated all of Blickensderfer’s innovations, and promised more efficiency to typewriter operators. This model was followed by other successful iterations, eventually culminating in the IBM Selectric, which pioneered the typeball mechanism.

Beside speed, typeballs gave typewriters something we take for granted today: the ability to change fonts in your writing at will. The model was hugely successful, and was followed by the Selectric II, which introduced a magnetic tape recording and playback mechanism, effectively making it the first word processor. The magnetic tape held only 25 kb of data, and the operator had to divide the tape manually with dividers to separate information in place of what today would be different files or pages. Despite this model’s limitations, it introduced word processing mechanics we take for granted to this day, like text insertion and revision.

Word Processors

Early word processors were not as convenient as we expect them to be today. In the 1970s, early microcomputers used unreliable tape cassettes for storage, and central processing chips were not yet standardized. This meant that data storage and display formats were different for each computer, which resulted in each computer requiring a different version of the same software and that data could not be shared between two different computers.

In those days, word processing programs were written by hobbyists, or provided by manufacturers of the computer. But with the introduction of floppy disks, data storage and transfer became much more reliable, and writing and selling software became a viable business model.

One such piece of software was Electric Pencil, developed by Michael Shrayer. It introduced the seminal concept of word wrap, whereby the word processor would automatically switch to a new line after running out of space in the current one.

1976_science_electric_pencil_michael_shrayer

When MS-DOS displaced CP/M, and IBM became more or less of a juggernaut on the market, computers finally achieved a sort of standardization, opened new capabilities for software, and started a personal computer boom in the 1980s. But with printing being so laborious, expensive, and low-quality (and the Internet not being a thing yet), electronic word processors still struggled to keep up with the typewriter, even though new features were being introduced and widely adopted all the time. Spellchecker, macros, graphics creation, thesauruses and dictionaries, et al. became part of the word processor standard package, which arrived to users by mail-order, contained on multiple floppies.

In the 1980s, Microsoft Word and WordPerfect split the market, with Word having the edge. It utilized MS-DOS’ graphics capabilities to a fuller extent, and allowed it to have better font display. However, Word was difficult to use at the time, and when computers were becoming more common and user-friendly, it still required technical knowledge to operate. That, and the fact that it wasn’t a priority on Microsoft’s roster at the time, allowed WordPerfect to get an edge.

wordperfect

WordPerfect was the standard word processor well into the 1990s due to being available on a greater variety of operating systems that its competitors, and having superior features, like support for foreign characters. At a time when people were purchasing their first computers, and might not have understood how they worked, WordPerfect also offered comprehensive support by phone, free of charge.

By the year 2000, the word-processing market expanded to include multi-program software to give businesses not just word processors, but spreadsheets and databases. Word processors start being created to include features for specific niches (for someone in a specific profession, or engineered for a specific kind of writing, for instance). At that time and since then, distribution models start to vary, with some programs being released as freeware or open source. This kind of competition allows for an ever-greater variety available to everyone who uses a text editor.

These days, the market for text editors and word processors is huger than ever. We can count about 100 word processors and text editors available on the market. Some of them are outdated and not supported, and some are getting regularly improvements.

Take Write!, for example. Apart from its no-distraction and intuitive interface, the app has got its own Cloud that saves every keystroke you log, so you can rollback to any version of the document on any computer you have Write! installed on — Mac or PC, with Linux on approach. Besides providing mobility for writers working on multiple machines across multiple platforms, it’s got productivity features galore:

  • Focus Mode for dimming all paragraphs except the one that the cursor is on at the moment. Turn it on in fullscreen to get maximum focus, and minimal distractions. Before you know it, the world around you dissolves, and you become one with your writing;
  • Self-teaching autocomplete that remembers what words you use, and knows what you’re about to say;
  • Intelligent spellchecker that knows what language you’re using and lets you zip around your doc to check everything without touching your mouse;
  • Writing sessions that allow to work on multiple projects and seamlessly switch between contexts;
  • Publishing to the web directly from the app, and much more cool things.

Keep Focused

It looks beautiful on a screen of any size and resolution, in both Light and Dark theme. Make your Writing beautiful with Write!’s 15 presets, 25 text colors and text formatting options galore. Publish as soon as you’re done writing — in two clicks, any writing of yours can be up online to be seen by those you want to see it.

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Comments 2

    5

    Very informative, thank you

    5

    Wow, I never thought word processors were ever that basic. Great article, thanks.

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