Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


On the origin of the word processor

Huub Ehlhardt, Arthur O. Eger

Word processor software has become an indispensable tool in our daily life. Remarkably, it appears that this software product evolved from the mechanical typewriter. This article is the second of a series of five on product evolution. They illustrate that technological evolution can explain ‘the origin of products’, although one of a different nature than we know from biological species.

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Writing is recognised as one the major inventions of mankind. And the mechanization of writing is one of these developments that typify what is commonly regarded as the work of genius inventors. However, the typewriter was not ‘suddenly invented’, but emerged from the work of many inventors contributing inventive steps. In 1714 the English inventor Henry Mill patented a “machine for transcribing letters”. The industrial revolution that started some decades later provided a wide variety of manufacturing technologies that have supported the conception of many new types of useful products.

From the beginning of the 19th century inventive activities that lead to the typewriter increased, quickly providing the many small inventive steps that make a leap. One of the many inventors working on a device to mechanise writing was Christopher Latham Sholes who together with Glidden and Soule patented a typewriter in 1868. After many improvements this lead to a first typewriter with a QWERTY based keyboard. Remington in the USA commenced manufacturing of this typewriter in 1873.

The typewriter was developed promising it’s operator to write faster and more clearly than one could do by hand. This provided the typewriter with economic potential. Of course, one first had to go through a learning curve to master the keyboard. And that learning curve provided, as appeared later, the reason why we still use the same layout. Mastering one type of keyboard requires time and effort, which goes to waste if one start using a different type. Hence, once a particular standard is learned, people tend to stick to it. And the more people use it, the more valuable it becomes.

This self-reinforcing effect made that QWERTY became de facto the standard typewriter keyboard layout and is now locked-in to our capability set. Besides QWERTY, some different versions have been developed to accommodate to particular languages. The French use AZERTY and Germans use QWERTZ. For these layouts too the same is valid; once people are accommodated to it, they tend to stick to it. And for a reason. Just try a version you are not used to, and you will quickly learn how confusing it is to get lost on a keyboard.

The typewriter proliferated after the mid-1880s and soon it became an indispensable tool, particularly for business correspondence. New job types like secretary and telephone operator opened opportunities for women to work beyond the confines of the home. The typewriter and its contemporary telephone became the standard tools of the secretary. Without answering the question if the typewriter and the telephone are a cause or an effect of social change, it is evident that the new technologies played a significant role in the liberation of women.

Read the full blog article here.



About The Authors

Huub Ehlhardt

Huub Ehlhardt has studied Industrial Design Engineering at Technische Universiteit Delft and worked on a Ph.D. project at Universiteit Twente. He has worked over twenty years in di...

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Arthur O. Eger

Arthur. O. Eger is a Professor of Product Design. He has a broad experience in industrial design engineering, wrote and edited over fifteen books, and published over 100 articles a...

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