Word processing: How far we’ve come!

In my classes, it is fascinating to see students today who have no concept at all on how good things are today. Now I know this will make me sound old, regaling the days when I had to walk to school, up hill, both ways, bare foot through the snow (even in the Winter), but bear with me for a moment.

In 2006, we all have blindingly fast computers that are GUI based, powered by multitasking operating systems, running an unbelievable assortment of multimedia enabled applications. But it hasn’t always been this way. A mere 15 years ago, GUI was a new term, multitasking was largely accomplished as an OS add on (called “Windows”), and multimedia applications were rare if they existed at all. Five years more and the Mac was still new, graphics were still a neat (and expensive) add-on to PCs, and multimedia was just the sound that you could produce on the standard 2” speaker. A few more years back, and even GUI didn’t exist except in the dreams of some at Xerox.

The applications that we take for granted today bear little resemblance to those of a generation ago. Take the word processor, for example. Not too many years ago computer screens were text only, with 25 lines of 80 characters; 43 lines if you had the right video card and could stand the “small print.” Your display wasn’t what was called WYSIWIG (“what you see is what you get”), and you didn’t have a zillion fonts to deal with. If you wanted bold, underlined, etc., you had to use special screen indicators to show this. For example, a popular program called WordStar had a display that (if printed) would look like this:

         C:TEST  PAGE 1 LINE 1 COL 01

This is what ^Bbold text^B looks like,
and ^Uunderlined^U, ^Tsuperscript^T,
and also ^Ssubscript^S text.

Imagine for a moment a keyboard that only had the “standard” keys (those you’d find on a typewriter) and a Ctrl key; no function keys, no numeric keypad, and no cursor / navigation keys. How would you scroll around a large document? The WordStar “cursor diamond”: Ctrl-D for right, Ctrl-S for left, Ctrl-E for up, and Ctrl-X for down. Ctrl-F went to the next word, Ctrl-A the previous word, Ctrl-W scrolled one line up, Ctrl-Z scrolled one line down, Ctrl-R was page up, and Ctrl-C was page down. Want more? Ctrl-QD went to the end of the line, Ctrl-QS to the beginning of the line, Ctrl-QE to the top of the page, Ctrl-QX to the bottom of the page, Ctrl-QC to the end of the document, and Ctrl-QR to the beginning of the document. (Yes, it may seem foreign, clunky at best, but this interface was so effective that it was emulated by countless other programs, including other word processors, and even Borland’s Turbo Pascal!)

You can say that word processing 20 years ago was nothing compared to what it is today. But, when compared to a typewriter (the dominant technology of the day), it was light-years ahead. Just think: you could SAVE a document to edit later (Ctrl-KS). You could search for specific text (Ctrl-QF), and even rearrange text within a document (Ctrl-KV, but only after marking the text to be moved with Ctrl-KB and Ctrl-KK). And, when you were all done, you could send the document to the printer – just make sure you had your dot-matrix or (if you could afford it) the daisy-wheel printer attached; there weren’t thinks like ink-jets or laser printers around back then.



 re: Word processing: How far we’ve come! @ Saturday, December 02, 2006 5:06 PM

You forgot that to print you had to make sure your blazingly SLOW serial cable!!
And what about the fact that the screens weren’t color? Or maybe they did have color, only just one–green! My dad had an old terminal he used for work that I played on when I was little. It had a tiny green & black screen.


re: Word processing: How far we’ve come! @ Sunday, December 03, 2006 11:15 AM

Actually, very few printers back then were serial. Most were parallel, which was remarkably fast for the day. More often than not, the speed was the factor of the printer, not the computer, although without the luxury of a "print buffer", you couldn’t tell the difference.

Yes, most screens were monochrome, and if you had color you dealt with horrific quality text (8 scan lines per line of text, very hard on the eyes.) I was lucky enough in the 80’s to work on computers that had fairly high quality (16 scan lines) color text displays.


re: Word processing: How far we’ve come! @ Sunday, December 03, 2006 2:07 PM

Am I the only one old enough to remember the ASR33? http://www.pdp8.net/asr33/asr33.shtml No screen – just paper. Paper for output. Paper tape for input and output. And a real bell – no electronic sounds at all. Text edditing on one of those was interesting let me tell you.


Talking about the old days @ Sunday, December 03, 2006 3:37 PM

I read a resume recently where the job applicant told of his 7 years of professional experience. It read…


What if what you see is not what you get @ Friday, December 08, 2006 1:43 PM

I read a resume recently where the job applicant told of his 7 years of professional experience. It read

Computer Science Teacher – Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson



About Mr. I

After 17 years as a PC Software Engineer I gave it all up in 2000 to become a High School Computer Teacher
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