Today we take the Word Processor for granted. There are many to choose from and many are free to use. Yet it is perhaps one of the most underappreciated technological innovations of the past half century and with the passing of the person who designed the first one earlier this month it seems like now is a good time to look at this venerable piece of software that we probably all use.

Evelyn Berezin

The year was 1971. At a company called Redactron Evelyn Berezin unveiled a new product called the Data Secretary. Berezin was no stranger to innovation. She had built an airline reservation system capable of matching customers to open seats in 1962. It had a one second response time and worked for 11 years without any failures to its core system. She had also helped to design automated banking systems, terminals used for horse-racing track betting and a calculator to help with weapons targeting for the US military. The Data Secretary was intended to help women in their jobs and to hopefully get more of them into the workforce and to make them more technological savvy.

The problem for her was that she felt her prospects were limited as long as she was employed by someone else. So Berezin started her own company. The initial project was to be an electronic cash register but in 1968 the focus shifted to something else. At the time 6% of all people in the workforce worked as secretaries and no one had even considered designing a computer system for them to help with their work. The closest thing at the time was a device from IBM that used magnetic tape for recording and playback that they called a word processor. IBM’s product was not marketed to secretaries but instead to the military.

The Data Secretary

Berezin designed what she called the Data Secretary. It was a little over 3 feet tall, had a keyboard, a printer, electronics and a cassette drive. A user would type something in and that would be recorded. It could be played back, edited and printed. A screen was not included though one was included later because a rival product did.

To get to this point was a minor miracle. Berezin wanted to buy chips for the Data Secretary from Intel, which had just opened for business, but they could not fulfill the order. Berezin had to design the chips herself and sent the designs to other manufacturers. When the prototype was built it was prone to static electricity build ups which caused sparks to fly between the circuits in dry conditions. When it was put on display in a New York City hotel the weather was about as dry as it could be. The head engineer dumped a bucket of water on the carpet of the room to make sure there was some moisture.

The Data Secretary was available for either sale or for rental. The first unit sold in 1971 and over 750 units were sold or rented in 1972. At a cost of around $8,000 (about $48,000 today) the main customers were law firms and corporate offices. Unfortunately success was short lived. A recession hit in 1973 and many companies were only interested in renting a unit which hurt the bottom line. By 1976 Berezin was forced to sell the company due to financial strain and the Data Secretary all but disappeared, replaced by the computer. She took jobs working in venture capital and consulting before she died earlier this month in Manhattan at the age of 93. A few Data Secretaries are still in existence and one is on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Given her accomplishments one does have to wonder why she was not more famous than she actually was.

A good idea improved upon

The idea was a good one and numerous primitive word processors were developed in the 1970s improving on the idea. Rob Barnaby had developed one of them and wa hired to develop a program called WordMaster in 1978 working for MicroPro. MicroPro was a software company with contracts with clients including the burgeoning giant Microsoft. The product was renamed WordStar the following year and worked with the CP/M operating system which was popular at the time. It sold for $495 (about $1,700 today) with a manual for an additional $40 (about $140 today). 5,000 people purchased it within the first 8 months making it the first commercially successful piece of software.

By 1984 WordStar had surpassed Electric Pencil to become the most popular word processor on the planet. It was made that way in part by its compatibility with the new MS-DOS. Unfortunately for WordStar its time in the limelight was short lived as Microsoft Word was developed in 1983 and eventually became the dominant program along with Word Perfect. The final version was released in 1991 though a handful of devoted users at least used it into the 2000s.

Today we have many choices when it comes to word processors. We may even take them for granted. The idea may seem like a no-brainer today but someone had to have the idea and that person was Evelyn Berezin. Everyone today owes her and the many software developers of the 1970s and early 1980s a debt of gratitude for making our lives easier today.

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