Typewriters and WordPerfect

The first and greatest trick of all technology is to make words appear. I will remember forever the feeling of writing my first paper on a typewriter as a kid. The tactile clunk and slight depression of the letters on the page made me feel like I was making something. It transformed my trivial thoughts to something more serious and weighty. I beamed with pride when I would be the only person who would hand in typed documents instead of the cursive of my classmates.

I learned how to type on the schools Brother Charger 11 typewriter, which by the time I got there were one step away from being thrown away. It was one of the last of its kind, being a manual portable typewriter before electric typewriters took over the entire market. Our typing teacher was a nun who had learned how to type on them and insisted they be what we tried first. Typewriters were heavy things, with a thunk and a clang going along with almost anything you did.

Despite being used to teach kids to type for years, they were effectively the same as the day they had been purchased. The typewriters sat against the wall in their little attached cases with colors that seemed to exist from the 1950s until the end of the 70s and then we stopped remembering how to mix them. The other kids in my class hated the typewriters since it was easier to just write on loose leaf paper and hand that in, plus the typing tests involved your hands being covered with a cardboard shell to prevent you from looking.

I, like all tech people, decided that instead of fixing my terrible handwriting, I would put in 10x as much work to skip the effort. So I typed everything I could, trying to get out of as many cursive class requirements as possible. As I was doing that, my father was bringing me along to various courthouses and law offices in Ohio when I had snow days or days off school and he didn't want to leave me alone in the house.

These trips were great, mostly because people forgot I was there. I'd watch violent criminal trials, sit in the secretary areas of courthouses eating cookies that were snuck over to me, the whole thing was great. Multiple times I would be sitting on the bench outside of holding cell for prisoners before they would appear in court (often for some procedural thing) and they'd give me advice. I remember one guy who was just covered in tattoos advising me that "stealing cars may look fun and it is fun, but don't crash because the police WILL COME and ask for registration information". 10 year old me would nod sagely and store this information for the future.

It was at one of these courthouses that I was introduced to something mind-blowing. It was a computer running WordPerfect.


For a long time the word processor of choice by professionals was WordPerfect. I got to watch the transformation from machine-gun sounding electric typewriters to the glow of CRT monitors. While the business world had switched over pretty quickly, it took a bit longer for government organizations to drop the typewriters and switch. I started learning how to use a word processor with WordPerfect 5.1, which came with an instruction manual big enough to stop a bullet.

For those unaware, WordPerfect introduced some patterns that have persisted throughout time as the best way to do things. It was very reliable software that came with 2 killer features that put the bullet in the head of typewriters: Move and Cancel. Ctrl-F4 let you grab a sentence and then hit enter to move it anywhere else. In an era of dangerous menus, F1 would reliably back you out of any setting in WordPerfect and get you back to where you started without causing damage. Add in some basic file navigation with F5 and you had the beginnings of every text processing tool that came after.

I fell in love with it, eventually getting one of the old courthouse computers in my house to do papers on. We set it up on a giant table next to the front door and I would happily bang away at the thing, churning out papers with the correct date in there (without having to look it up with Shift-F5). In many ways this was the most formative concept of how software worked that I would encounter.

WordPerfect was the first software I saw that understood the idea of WYSIWYG. If you changed the margins in the program, the view reflected that change. You weren't limited to one page of text at a time but could quickly wheel through all the text. It didn't have "modes", similar to Vim today, where you needed to pick Create, Edit or Insert. WordPerfect if you started typing it would insert text. It would then push the other text out of the way instead of overwriting it. It clicks as a natural way for text to work on a screen.

Thanks to the magic of emulation, I'm still able to run this software (and in fact am typing this on it right now). It turns out it is just as good as I remember, if not better. If you are interested in how there is a great write-up here. However as good as the software is, it turns out there is an amazing history of WordPerfect available for free online.

Almost Perfect is the story of WordPerfect's rise and fall from the perspective of someone who was there. I loved reading this and am so grateful that the entire text exists online. It contains some absolute gems like:

One other serious problem was our growing reputation for buggy software. Any complex software program has a number of bugs which evade the testing process. We had ours, and as quickly as we found them, we fixed them. Every couple of months we issued improved software with new release numbers. By the spring of 1983, we had already sent out versions 2.20, 2.21, and 2.23 (2.22 was not good enough to make it out the door). Unfortunately, shipping these new versions with new numbers was taken as evidence by the press and by our dealers that we were shipping bad software. Ironically, our reputation was being destroyed because we were efficient at fixing our bugs.
Our profits were penalized as well. Every time we changed a version number on the outside of the box, dealers wanted to exchange their old software for new. We did not like exchanging their stock, because the costs of remanufacturing the software and shipping it back and forth were steep. This seemed like a waste of money, since the bug fixes were minor and did not affect most users.
Our solution was not to stop releasing the fixes, but to stop changing the version numbers. We changed the date of the software on the diskettes inside the box, but we left the outside of the box the same, a practice known in the industry as slipstreaming. This was a controversial solution, but our bad reputation disappeared. We learned that perception was more important than reality. Our software was no better or worse than it had been before, but in the absence of the new version numbers, it was perceived as being much better.

You can find the entire thing here: http://www.wordplace.com/ap/index.shtml