Word processing

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Word processing is the creation and editing of written texts with the help of machines .



A forerunner of word processing programs is the automatic writing machine, with at least one reading and exactly one writing unit for handling punched tape . In particular, the creation of form letters by means of separate punched strips for the text document and the address data (device with two reading units) is an application example of these devices.

Word processing term

The term word processing was coined in German in the 1960s by the German IBM manager Ulrich Steinhilper and then translated into English internally as Word Processing . In 1964, IBM brought the MT / ST ( Magnetic Tape / Selectric Typewriter ) onto the market in Europe under the name MT 72 . The device consisted of a ball-head typewriter with an externally connected magnetic tape memory. The MT / ST was the first device to be marketed under the term word processing or word processing .


The computer systems of the 1960s were predominantly in larger companies or institutions; word processing served their correspondence. An exception was the MT / ST in the household of the writer Len Deighton , whose novel Bomber , published in 1970, is said to have been the first literary work to be created with the help of word processing.

In 1971, the Redactron Corporation founded by Evelyn Berezin in 1969 delivered the Data Secretary, the first computerized word processing system. The texts were input and output using a telex.

Later, word processing was made easier by direct screen output. Floppy disks were now used as a storage medium, for example in the CPT 8515 text system , a computer that imitated a mechanical typewriter in 1981 at the price of over DM 32,000 at the time (without floppy disk drive).

With the spread of the universally usable personal computer (PC) and falling acquisition costs at the beginning of the 1980s, the possibilities of word processing became available to large sections of the population. In this context, Oath of Fealty by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven , published in 1982, was the first novel to be created through word processing on the PC.


One of the oldest cultural techniques, writing , never saw itself as the mere input of characters to store information. From the earliest times, documents have been designed in an appealing way, for example by decorating the first letters of the text or a paragraph artfully and lavishly. If today's texts are also created with other technical means, the desire, but also the need for external design, remains. There are several reasons for that. The text design can range from simple embellishment to a concept for the design of information under the aspect of increasing effectiveness. Correspondingly designed texts have been shown to improve their comprehensibility a lot.


Until well into the 19th century it was customary to write texts by hand (unless they were printed). However , this gradually began to change after the first practical typewriters hit the market in the 19th century . Gradually, it prevailed over handwriting, its advantages over handwriting:

  • Clearer typeface
  • Standardized character sizes
  • Write faster

Typewriters were therefore particularly popular in the office sector . This had an enormous impact on the world of work: the standing desks that were often in use up until then were replaced by desks, and writing was changed from standing to sitting. This process ran parallel to other developments in the mechanization of office work (introduction of calculating machines , Hollerith machines and telephones ).

With the advent of microelectronics and computers, systems emerged that used magnetic tapes or floppy disks instead of punched tape. Screens were used, as well as type wheel printers. These devices were specially adapted to word processing in many respects, for example in screen format. One example is the CPT 8515.

As an alternative to this, typewriters with extended capabilities, automatic erasure, line correction before printing, memory for text modules, text storage on diskettes, etc.

However, with the proliferation of PCs in the 1980s and 1990s, such systems disappeared from the market.

  • PCs were universally applicable and not just limited to word processing, with an increasingly favorable price-performance ratio in favor of the PC.
  • Word processing capabilities increasingly required full-fledged computers, especially after the advent of graphical user interfaces.

Since the introduction of the personal computer , word processing has developed rapidly. Today's result are programs in which the pure word processing part probably required the least amount of effort in terms of programming. Rather, they were enriched with functions that previously had to be obtained individually from other programs and often from other manufacturers. Today's word processing programs integrate the pure text capture with the possibilities of graphic integration, table creation, formula generation or presentation graphics. It is not uncommon for them to come very close to the capabilities of desktop publishing programs.

The introduction of graphical user interfaces such as that of the Apple Macintosh in 1984 and later Windows made it possible to take a step in this direction, as it helped the programs to use techniques such as data exchange via a central clipboard , dynamic data exchange or object-connecting-and-embedding to fall back on. The possibility of the text in accordance with the principle of WYSIWYG (Engl. What You See Is What You Get already presented on the screen above) to get, as it appears printed later (pressure display) was indeed in 1973 on the Xerox Alto been reached but no commercial significance.

Text and ASCII editors

The first word processing programs, more appropriately referred to as "text capture programs", were simple text editors that made use of non-standardized character sets from the stock of characters. Thus, not only were the editors bound to the associated computer (or the associated operating system), but also the texts created on them, which first had to be converted into other character sets for other computer systems if required.

Only with the introduction of standardized character sets can one speak of ASCII editors, which use the standardized ASCII table from the stock of characters. This also made the editor programs themselves fundamentally compatible with hardware of the same type under most common operating systems.

ASCII is a fixed table of characters, across systems mostly the first half without the first of eight bits, i.e. 126 standard characters. The letters of the English alphabet, the ten decimal digits, some other standard characters (such as punctuation marks, operators, but no special characters from other languages) as well as control characters that standardize the data exchange between different programs are listed. Within similar software systems, the second half of the 8-bit number range can also be used with special characters or block graphics . Due to the nature of the system, Unicode cannot be directly supported for text files. Programs that support Unicode must interpret the character set based on the text content. Errors as supposed Easter Eggs cannot be ruled out (see Microsoft Editor: Unicode recognition ).

The scope of commands in simple ASCII editors usually did not go beyond saving, loading and printing. However, in addition to functions such as text marking or the cutting, copying and moving of sections of text, advanced programs offer : syntax highlighting and macro programming . Particularly complex editors such as Emacs or Vim come very close to modern word processing under the restrictions of a text-oriented operating system and take into account the needs of system administrators or programmers, for example by linking them to compilers and other external software.

Word processing tools

Today, word processing is mostly done using electronic programs. A word processing program is a computer program for composing text documents. The created text can be saved as a file and / or printed out. The transition to other programs is fluid, since graphics and tables can also be integrated in many word processing programs today .

In contrast to pure text editors, word processing programs usually offer extended layout and formatting functions . In addition to text revision, the spell check , index creation , search and replacement functions increase the benefits for the user. Format templates also simplify a uniform design of the files to be published, text modules the integration of recurring content.

There are numerous forerunners of modern word processing programs (see below under: History ). Word processing also includes the manual creation and processing of texts on paper (see above). Furthermore, the classic lead type in print can be considered as word processing, because here, too, a text (existing on paper) is adapted, ie "processed", to a layout specified by room structuring (e.g. frame) and picture additions. Here, too, word processing is an interaction process between the typesetter and his work equipment.

A special form of today's word processing programs are special typewriters (example: Brother text systems ), which enable the processing of a created text before it is printed. These typewriters have a text display (liquid crystal display or screen) that enables the processing steps to be checked. A borderline case of word processing (in which the simple reproduction or the correction of spelling errors is already understood as word processing) is the direct writing and correction of texts using a typewriter on paper, which includes both the creation and limited post-processing of the text (using correction tapes) enabled or additionally logged by means of a text memory and thus enables the subsequent reproduction of further printouts.

Character-oriented word processing

The category of character-oriented text programs expanded in the function ( C haracter U sed I nterface) is also used, such as ASCII editor also, the normalized and limited ASCII character set as a basis. The defined character sets are used both for screen display and for printing. The distance between the characters is fixed, just like the characters themselves are static. This "statics" means that all characters of the character set are pre-formed and ready to use. This is where the great advantage of the CUI programs lies: the working speed. Since all characters are ready in size and shape, there is no need to constantly recalculate their screen display. The hardware requirements when using CUI programs are correspondingly low. The disadvantage that comes with this, however, is the display quality desired today, the continuous view as a page preview. Proportional fonts or sizes that differ from the standard font , fonts such as bold, italic or underlined, and design elements such as frames are not shown on the screen and are therefore only visible when they are printed out. The often surprising results led to the development of an additional function, the so-called page preview . This function switches from the character-oriented to the graphic display and shows the text as it is to be expected later on on the printout. Most of the time, the text itself can no longer be read, but the proportions, the edges and the position of the graphics can be recognized. Some manufacturers went a step further and implemented the option of zooming, i.e. enlarging this side view.

The standard created by IBM for application programs shaped the further design of character-oriented text programs. Most manufacturers followed these programming conventions, so the so-called COW programs were created. COW stands for C haracter O riented W indows, so character-based window programs. These programs are handled according to the uniform SAA conventions . SAA programs work window-oriented with pull-down menus , scroll bars , controlled with the Alt key or the mouse. Once you have learned how to operate the user interface, switching to other SAA programs is easy, as the operation is at least always the same.

Graphically oriented word processing

The graphically oriented programs are based on the GUI , the G raphical U ser I nterface. Also based on SAA technology, however, there are no longer any “prefabricated” and rigid character sets. All characters are variable in shape and size. Formatting and font sizes can therefore be displayed on the screen exactly as they were formatted and later appear on the printout. This is made possible by the separate handling of characters for later printing on the one hand and screen fonts on the other. The price for this, however, is an enormous computational effort for the constant updating and recalculation of the screen display. In addition to the pure processor performance of the computer, components such as the graphics card and the screen memory have therefore become important . Components that in the times without Windows for word processing probably no one gave much thought. The development even goes so far as to equip graphics cards with their own processor power in order to support the main processor in the computationally intensive screen structure. The designation "Windows cards" clearly shows that it was the graphical user interface that led to the introduction of such components.

However, the print representation goes far beyond the 1: 1 representation of characters. Integrated graphics, tables or formulas are displayed true to nature and true to the print. The screen display itself can also be continuously reduced or enlarged from the 100% view. All proportions are of course retained, which is again ensured by the separate screen fonts.

The main feature of graphically oriented word processing programs compared to character-oriented software is the ability to display the entire document as it is output on the printer. The print result should therefore correspond exactly to what can be seen on the screen (WYSIWYG, What You See Is What You Get ). In other words: Everything that and how you see it on the screen should also be printed out in exactly the same way. Furthermore, the use of the mouse should be as fully integrated as possible. Newer techniques such as drag and drop or the icons for quick access to important commands are clearly going in this direction. Further requirements concern the otherwise weak or nonexistent areas of table creation and the integration of graphics.

File formats

Every word processing program has so far had its own file format for storing documents. A certain degree of standardization has been achieved through the rich text format , which however does not guarantee the uniformity of the layout on different computers.

Work is currently underway on the standardization of file formats using XML . After the authors of KOffice had relied on an XML format since the beginning of the project in 1998, OpenOffice.org presented a more specified format in 2002 with its XML-based file formats. However, due to some differences in the implementations, the other format was never adopted.

This could change in the future: The OASIS organization specified the open exchange format OpenDocument. This format is based on the OpenOffice.org file format and is now supported by Apache OpenOffice , StarOffice , KOffice , Microsoft Word for Windows , AbiWord and TextMaker in the current versions. It was developed by Sun Microsystems employees and KOffice developers and has been an open-source standard since it was passed in 2006 .

One of the most widely used document formats for exchanging documents that are not intended for further processing is PDF . This is offered as a supplementary standard format by more and more word processing programs or as a separate virtual printer driver as an export function (i.e. for saving), can be read in under most common operating systems (including some older versions) and retains its appearance. The program and operating system-independent layout fidelity is, however, “bought” with a large number of additional formatting features that make further processing more difficult. An export of the texts in platform-independent HTML is also possible with some programs.

Word processors and classifications

Word processing programs can be differentiated and classified according to different criteria:

  • According to the complexity (from a simple text editor to highly complex office software)
    • Theoretically possible (additional or sole) classification according to text or graphic orientation
  • According to intended use (e.g. word processing programs for letters, DTP programs for creating layouts)
  • According to platform support (only makes sense to a limited extent, since many programs are available for several operating systems and several processor platforms)
    • depending on the historical significance in order to be able to assign programs to a time epoch and their typical character sets or software families
  • According to target groups (support of certain languages ​​or character sets, dictionary languages, accessible aids such as screen readers , user guidance for children, etc.)
  • According to development base, for example to be able to assign spin-offs to a common development base (e.g. OpenOffice.org as the basis of LibreOffice )
  • After supporting certain file or hypertext formats, for example to determine compatibilities and conversion options
  • After licensing (e.g. freeware or purchase programs)

In practice, many programs can be assigned to several groups in each of these classification models, since the software manufacturers try to address the largest possible group of users. The support is very different depending on the purpose. For example, many programs only support Windows and macOS , in the area of ​​free software sometimes also Linux , sometimes even exclusively. The company Sun Microsystems acquired StarOffice in order to be able to offer a program for their Solaris operating system . Conversely, individual hardware systems only support certain word processing programs. So is, for example, a Braille Braille in Unicode Standard (UTF-8) available, the blind, however, are largely excluded from the use of word processing programs and the use of Braille machine dependent. A few plug-in programs are available to sighted people for printing in Braille. Most of them are limited to supporting Microsoft Word under Windows. B. require additional adaptation of printer drivers when printing swell paper .


As word processing programs became more widespread, so too did criticism of them. Writing on the screen could lead to a poor overview of the text. The author Stefan Weber speaks of a "text culture without a brain". Texts would no longer be created and penetrated by oneself (and also hardly read), but put together by means of copying and pasting . This phenomenon is particularly evident with googled plagiarism .

See also

Web links

Wiktionary: word processing  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. a b c paragraph after Johan Schloemann: The writer and his computer , Süddeutsche Zeitung, March 15, 2012, p. 14. Schloemann refers in his article to the research of Matthew Kirschenbaum.
  2. Text-System CPT 8515 on the website of the Computer Museum of the Faculty of Computer Science, Stuttgart. Retrieved January 29, 2016
  3. Computer Museum of the Faculty of Computer Science: Text-System CPT 8515
  4. Stefan Weber: The Google Copy-Paste Syndrome. How network plagiarism jeopardizes training and knowledge. Heinz Heise Verlag, Hannover 2006, ISBN 3-936931-37-2