Text Editors – Going Electric

After the introduction of typewriters, but before the actual invention of proper computerised text editors or word processors, there was a period of time when electric typewriters were in use. Although the first electric typewriters appeared as early as 1902 they weren’t a commercial success and people did not fall in love with the new machine. Perhaps this had to do with electricity being relatively scarce, and the different voltage cities used which made a given electric typewriter unusable in certain geographic regions. In the nineteen fifties, and sixties, appeared the first proper electric typewriters, which could be viewed as early text editors. Text editors however developed because early computers needed them. Computing machines in the nineteen sixties needed their programming and functionality done in text. Typewriters would not have worked in this case, as they created text, plain text, not something that can be fed into or generated by a computing machine.

Keypunch MachineBefore actual text editors were invented, input of text into a computer (very early computers mind you) was done using keypunch machines. These keypunch machines literally punched holes through cards (specially sized and made pieces of stiff paper, resembling plastic). These punch cards were also known as Hollerith cards or IBM cards simply because the IBM Company was first to invent the text editor. Punch cards were a very rudimentary way to make computer text input. They were somewhat impractical as physically they required lots of space to store – they were kept stacked in boxes and were quite heavy. On the functionality side, punch cards had some downsides too like for instance no word spacing i.e. no separation characters. This flaw also transferred to the text generated by a computer as it was fed directly off the punch card into a text reader. An alternative to punch cards at the time, was punched paper tape, some varieties like the teleprinter one did actually have separation characters between words.

The next step in the evolution of word processing was the invention of the line text editor. Line editors appeared similar to electric typewriters, there was no actual display. The cursor (the spot where a key stroke had an effect) was actually imaginary. Proof reading or controlling the text input of the document was done by periodically printing the entire document, or by printing only a small section of the file. Line editors were a massive step forward in word processing. Although they are redundant and inefficient by modern standards, they were quite the thing back in their day. Certain model line editors could even move the cursor or execute commands when fed special punch cards which the machine could ‘read’.

Early Model Word ProcessorText editors or word processors got their big break with the invention of the computer screen (monitor) – using a monitor, such programs were now able to become visual, making them much more efficient. Through a monitor, word processors became screen-based-editors. One of the first and most successful text editors of its time was O26, which was in fact a full screen editor. It was released in the late nineteen sixties and enjoyed quite a success. Another highly popular full screen word processor was Vi. The original text editor for both Linux and Unix systems in the nineteen seventies, Vi is still the default text editor for both these platforms today. A few years later, text editors came to be known as real-time editors. A very popular full screen, real time editor was Emacs, it was compatible with a variety of operating systems of that period. The efficiency and speed of using screen based editors was in fact the main reason why many people bought a video monitor in the first place.