The functions of a word processor program fall somewhere between those of a simple text editor and a fully functioned desktop publishing program. However the distinctions between these three have changed over time, and are somewhat unclear.
From the outset, "word processors" did not develop out of computer technology. Rather, they evolved from the needs of writers; and only later did they merge with the computer field. The history of word processing is the story of the gradual automation of the physical aspects of writing and editing, and then to the refinement of the technology to make it available to corporations and Individuals.
Word processing burst into American offices in early 1970s as an idea about reorganizing typists, but its meaning soon shifted to describe automated text editing. At first the designers of word processing systems combined existing with emerging technologies to develop stand-alone equipment, creating a new business quite separate from the emerging world of the personal computer. The term "word processing" arose from the more general data processing, which since the 1950s had been the standard term used to describe the application of computers to business administration.
Through history, there have been 3 types of word processors: mechanical, electronic and software.
The first word processing device (a "Machine for Transcribing Letters" that appears to have been similar to a typewriter) was patented by Henry Mill for a machine that was capable of "writing so clearly and accurately you could not distinguish it from a printing press".
More than a century later, another patent appeared in the name of William Austin Burt for the typographer. In the late 19th century, Christopher Latham Sholes created the first recognizable typewriter that although it was a large size, which was described as a "literary piano".
These mechanical systems could not "process text" beyond changing the position of type, re-fill empty spaces or jump lines. It was not until decades later that the introduction of electricity and then electronics into typewriters began to help the writer with the mechanical part. The term "word processing" itself was created in the 1950s by Ulrich Steinhilper, a German IBM typewriter sales executive. However, it did not make its appearance in 1960s office management or computing literatures, though many of the ideas, products, and technologies to which it would later be applied were already well known. But by 1971 the term was recognized by the New York Times as a business "buzz word". Word processing paralleled the more general "data processing", which since the 1950s had been the standard term used to describe the application of computers to business administration.
Thus by 1972 discussion of word processing was common in publications devoted to business office management and technology, and by the mid-1970s the term would have been familiar to any office manager who consulted business periodicals.
By the late 1960s, IBM had developed the IBM MT/ST (Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter). This was a model of the IBM Selectric typewriter from the earlier part of this decade, but built into its own desk, and integrated with magnetic tape recording and playback facilities, with controls and a bank of electrical relays. The MT/ST automated word wrap, but it had no screen. This device allowed rewriting text that had been written on another tape and you could collaborate (send the tape to another person for them to edit or make a copy). It was a revolution for the word processing industry. In 1969 the tapes were replaced by magnetic cards. These memory cards were introduced in the side of an extra device that accompanied the MT/ST, able to read and record the work.
In the early 1970s, word processing then became computer-based (albeit with specialty based computing) with the development of several innovations. Just before the arrival of the Personal Computer (PC), IBM developed the "floppy disk". Also in the early 1970s word-processing systems with a CRT screen display editing were designed.
At this time these stand-alone word processing systems were designed, built and marketed by several pioneering companies. Linolex Systems was founded in 1970 by James Lincoln and Robert Oleksiak. Linolex based its technology on microprocessors, floppy drives and software. It was a computer-based system for application in the word processing businesses and it sold systems through its own sales force. With a base of installed systems in 500 plus customer sites, Linolex Systems sold 3 million units in 1975 -- a year before Apple Computer, was first incorporated in 1976.
At this time, Lexitron Corporation also produced a series of dedicated word processing microcomputers. Lexitron was the first to use a full size video display screen (CRT) in its models by 1978. Lexitron also used 5-1/4 inch floppy diskettes, which were the standard in the personal computer field. The program disk was inserted in one drive, and the system booted up. The data diskette was then put in the second drive. The operating system and the word processing program were combined in one program.
Another of the early word processing adopters was Vydec, which created in 1973, the first modern text processor, the "Vydec Word Processing System". It had built-in multiple functions like the ability to share content by diskette and print it. The Vydec Word Processing System sold for $12,000 at the time, (about $60,000 adjusted for inflation).
The Redactron Corporation (organized by Evelyn Berezin in 1969) designed and manufactured editing systems, including correcting/editing typewriters, cassette and card units, and eventually a word processor called the Data Secretary. The Burroughs Corporation acquired Redactron in 1976. A CRT-based system by Wang Laboratories became one of the most popular systems of the 1970s and early 1980s. The Wang displayed text on a CRT screen, and incorporated virtually every fundamental characteristic of word processors as we know them today, a true office machine, affordable by organizations such as medium-sized law firms, and easily learned and operated by secretarial staff.
The phrase "word processor" rapidly came to refer to CRT-based machines similar to Wang's. Numerous machines of this kind emerged, typically marketed by traditional office-equipment companies such as IBM, Lanier (AES Data machines - re-badged), CPT, and NBI. All were specialized, dedicated, proprietary systems, with prices in the $10,000 range. Cheap general-purpose personal computers were still the domain of hobbyists.
The final step in word processing came with the advent of the personal computer in the late 1970s and 1980s and with the development of word processing software. Word processing systems that would create much more complex and capable text were developed and prices began to fall, making them more accessible to the public.
In December 1976, Electric Pencil was first offered for sale by Michael Shrayer Software. This was the first word processing software package for a microcomputer. In 1978 WordStar appeared on the market which then dominated the market. The first word processing software became popular among computer owners with CP/M, then DOS, then Microsoft Windows. WordStar was replaced by WordPerfect, which differed from WordStar in an important way--it kept the key commands off-screen, putting the focus on the words instead - in the mid-80s, becoming the then "standard" for DOS . WordPerfect turned word processing software into big business.
Most early word processing software required users to memorize semi-mnemonic key combinations rather than pressing keys such as "copy" or "bold". Moreover, many early PCs lacked cursor keys; for example WordStar used the E-S-D-X-centered "diamond" for cursor navigation. However, the price differences between dedicated word processors and general-purpose PCs, and the value added to the latter by software such as "killer app" spreadsheet applications, e.g. VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3, were so compelling that personal computers and word processing software became serious competition for the dedicated machines and soon dominated the market.
Then in the late 1980s innovations such as the advent of laser printers, a "typographic" approach to word processing (WYSIWYG - What You See Is What You Get), using bitmap displays with multiple fonts (pioneered by the Xerox Alto computer and Bravo word processing program), and graphical user interfaces such as "copy and paste" (another Xerox PARC innovation, with the Gypsy word processor). These were popularized by MacWrite on the Apple Macintosh in 1983, and Microsoft Word on the IBM PC in 1984. These were probably the first true WYSIWYG word processors to become known to many people. Of particular interest also is the standardization of TrueType fonts used in both Macintosh and Windows PCs. While the publishers of the operating systems provide TrueType typefaces, they are largely gathered from traditional typefaces converted by smaller font publishing houses to replicate standard fonts. A demand for new and interesting fonts, which can be found free of copyright restrictions, or commissioned from font designers, occurred.
The growing popularity of the Windows operating system in the 1990s later took Microsoft Word along with it. Originally called "Microsoft Multi-Tool Word", this program quickly became a synonym for "word processor". Microsoft 1983 added an important tool to the word-processing workflow: the mouse. Eventually, that addition would lead to its full blossoming as a GUI-based editor that most everyone in most every office now uses.