The first word processor, as cultural critic Josephine Livingstone once wrote, was effectively “the human woman” — employed, as a secretary, to compose, revise and print reams of letters, reports, contracts and memos in offices around the country.
By the late 1960s, according to one estimate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, secretaries made up 6 percent of the U.S. workforce. And the job, unstimulating as it could be, seemed to offer no way out. Sexism often blocked women from advancement. The work itself was typically all-consuming.
But in December 1971, a magazine advertisement offered a promising vision of the future. Published in the inaugural issue of a new publication called Ms., co-founded by a New York magazine journalist named Gloria Steinem, the ad was headlined “The Death of the Dead-end Secretary.” It positioned a 40-inch-tall typing machine called the Data Secretary, sold by the Redactron Corp., as a tool for women’s empowerment.
“Unlike your complacent sisters of the previous generation,” it said, “you want the freedom to get into more interesting and challenging work — work that’ll give you the chance to move into a staff, administrative or managerial position — where you can call some of the shots.”
“With the development of automatic editing typewriters and word processing systems,” the advertisement added, “the conditions of dead-end typing have been practically eliminated.” Readers, it noted, could write to Redactron’s president to receive “FREE memo pads, buttons and stickers” reading “Free the Secretary.”
It was unusual enough for the ad to include the president’s name and address. More striking still was the name itself: Evelyn Berezin, a physicist, computer engineer and entrepreneur — a female visionary in a tech industry dominated by men.
Ms. Berezin designed some of the earliest computer systems for banks, airlines, stock exchanges and horse tracks. And when sex discrimination stalled her career, she established her own company, Redactron, and created the Data Secretary. Essentially a computer disguised as a typewriter, it helped usher in a technological revolution as “the first mass-produced word processor,” said Chris Garcia, curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.
Ms. Berezin was 93 when she died Dec. 8 at a hospice center in Manhattan. She was diagnosed with lymphoma in recent months, said her nephew, Marc Berezin, but decided to forgo treatment.
The only daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Ms. Berezin formed Redactron in 1969 and soon settled on a word processor as its flagship product. It was a bold decision that nearly backfired.
A similar device, the MT/ST, had been released by IBM five years earlier. Often called the world’s first word processor — a term IBM’s marketing team used to describe the machine — it combined a Selectric typewriter with a magnetic tape drive, enabling users to edit typed material without retyping the text in full. But the device was bulky, hard to use and expensive.
Ms. Berezin believed she could make something cheaper and better, designed specifically for secretaries. To do so, she set about creating a machine that was entirely electronic, in contrast to the electromechanical MT/ST. Neither device used a screen, employing a Selectric as both the data entry point and the printer. But Ms. Berezin’s plan was a “true computer,” according to Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s book “Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing,” using “13 on-board semiconductor chips and programmable logic.”
Difficulty arose when Intel, which had formed just before Redactron, said it was too busy to design processor chips for the machine. Ms. Berezin’s company was forced to create some of the chips on its own, in a year-long sprint to finish the product before Redactron ran out of funding. Then, when a test machine was finally completed, it had so many wires and circuits that it sometimes bristled with static electricity.
But within a year, Ms. Berezin had shipped about 1,020 Data Secretaries, at a price of $6,400 to $8,400, depending on the model. About 10,000 of the machines were ultimately sold, according to Garcia, and the company grew from nine employees to nearly 500 as Ms. Berezin signed an international marketing agreement that brought the Data Secretary to Europe and Australia, and added a monitor and enhanced features to later versions.
But as interest rates rose, the company began to run out of cash, and in 1976 — the same year she was featured in a Businessweek list of the country’s top 100 businesswomen — Ms. Berezin sold Redactron to the Burroughs Corp., a leading computer manufacturer.
She remained with the company for several years, but by then it was facing a raft of competitors, including word processors manufactured by Xerox, Wang Laboratories and Vydec, an Exxon subsidiary. When the personal computer came to prominence in the late 1970s, paving the way for software applications such as Microsoft Word, single-use word processors such as the Data Secretary all but vanished.
For Ms. Berezin, the machine was a mixed success — a tool that undoubtedly made the lives of secretaries easier, shaving countless hours off the production of a form letter, but also eliminated jobs that had long gone to women. Still, she noted, there were plenty of men who did not want to save money by eliminating a secretarial position.
“At that time,” she said, “the idea that a person who was a manager might give up his secretary because he could do it himself did not exist. The men did not want to buy those machines because they were afraid they would lose their secretary, which would mean some diminution of status for them.”
Evelyn Berezin was born in the Bronx on April 12, 1925, and raised in a cramped apartment next to the elevated train, where she and her two brothers slept under the dining table when relatives came to visit. Her mother was a seamstress, and her father cut furs for mink coats.
Ms. Berezin developed an interest in physics after reading her oldest brother’s issues of a science fiction magazine, but she considered a job in science to be out of reach because of sexism.
So as a 16-year-old freshman at Hunter College in Manhattan, she studied economics, planning to become a bookkeeper. During World War II, opportunities for women dramatically expanded on the home front, and a high school teacher offered her a job at a physics company for which he consulted.
Ms. Berezin transferred to New York University, worked by day and took classes by night, and in 1945 received a bachelor’s degree in physics. One year later, she was awarded a fellowship by the Atomic Energy Commission, enabling her to study for a doctorate. Her focus was on cosmic rays.
When her funding ran out, Ms. Berezin was forced to find a job and decided to look in the budding industry of computing.
“Where were they building computers in New York in 1951?” she recounted to the New York Times in 1972. “Well, there was a little company in the Syrian area of Brooklyn that hired me as an engineer. And they said to me, ‘Design a computer.’ I had never seen one before, hardly anyone else had. So I just had to figure out how to do it. It was a lot of fun — when I wasn’t terrified.”
Ms. Berezin worked at the Electronic Computer Corp. before joining Teleregister, where she developed what some historians have called the first airline reservation computer system. Created for United Airlines around 1962, it used three linked processors and served 60 cities around the country “with a one-second response time and with no central system failures in over 11 years of operation,” according to the Computer History Museum.
Ms. Berezin left Burroughs around 1980 and served as president of a $20 million venture capital fund. She later worked as a management consultant and sat on company boards.
Her husband of 51 years, Israel Wilenitz, a British chemical engineer, died in 2003. She has no immediate survivors.
Her career, she said, would have taken off 15 years earlier had she been a man. Still, she said, it helped her that her results, and those of other women in technology, could be seen and measured, weighed in the success of a custom-built computer system or processing chip.
“In this business we speak the language of mathematics,” she told the Times in 1956. “There’s no special interpretation for women.”