You won’t find her in the index to “The Innovators,” Walter Isaacson’s best-selling tome that promises to explain “how a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution.” But Evelyn Berezin was a hacker, a genius, a geek and a good business executive to boot. When she died Dec. 8, at age 93, the recognition that eluded her during her lifetime seemed to come all in a rush. Overnight she became famous for the very thing that allows me to do what I am doing right now as I write: Obituaries proclaimed she had invented word processing and built the first true word processor.
But what does it mean to be first? And why must that be the highest form of recognition? To be first takes genius and inspiration, fearlessness and clarity of vision — or so books like “The Innovators” are keen to tell us. To be second, third, or fourth . . . well, that’s not innovation. It’s just engineering, or so the conventional wisdom goes.
What if we thought differently about who was first? Because invention and innovation are also about revision and refinement, a gradual process of shaping, adaptation and, perhaps elusively, perfection. Invention, in other words, is a lot like word processing, which allows us to continuously edit our ideas, cutting and pasting, inserting and deleting, until we get what we’re working on just where we want it. The ease with which we can do this today is a testament to Berezin’s achievements as both an innovator and an engineer.
The power of word processing is also potentially its pitfall. We tend to see only the final product, never the process. The messy arrows and cross-outs and Wite-Out blotches that would have marred an earlier manuscript are banished from the screen. So often it is with invention. But what happens if we turn on Track Changes when looking at the early history of word processing? Can we recognize Berezin’s innovations while acknowledging the larger, incremental contexts in which they occurred?
Today we take the conjoining of the words “word” and “processor” for granted. Indeed, we hardly use the term at all anymore: I probably wouldn’t ever say that I word-processed this article. I would just say that I wrote it. That wasn’t always the case. Even as Berezin and her team were working to finish the Data Secretary from 1970 to 1971, the term was already in wide circulation, referring not to a specific product or technology but to a whole system of automated workflows for businesses, promoted by organizations like the American Management Association as the next big thing on the way to the office of the future.
The idea of word processing originated with a German IBM employee named Ulrich Steinhilper who created the compound “textverarbeitung,” or text processing, in the 1950s. The term didn’t take off, though, until IBM introduced its Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter in 1964. The MT/ST, as it was known, was not a computer. It was an elaborate electromechanical contrivance. Most startlingly, it had no screen. A Selectric “golf ball” typewriter was both the input and the output device. To use it, you would type your text as usual, and when you inevitably made mistakes in need of correction, you would backspace over them and retype, which left a mess on the page but stored the correct character sequence on the tape. You would then insert a fresh sheet of paper into the rollers and clean copy would print automatically — a clear time saver.
The MT/ST’s rollout was accompanied by the kind of fanfare one would expect of an Apple product launch. There were newspaper headlines about the machine that promised to revolutionize typing. There was just one problem: It retailed for $10,000. IBM realized it needed to sell not just the hardware but also a complete vision for what we would today call information management. So Steinhilper’s original coinage was Anglicized to “word processing.” Browse through an IBM product catalogue from the period and the word processing section would have also included dictation machines and filing systems to go along with the MT/ST — all tools for managing the production, circulation and storage of paper documents.
However, Berezin thought she could do better, and not just for the sake of outmaneuvering the competition. Her research had informed her that 6 percent of the country’s workforce was employed as secretaries. Well aware of the way the business world held women back, she wanted to help free them from their repetitive typing tasks and allow them to take on new roles in the workforce. She called her new company Redactron, the name meant to suggest automated editing. Her product, dubbed the Data Secretary, was for a time the most sophisticated and reliable word processor in the world.
Berezin herself once told me she had never heard the term “word processing:” While she was aware of some of those IBM products, her real asset was her experience. “Everything was determined by what we could do technologically,” she said. Crucially, she knew from her contacts that a company called Intel was about to transform the industry by replacing slow and unreliable transistors with the new technology of integrated circuits. So, Berezin built the Data Secretary with a computer inside. That was a first. She also made it programmable. Put names and addresses on one tape and the text of a form letter on a second, for example, and the machine would do what we would call a mail merge, generating personally addressed letters from a list. The machine was a marvel, but it also had its limits: Like its IBM competitor, the first Data Secretary units had no screen, though Berezin would add one to later models.
Personal computers would arrive by the end of the decade, and word processing’s history would be revised yet again. Specialized machines like the MT/ST and the Data Secretary were replaced by personal computers with colorful names like Tandy, Apple and Commodore. The grail for word processing became WYSIWYG — shorthand for “what you see is what you get” — meaning that the screen was an exact imitation of what the document would look like when printed on the page. First WordStar then Microsoft Word and WordPerfect all jockeyed for position amid dozens of other word processors for the home-computer market. But Berezin wasn’t part of that: She sold Redactron to the Burroughs Corporation in 1976. For her, the word-processing era had ended once word processing became just another application on the desktop.
Berezin built a product better than any other on the market at the time. It was one of the first commercial products to feature what we would call a microchip. She did it using her own expertise and know-how, acquired over many years in an industry with few — if any — other women at her level. But rather than saying Berezin invented word processing or built the first word processor, it is better to see her as part of an ongoing story, one that began with others before her and that continued long thereafter. Invention is always incremental, and today we are just as likely to swipe or thumb or speak our text as we are to type it.
To confirm, we need only look at one of Berezin’s most famous progenitors, Johannes Gutenberg. Students of printing know Gutenberg did not, in fact, invent movable type — it had existed in parts of China and Japan centuries earlier — and still less did he invent the printing press, whose basic mechanics he copied from the wine presses he saw in his native city of Mainz, Germany. Instead, he drew on his training as a goldsmith to enable something with big consequences by perfecting something that was small: a process for efficiently and reliably casting the individual pieces of metal type.
Gutenberg, like Berezin, was an innovator, but he was also an engineer who drew from different sources to make his own contribution. Berezin, for her part, knew about secretarial work because she understood the experiences of other women, but she also knew about integrated circuits. It was in the overlap between those two that her most famous invention took shape. These are the details that we, too, often lose track of when we fixate on firsts — the mundane but meaningful accidents of lived experience that make real change possible. Sometimes, as with word processing, innovation takes many drafts from many authors.