History of Tech-Writing Tools

– Prasanna Bidkar

Technical communication existed in some form as early as the twelfth century, when Muhammad ibn Musa Al’Khowarizmi, a Turkish cleric, developed a writing method designed to achieve a specific goal. However, the last five decades have seen an explosion of technical inventions in the field of communication. The advent of computers changed the way documents were created and distributed. These rapid technological inventions also created a demand for clarification of technical information to people from all walks of life.
Looking back at the developments of the last few decades, we can say that there were three key phases of development in technical communication. The first phase spanned from the 1940s to the 1960s. This was the time technical communication moved toward being considered a profession. The second phase, 1960s to 1980s, was significant as there were major technological changes during these years. Advent of computer systems increased the demand for technical writers as the need to communicate these complex computer systems increased. The technology introduced word processing, information handling systems, and high speed printers. Technical writers had to adapt to using computer systems as well as understanding these systems to communicate the operational information to end users. We can say that the 90s saw the beginning of the third phase in technical writing with a hesitant movement toward hypertext in the early 90s.

In this article, I look at the changes dictated by the technological breakthroughs and research in technical communication, and the tools writers employed to make the information clear to the user. Most of the information in this article is from the Technology Review section of the STC’s Technical Communication journal volumes published from 1967 to 2003.

The Timeline
Industry needs and advances in technology governed the changes in tools used for technical communication initially. Research in audience analysis and need to reduce documentation cost later dictated the change in tools used to produce technical documents.

1940 to 1960s
The movement from traditional documentation and printing to automated documentation started during this time. The early 40s saw a shift towards specialized job responsibilities. Significant strides in technology were made during World War II and use of this new technology for consumer products increased the demand in technical documentation. The rapid changes in consumer product complexity also put an additional burden on the industry to produce technical documents at a faster pace.

Technology Breakthroughs
 IBM Corporation introduces word processing .
 Use of punch cards for indexing.
 Computer driven typesetting.

• PHOTON ZIP 901 for typesetting.
• Graphic Input System – GI/360.
• Electrostatic copier.
• Microfiche camera-processor.
• Text90.

The 70s took word processing to higher levels by providing centralized word processing capabilities for writers and editors to work on the same source.
Technology Breakthroughs
 Introduction of the concept of multimedia.
 Centralized Word processing–includes text entry, editing, and final output .
 Computers used to prepare master copy for offset printing.

• Mini computers–multiple terminals, one machine; examples include Astro-comp, DataText, and Compu-Text.
• Remote time-shared systems–examples include NLS (Stanford research institute), PCS/Text (Proprietary Computer systems), and WordStar.

This was a period of hectic activity with introduction of Hypertext and major advances in computer application. With faster printers available, organizations started to print manuals in-house bypassing the printer chain.
Technology Breakthroughs
 IBM Desktop PC launched.
 Xerox Corporation introduced the first WYSIWYG text and graphics merging software.
 Advent of information handling system. Movement from word processing to information handling, that is, sharing data/text across networks and use of databases.
 Adobe corporation introduced PostScript; a device and resolution independent printing language.
 The late 80s saw the introduction of computer based instruction and Hypertext.

• Ventura Publisher.
• DTP- LaserWriter and Linotronic 100.
• Word Finder (electronic Thesaurus).
• Microsoft Word – New features (redlining, macros, and so on.)

The 90s maintained the pace of the 80s and provided technical writers with tools to produce documentation customized for different audiences. Organizations were in a haste to convert their printed documents to online format.
Technology Breakthroughs
 Early 90s saw rise in use of hypertext media for document delivery.
 Introduction of SGML–although developed in 1986, its application in technical communication began around this time.
 Late 90s – Memory Translation tools.

• HyperCard; created by Bill Atkinson for Apple Macintosh.
• HyperTIES; developed at University of Maryland led by Ben Shneiderman.
• Authorware Professional developed by Macromedia.
• Doc-To-Help developed by Wex Tech System.
• FrameMaker developed by Frame Technology Corporation.
• SGML–Examples include DocuBuild, FrameBuilder, InContext.
• Memory translation–TRADOS translators workbench, Corel, Catalyst, IBM Translation Manager.

2000 – till date
With internet technology becoming the pivot of information delivery and an explosion of information, writers felt the need to simplify the documentation process as well as to provide information classified according to specific user requirements. The focus in this decade seems to be on improving the efficiency of writers and reducing effort by re-use of information.
Technology Breakthroughs
 Introduction of database supported information development.
 New concept of embedded help.
 Introduction of DITA.
 Single Sourcing concept.
 Web 2.0.

• Microsoft Exchange.
• Lotus Notes.
• AuthorIT.
• RoboHelp.
• IBM’s Information Development Workbench.

Additional reading:
O Hara, F. M. (2001). A Brief History of Technical Communication. Annual Conference – Society for technical Communitation, 48, pp. 500-504.

About the author:
Prasanna is a technical writer at Siemens PLM, in Pune.

About the illustration:
Used with permission from Vishesh Gupta.


  1. One huge break throughs I recall personally were the IBM selextrix typewiter that had one line of typed text on a screen which you could edit before it printed, one line! Another was white out. But before you 14th century expamle were Egptian hyeroglpics that depicted many religous ceremonies which are technical writing as well as ancient Persian vases with pictograms of how to fly fish. You have to widen your searchs as I have many examples that predate your timeline by centuries.

    • Hi Peter,

      I agree that pictograms predate the Turkish cleric example above, and so do the cave paintings or images from the Mayan and some cultures.

      I agree that this article is not comprehensive, the question is are those cave paintings technical writing?

      The article doesn’t take writings before the specific example because the scope is restricted by the statement “developed a writing method designed to achieve a specific goal.”

      Thanks much for your comment.

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