Electric Pencil

Electric Pencil (also known as The Electric Pencil) was the first word processor written for a microcomputer. The original version was created by Michael Shrayer and released for the MITS Altair in December 1976. The TRS‑80 version was released almost two years later and it dominated the market until the introduction of Scripsit.

Electric Pencil was one of only five pieces of software inducted into the 80 Micro Hall of Fame in 1983, with the panel stating that Electric Pencil “demonstrated conclusively that a TRS‑80 could be used for serious word processing, and was the model for later word processors.”

Electric Pencil advertisement
Michael Shrayer Software advertisement
from the July 1980 issue
of 80 Microcomputing

Origins

Michael Shrayer purchased an MITS Altair computer kit after seeing the January 1975 issue of the Popular Electronics. He later expanded his Altair with a paper punch, video display, and keyboard and he began writing machine language programs.

What became known as Electric Pencil started when Shrayer made some improvements to an editor assembler package called Software Package 1 or SP-1. He named his improved version Extended Software Package 1 or ESP-1.

Shrayer decided he didn’t want to use a typewriter to write the documentation for ESP-1 but to use his Altair instead. There were no suitable programs available, so he decided to write his own. As he stated in an 1984 article in Creative Computing:

I developed the original Electric Pencil to document something called ESP-1. At that time, I didn’t even know that a product like Pencil was called a word processor. In fact, Electric Pencil was the first word processor ever written for a microcomputer. I used Pencil to document ESP-1 and then itself.

The new Electric Pencil program was unlike anything else available, and there was great demand for the program. Shrayer began selling it through his company, Michael Shrayer Software, Inc. Peoples wanted versions for computers other than the Altair, and 78 different versions were created for different computers and operating systems by 1980.

The popularity of Electric Pencil made it an early target for software pirates. By one estimate, ten copies were pirated for every legitimate copy sold.

Electric Pencil for the TRS‑80

Electric Pencil
Electric Pencil title screen

Electric Pencil was adapted in 1978 to the TRS‑80 Model I by Small System Software. The price was $150.00 for the disk version and $99.95 for the cassette version (with both Level I and Level II versions on the same tape). It was enormously successful, becoming the dominant TRS‑80 word processor.

The Electric Pencil advertisements promised a number of features:

Write text, delete, insert, or move words, lines, paragraphs, save text on tape (or disk), then print formatted copy with our TRS232 or Centronics printer (RS-232C with disk version). Right justification, page titling and numbering, transparent cursor and repeating keyboard. Upper case only, or lower case with modification.

Somewhat unusually, there were two recommended hardware modifications in the TRS‑80 Electric Pencil manual. They were:

Because of the way the Electric Pencil lower case modification handled the character set, it was incompatible with Level II BASIC. That incompatibility meant that an important part of the modification was the installation of a switch on the keyboard to enable and disable it. Those switches were a very common sight at one time on Model I keyboards.

Electric Pencil II

Electric Pencil II was released in 1978, but was only available for CP/M and (later) Model II TRSDOS. It was considerably more expensive, at $325 for the Model II TRSDOS version and $275 for the CP/M version. Version I (as the original Electric Pencil was now named) remained available for other computers.

Electric Pencil advertisement
IJG advertisement from the
September 1982 issue of 80 Micro

Electric Pencil 2.0

In January 1981, IJG Computer Services, Harvard Pennington’s company, took over distribution of Electric Pencil from Michael Shrayer Software. IJG released a new version of Electric Pencil in February 1982. The new version 2.0 (no relation to Electric Pencil II) was not a set of patches but was assembled from the original source code. Additions by Richard Schubert fixed many bugs and added new features. The price for Electric Pencil was lowered to $89.95 for the disk version and $79.95 for tape or Exatron Stringy Floppy version. (Electric Pencil was one of the few programs to have a native Stringy Floppy version.)

IJG also introduced two add-ons to Electric Pencil:

  • Blue Pencil, a “dictionary-proofing program” (spell-checker) with a 50,000 word dictionary for $89.95
  • Red Pencil, an “automatic spelling correction” program for $89.95 which required Blue Pencil to operate

Another new product released by IJG was an IBM PC version of Electric Pencil, written by Dale Buscaino and Scott Daniel of Progressive Software Design. IJG sold that product to Electric Software Corporation in 1986, which continued to advertise it for several years.

Legacy

Electric Pencil
Electric Pencil 2.0 title screen

The original version of Electric Pencil had a powerful impact, influencing almost all word processors that followed it. I think that this quote from the original manual best exemplifies the attitude behind Electric Pencil that helped make it so successful:

Knowing full well that instruction manuals can be rather tedious, this one was assembled with ease of application as its main criteria. This text is not intended to be a course but rather a guide to the proper operation of The Electric Pencil Word Processing System. Within a few hours, anyone can certainly start using The Electric Pencil and in less than a few days can be expert at it. It is assumed that the reader is familiar with a standard electric typewriter keyboard.

THE BEST WAY TO LEARN TO OPERATE THIS SYSTEM IS TO USE IT!!!

Trying all the commands and experimenting with different combinations as well as discovering the most efficient ways to do things will really pay off.

Comments

  1. In 1985 I was handed a 5¼″ disk which had “Electric Pencil” penciled on it. We were baffled when it wouldn’t load under DOS 3.3 and now I know why. Thanks!

  2. Frank Miller MD says:

    I remember travelling to a medical meeting held at the Palmer House snazzy hotel in Chicago only a short time after the word processor Electric Pencil had come on the market. I lived in the RTP “sophisticated” area of North Carolina (Raleigh Durham Chapel Hill) and had one of the earliest Radio Shack Model I Trash 80′s ‘micro-computer.’ I had bought it to save money on rewrites with co-authors of scientific papers for medical publication. Even then at a dollar a page, one of my more fussy perfectionitistic co-authors was driving me nuts and depleting my budget with her rewrites. I had only vaguely heard of work processing in 1980 and only knew that you could type a correction or addition at the first of a manuscript or anywhere in the manuscript for that matter and the entire manuscript would be reformatted and one would have to print out the finished product once! I searched the country over, calling computer shops long distance to find this program only to find that one of the few places that carried it outside of California was in Chicago. I remember taking a taxi to the store while on break from the meeting at the hotel and grabbing and purchasing the last copy of the program the shop had. It was packaged in a plastic baggie and did not look too fancy and the manual was almost mimeographed and stapled together. My wife was outraged at the cost. But once back home, I loaded it into the 5¼″ drive off the disk and voila it worked as billed and my typing and writing woes were miraculously solved. Fortunately the construction of the formatting controls of the program seemed to make immediate sense to me and thereafter I became a fan of WP software ever since. Thanks to Michael Shrayer wherever he may be now.

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