The AES-90 word processor was an innovation released by the Montreal-based technology company Automatic Electronic Systems Inc. in 1972. The new machine was a pioneer within its generation that not only revolutionized office automation, but also set the trend for the design of word processors around the world.
Word processing, the creation of typewritten documents with automated text-editing machines, adapted to the changing demands of office environments (see also office automation). By the early 1970s, text-composing typewriters, such as IBM’s “Mag Card Selectric” Typewriter, dominated office spaces. The AES-90 transformed office automation.
The AES-90 was created by MIT electrical engineering graduate Stephen Dorsey. In 1967, Dorsey established Automatic Electronic Systems Inc. (AES). This Montreal-based high technology company created remote control and monitoring systems. While developing the newest wave of industrial electronic devices, Dorsey’s team built the AES-90 CRT text editor. Released in 1972, the AES-90 featured a keyboard with a terminal on a desk and a processor with a disk drive in a separate compartment. An ad by AES called the new machine “a giant step into a new era of cost effective written communication.”
While top-of-the-line typewriters of the day could save data on magnetic cards, the AES-90 changed the way that documents were composed, edited and stored. All in one place was a typewriter, video display, keyboard, memory disk unit, microprocessor and power supply. Using a keyboard, the user typed words that appeared on the AES-90’s cathode ray tube (CRT) display screen. The AES-90’s display was referred to in the media as “the ideal medium for man-made interaction.”
The AES-90 was touted to increase the productivity of the user by 300 per cent, with a typing rate of 175 words per minute. With the use of push-button commands, the order of words could be modified, incorrect words could be deleted, lines moved and paragraphs changed. Many features that are a regular part of the editing process on personal computers were available in this model, including Automatic Title Centering, Word Wrap-around, Automatic Numeric Alignment and the ability to Justify text.
Approximately 100 pages of writing could be stored on an 8-inch floppy disk that allowed documents to be logged, indexed and retrieved later.
The AES-90 was also revolutionary due to its programmability. Prior to this machine, in order to change a computer’s functionality — the ability for a computer to perform a specific task — a new machine had to be built. It was a laborious and costly manufacturing process that risked terminating current models or delaying upgrades. The AES-90 made it possible to improve functionality by updating the word processing software. Upgrading text editing could be achieved by writing software, storing it in read-only memory chips, taking out the old chips and putting in the new ones. The ability to change software meant that the mass manufacturing process would not need to be jeopardized. This novel feature was implemented in personal computers, whereby word processing software could be replaced by a newer edition without the need to replace or significantly upgrade the computer.
Media in Canada and the United States took notice of the novelty of this machine. One 1974 article read “Electronic ‘editor’ raises eyebrows.” The AES-90, at a cost of $14, 900, was a hit for AES, which soon had a subsidiary company in Vermont as well as offices in the United States. By 1978, AES was competing with IBM as the largest supplier of word processing equipment in Canada. The design of the AES-90 was copied by other companies that dominated word processing equipment in the late 1970s. The AES-90 has been called “the world’s first programmable video screen word processor.”