A Brief History of Style and Structure in Microsoft Word

Recently I wrote a blog post on the Platonic idea about documents that underlies Microsoft Word. A few readers claimed that the structural theory that I described in Word had not, in fact, been part of its original conception.

One commenter declared authoritatively that “styles” had not been in the first version of Word but were added only later, after Microsoft bought another company's technology.

Surprisingly, even though this statement appears on the Internet, it is not correct. Styles were an essential part of Word from the day it was first released in 1983. The technology was not purchased from anyone else.

From the start, Word conceived of a document as a form that contained other forms: divisions (called sections in later versions of Word), paragraphs, and characters, all governed by styles. Also from the start, Word relied on style sheets that could be modified or replaced without making any change in the document itself, somewhat in the way that different varieties of CSS can be applied to a single HTML page.

The manual for verison 1.0 of Word (found on another site, and converted to a searchable PDF) provides further details. Additional pages for version 1.1 may also be of interest.

For anyone who wants to experiment with Word's styles and divisions in their original form, I cobbled together a self-contained copy of the demo version of Word 1.0, originally distributed on a floppy disk in a 1983 issue of the magazine PC World. It will not print or save files, but it shows exactly how the program worked.

The demo version was designed to run under MS-DOS 1.x or 2.x on an IBM PC. In the downloadable package provided here, it runs under any recent version of Windows, through the use of the open-source DOSBox emulator. (Whatever Norton Internet Security or other anti-virus software tells you, the download is safe, except perhaps to preconceptions about old MS-DOS programs.) I have also cobbled together a similar application that runs under OS X on a Mac.

To exit Word 1.0, press Esc, then Q (Esc enters the menu system; Q selects Quit), then Y.

Edward Mendelson, 27 October 2014 (edward [dot] mendelson [at] columbia [dot] edu)