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What is the History of Modern Technical Writing?

Technical writing has been around since the first technical writer, Cro-Magnon man, was drawing on cave walls. However, most experts would agree that the golden age of technical writing started with the invention of the computer.

Here are some of the major milestones in technical writing history over the past 60 years.

1949: Joseph D. Chapline wrote a user’s manual for the BINAC computer. He became the first technical writer of computer documentation.

1951: An ad for a technical writer was first published in the “Help Wanted” ads.

1952: Joseph D. Chapline documented the UNIVAC computer, using examples to document its functions.

1960: The continued growth of technology, particularly in the electronics, aeronautics, and space industries, created a big upsurge in demand for technical writers.

1964: Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media, proclaiming that electronic communication media will soon turn the world into a “global village.”

1965: Ted Nelson coined the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia” to describe a model of non-sequential writing and accessing information, stressing the connections among ideas.

1975: The U.S. Government required all product warranties to be stated clearly and unambiguously.

1976: The Modern Language Association (MLA) approved a panel on technical writing at its annual conference.

1980: In an immigration case involving the question of the occupation classification of a technical publications writer, the U.S. Department of Justice ruled that technical writing is a profession.

1986: The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) released the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), which became the basis of several subset markup languages, including HTML.

1987: Early desktop publishing and page layout software began appearing on writers’ desktops, including products like Ventura Publisher, Interleaf, FrameMaker, and Aldus PageMaker.

1991: ISO 9000 certification requirements created new job opportunities for technical writers.

1992: ProEdit is founded in Atlanta, GA.

1999: Writers began using XML, an “eXtensible Markup Language” that is evolving from HTML.

2002: The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 creates new opportunities for technical writers documenting policies, procedures, and internal controls.

So what does the future hold? In the short term, more and more information is moving to the Web. This offers countless opportunities for a technical writer to design and develop future generations of online help systems. In the longer term, the Web will become the greatest technical writing library imaginable.