Friday, May 23, 2014

From 1982: Dr. Robert Wesson's program will help you speel better

In 1982, one of computer programs people could buy to check the spelling in WordStar and Magic Star documents was called SPELL, an application that is highlighted in this advertisement from the March 1982 issue of Creative Computing.

SPELL was available on an eight-inch floppy disk (that's what the man is holding), recognized more than 50,000 words ... and cost just $49.95!

That price is the equivalent of nearly $120 today. For that kind of money (then and now), you could probably just get yourself a used copy of the Oxford English Dictionary.

SPELL was developed by Dr. Robert Wesson, a "professional computer scientist," and distributed by The Software Toolworks1 of Sherman Oaks, California. (Here's a link to a PDF of the Summer 1982 catalog for The Software Toolworks. In addition to SPELL, the company offered a C/80 2.0 compiler, the original Adventure game, a computerized cookbook called Computer Chef, Eliza, a maze game called Munchkin that was also written by Wesson, a game called Space Pirates and an air traffic controller simulation.)

Computer spell-checker programs date back to the 1957, when researchers were in need of "special applications to find records in databases in spite of incorrect entries." In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the programs — such as SPELL — were sold separately to personal-computer users. By the middle of the 1980s, however, spell checkers were incorporated into most word-processing packages, and there was no longer a market for standalone products.

These days, spell-checkers are part of almost every digital device that we use in our everyday lives, which leads to some interesting debates. The tendency of spell-checkers and AutoCorrect to sometimes provide the wrong word is known as the Cupertino effect.2

But wait, there's more!
If you want to check out more advertisements and content from the March 1982 issue of Creative Computing, see this Papergreat post from January 2012.

1. According to MobyGames: "The Software Toolworks started in 1980 as a publisher of software for Heath/Zenith personal computers. Early products included MYCHESS, The Original Adventure, and the C/80 C compiler for CP/M. In 1994, The Software Toolworks acquired Mindscape, setting it up as its development studio. The company is best known for their chess games and educational Mario titles. The Toolworks also created the Miracle Piano Teaching System."

Seeing that reference to MYCHESS sent me down the rabbit hole to the Wikipedia entry for computer chess, to the entry for Wolfgang von Kempelen's 18th century Automaton Chess-Player (The Turk), to Tom Standage's book The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine, which I now want to read. Ahhh, the hazards of writing this blog...

2. Ben Zimmer wrote an interesting blog post titled "When Spellcheckers Attack: Perils of the Cupertino Effect" in 2007.

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