When you think of the big names in tech who have revolutionized the way we work, Evelyn Berezin probably doesn’t come to mind.
Yet she developed the first computerized word processor, which helped lay the foundations of the digital age that gave rise to the likes of Microsoft's Bill Gates, Apple's Steve Jobs and web inventor Tim Berners-Lee.
Berezin, who died recently aged 93, was a computer visionary whose invention, the Data Secretary, marked the beginning of the end for the typing pool. The machine allowed secretaries to edit, cut, paste and delete text without having to retype whole pages marred by errors or duplicate them for wider distribution.
She is also credited with building one of the first computerized airline reservation systems.
Inventor, engineer and entrepreneur
In 1969, Berezin started a company called Redactron to manufacture and sell the Data Secretary. In her role as founder and president, she cultivated law firms and corporate clients who soon realized the machine’s potential to reduce labour costs.
While Redactron’s competitors in the word processing business relied on electronic relays and tapes, the Data Secretary’s advanced design incorporated early semiconductor chips and programmable logic to record and retrieve keystrokes for editing.
Berezin even designed some of the semiconductors herself. In an industry dominated by men, she was unique – a female inventor and engineer and founder of one of the first tech startups.
Customers purchasing the Data Secretary received a unit the size of a small fridge, which had no screen and relied on an IBM Selectric typewriter for its keyboard and printer. It was slow, clunky and noisy but also technically sophisticated and, for a time, business boomed.
Later versions had screens, scaled-down consoles, separate printers, and came with enhanced processing speeds and greater performance.
Manufacturers like IBM soon incorporated computer chips into competing designs and a wave of word processors arrived on the market.
Before long, some of the secretarial tasks that Berezin had been trying to speed up became obsolete. The word processor revolution had enhanced efficiency so much that many typing jobs disappeared.
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But as well as eliminating jobs, the computer age that followed also created countless new ones.
Today, Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies are ushering in an era of rapid change and innovation, which will transform global labour markets in the coming years. By 2022 a 10% decline in existing jobs will be counterbalanced by an 11% increase in the emergence of new roles, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018.
Like secretaries in the years following the advent of the labour-saving word processor, those at higher risk of redundancy are likely to be in routine-based, white-collar roles which can be easily automated.
The Data Secretary fulfilled its designer’s intention of making life easier for secretaries. However, Berezin told the New York Times in 2017 it hadn’t occurred to her when she developed it that it might jeopardize women’s jobs.