Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Origins of Technical Writing

I never thought that technical writing had a special origin. I recognized the genre within non-fiction, because it is not history, for instance. If I had given it any thought earlier, I would have looked to the industrial revolution and to the explosion in science in the 19th century. But I did not. Only last week, writing a memorandum on the tasks I proposed to take on, it occurred to me that there must be some seminal book(s) that launched the study and practice as a distinct program. No surprise, a few online searches led to some good resources and to some authoritative nonsense.
"The Surveyor's Transit" Appendix I in
Theory and Practice of Technical Writing
by Samuel Chandler Earle

The best old book that I found was Theory and Practice of Technical Writing by Samuel Chandler Earle, New York: MacMillan Company, 1911 (301 + vi pages). I borrowed it from the UT Library. It was still catalogued under the old Dewey Decimal system and stacked in a section that smelled more like a library than the library. After an introduction of three chapters in 49 pages on basic principles of good writing, Earle gives criticisms of 24 examples, from the surveyor’s transit to the involute gear. The examples are informative on their own merits, fascinating examples of machines and methods of a century ago; and Earle’s commentaries are positive.  

Not so good was Technical Writing, Second Edition, by T. A. Rickard, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1923 (337 + xii pages). (The first edition was 1920.) Rickard just gives examples of bad writing and explains why they are bad. He natters. He is not wrong, but neither is he helpful.

Technical Writing by
Sajitha Jayaprakash,
Himilaya Pub., 2008.
Both of those came up on an Internet search that pointed to an article on the history of technical writing from the website of Sajitha Jayaprakash (here). She is the author of several textbooks on the subject. She cites Rickard as the author of a previous work from 1908. I found a listing in  Rickard, T.A. (Thomas Arthur), 1864- Guide to technical writing. San Francisco, Mining and Scientific Pr., 1910. However, curiously perhaps, Jayaprakash says without further clarification: “Samuel Earle is hence considered to be the father of technical writing.” I agree that Earle does the better job, but Rickard preceded him. And I have no way to judge that first effort, though the second edition to the later publication does not hold much promise. I do believe that Rickard would have had harsh words for Jayaprakash who wrote: “Technical writing, as you know is systematic writing of instruction for the users to perform a given task. It is also about documenting information that users can use.”

The problem of when technical writing began as a separate classification rests on the fact that for 2500 years, just about all writing was technical. The Gilgamesh and Argonautica and other myths stood apart from the vast body of philosophy for which there was no clear distinction between living the good life and discovering the mating habits of cetaceans. It was all knowledge. It was presented as fact, or at least as argument, and there was no doubt that it was all intended to inform the reader about the world and their place in it.

What changed?

The Wikipedia article on Technical Writing points out: However, unlike the past, where skills were handed down through oral traditions, no one besides the inventors knew how to use these new devices. Writing thus became the fastest and most effective way to disseminate information, and writers who could document these devices were desired.”

That claim is supported by an excellent article, “Constructing a Contextual History of English Language Technical Writing,” by Stephen Crabbe, Journal of Translation and Technical Communication Research, (Published by Leona Van Vaerenbergh and Klaus Schubert), Vol. 5. Nu. 1. (2012) Page 40, online here.)

Crabbe differentiates scientific writing from technical writing. The distinction is subtle. Aristotle on the parts of animals and Aristarchus on the motions of the planets were for the privileged few. More deeply, writing about the work of Eratosthenes of Cyrene in Circumference (reviewed here), Nicolas Nicastro asserted that as insightful as the ancient sages were, science was a modern invention. In that same context, Crabbe claims that technical writing originated with the Industrial Revolution.   

“However, it is generally accepted that the transition to factory-based, machine-powered industry can be traced to Britain during this period. The new machines could be invented, but workers with experience of constructing, operating and maintaining them did not exist. As a result, the pre-industrial oral tradition of passing technical knowledge from one generation to the next became less effective and relevant.
The Mechanics Institute was established in Glasgow in 1821, and its success resulted in the establishment of new institutes in rapid succession in towns and cities across Britain. Many leading manufacturers during the industrial revolution such as the Eastern Counties Railway, Royal Arsenal and George Stephenson and Company established new institutes. However, the purpose of much of this technical knowledge dissemination was not necessarily altruistic. Workers required instruction on how to operate the new mechanical inventions not for their protection, but for the protection of what were often expensive and complicated machines.
Manufacturers also needed workers who could construct and maintain the new mechanical inventions. Mokyr (2006) describes these workers as tens of thousands of literate mechanics and craftsmen who were able to understand technical writing and illustrations. The greater complexity of the new machines meant that oral descriptions of their parts were increasingly insufficient to enable mechanics and craftsmen to construct and maintain them.”

Be warned, though: That same Wikipedia article on Technical Writing also cites "A Brief History of Technical Communication" by Frederick M. O’Hara, Jr., of the Montana State University (Billings) College of Technology online here. That work is flawed by ideological and philosophical problems, but just empirically, O’Hara claims: 
“A case can be made that the first software documentation writer was Muhammad ibn Musa Al’Khowarizmi, a twelfth- century Tashkent cleric who developed the concept of writing a detailed process to be followed to achieve some goal, a technique employed in virtually all computer- programming languages today. He published a book about his approach and named his process the algorithm, a name that even today is used to refer to the mathematical application of this method.”

The truth is that the scholar did not give his own name to his method. The word “algorithm” comes from a Latinization of Al-Khwarizmi’s name. He may well have come from what we call Uzbekistan, but no source indicates that his family originated in Tashkent, an old city in eastern Uzbekistan that is the modern capital. Indeed, his origins were probably at the western margin in the place called Khiva (Xorasm; Khorasan). All we know is that he did truly work in Baghdad and lived about 780 to 850 CE (162 to 236 AH). And he wrote a book that we call The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing that was first translated into Latin by Robert of Chester in 1145. So, the book came into the West in the 12th century, but contrary to O'Hara's claim, the author lived some 350 years earlier.

Another common and erroneous assertion is that technical writing as we understand it began with us.  “However, most experts would agree that the golden age of technical writing started with the invention of the computer.
“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.” From “History of Technical Writing” by ProEdit, a contract and direct hire placement firm. The truth is that ANSI SGML was based on Donald Knuth’s TeX invented ten years earlier and enthusiastically adopted.  (See TUG the TeX User Group here.)

As noted at the opening, the earliest textbooks on technical writing apparently go back only to the beginning of the 20th century. But Scientific American was founded in 1845, and despite (or perhaps thanks to) changes in ownership, it has remained the longest-running periodical in America.  



  1. I have a somewhat negative view of tech writing because they seem to just restate things verbosely. Sometimes there's a a button labelled Var Osc Mode. I look in the manual, and they've padded it: "The Var Osc Mode control toggles variable oscillator mode. " It's unlikely anyone who understands exactly what that means would not have understood by reading the button.

    I like them, though, when I have to write verbose documentation for regulatory purposes. I can do diagrams and rough explanations, which they turn into FDA docs. But I question how valuable those docs are. It depends on how good the engineer and tech writer are and whether they really work together to get good doc or if they just generate it as an afterthought to check off a box.

  2. Technical Communication has been evolved in the West to ancient Greece and Rome as well as to Sumerian, and ancient Egypt.Technical communication was firstly handed orally which contained descriptions of scientific and astronomical observations. During the Renaissance period(1400-1600 AD),
    Evolution of Technical Communication