Chaucer's "Treatise on the Astrolabe," recognized as "the oldest work written in English on an elaborate scientific instrument," belongs with the new fourteenth-century movement of translating into or writing in the English language material that had customarily only appeared in Latin.
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.
In this article, I look at the changes dictated by the technological breakthroughs and research in technical communication, and the tools writers employed to make the information clear to the user. Most of the information in this article is from the Technology Review section of the STC’s Technical Communication journal volumes published from 1967 to 2003.
"On Technological Subjects," written and completed by Song Yingxing in 1628, is China's first comprehensive technical writing book intended for a general audience. Its 18 chapters cover nearly all the major technological subjects of its time, such as growing grains, weaving clothes, making sugar and salt, and building ships. The book accommodates various audiences' information needs by combining equipment and material descriptions, process explanations, and task instructions. To help audiences understand his descriptions and to follow his instructions more effectively, the author integrates 100 full-page detailed drawings. Another mechanism that the author uses to help his audiences complete the described tasks is using names (nouns) instead of action-oriented phrases for most of the chapter titles. Song's book embodies several important features in modern technical communication, especially in China's modern technical communication. The book should help international technical communicators understand China's modern technical communication from the perspectives of audience's awareness, organization of information, and use of visuals.
This article investigates the status of orality in the history of technical communication. The article calls for orality as an integral part and driving force of technical writing. The article brings to light the misconceptions that have led to a diminished role of oral communication in technical writing. The article shows the implications of oral skills for improved effectiveness of technical communicators. The article outlines the challenges and promises of teaching oral communication in technical writing.
This article traces the history of technical writing instruction in American colleges, concentrating on the major figures in technical writing instruction, the most important textbooks, the forces that shaped courses in technical writing during the period 1900-1980, and the refinements and improvements in teaching and materials that led to the current growth and success of technical writing courses.
Although we look at the past with embarrassment about some of our practices, we often lack the foresight to see the present with the same degree of scrutiny. Years from now, we’ll look back at what we’re currently doing and not only blush, but feel remorse and wish we could get back what we lost.
Describing the emergence of the first shipbuilding texts, particularly those in English provides another chapter in the story of the emergence of English technical writing. Shipwrightery texts did not appear in English until the middle decades of the seventeenth century because shipwrightery was a closed discourse community which shared knowledge via oral transmission. The shift from orality to textuality in shipwrightery did not occur until advancing navigation principles enabled ships to sail in open waters. Shipping rapidly became a commercial business, and shipwrightery was forced to move from closely-guarded simple design principles to mathematically-based designs too complex to be retained only in memory of shipwrights and shared via oral transmission. Textual transmission began to supplant oral instruction. The evolution of English shipwrightery provides rich research opportunities for historians tracking the development of technical writing.
English technical writing clearly emerged during the Renaissance and the first decades of printing, but during the 1641-1700 period technical writing gained credibility and prestige. It was a valued tool for achieving the utilitarian ends of an age in which practical goals were valued more than aesthetic ones. Technical writing can be found in a range of disciplines, such as agriculture, medicine, science, as well as the major English trades and crafts. As a valued form of discourse, it illuminates the world of work in seventeenth-century England and the problems faced by the early experimenters of the Royal Society who sought to use science to solve major human, military, and economic problems while seeking to expand understanding of nature. Studying technical writing of this period allows us to track the continued development of technical writing as a distinct form of discourse.
The manual for the Franklin Ace 100 begins with about 40 pages of computer basics (What are they? What can they do? etc). And then, on page 40, two thirds of the way down the page, there is a chapter heading called “The Ancestral Territorial Imperatives of the Trumpeter Swan.” I like how low-tech the manual is. The whole thing is done in a Courier typeface, with chapter headings in all-caps.
The first time I heard of the STOP paper was sometime in the mid 80's when the historian of technical writing, John Brockman, phoned me to ask if my Information Mapping method of structured writing derived from the STOP method. At the time I told Brockman that there was no direct relationship between our two approaches since I'd never read the paper. When the editor of this journal sent me the STOP document in preparation for writing this paper, I read it with delight. Although our two innovations date from the same period, the STOP authors and I were working in two completely different disciplines, cultures, organizations, and locations. These two approaches resulted in modularity - albeit of quite different kinds. The main purpose of this project is to compare and contrast these two approaches to modularity. I should note here that I approach this article principally as an exercise in historical comparison, rather than as an exposition of my current views, about which I will say a bit at the end of this article.
The 70s are definitely not the beginning of technical writing. However, we can say that technical writing for computer manuals took off along with the use of personal computers. Let us look at the problems technical writers faced then and what solutions they came up with.
A study of how three historical rhetorical concepts (kairos, memoria, and mestiza consciousness) are relevant to professional communication practices today, and productive historical concepts for contemporary practitioners.