Discover Cy Endfield’s “Microwriter,” The World’s First Portable Word Processor (Circa 1980)

The hall­mark of an endur­ing inven­tion is the dif­fi­cul­ty oth­ers encounter when attempt­ing to improve on its orig­i­nal design. The QWERTY key­board is a prime exam­ple: since the emer­gence of the Rem­ing­ton No. 1 type­writer in 1874, the key­board has con­fi­dent­ly with­stood any sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges. That’s not to say that curi­ous alter­na­tives haven’t occa­sion­al­ly come along. Indeed, sev­er­al weeks ago we wrote about the Malling-Hansen Writ­ing Ball, the late 19th cen­tu­ry type­writer Friedrich Niet­zsche used while trav­el­ling. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the writ­ing ball proved too frag­ile and expen­sive to man­u­fac­ture, and today sur­vives sole­ly as a rel­ic.

The most unusu­al recent attempt to rein­vent the key­board was devised by Cy End­field in the ear­ly 1980s. End­field was a Hol­ly­wood direc­tor of some suc­cess pri­or to being declared a Com­mu­nist by Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mis­sion and black­list­ed in 1951. An alto­geth­er enter­pris­ing fel­low, End­field kept his chin up and his upper lip stiff, opt­ing to head to Eng­land where he worked on films (e.g., Zulu, 1964), wrote a book, and per­formed card tricks with remark­able skill. He also cre­at­ed a six-but­ton word proces­sor he called the Microwriter.


In a 1984 inter­view with NPR, End­field recount­ed want­i­ng to reduce the num­ber of keys used when typ­ing. Instead of push­ing a key and obtain­ing the cor­re­spond­ing let­ter (a 1‑to‑1 ratio), he want­ed to use a hand­ful of keys to yield the whole of the alpha­bet. He decid­ed that chords were the answer:

“It occurred to me that… it would be pos­si­ble to com­bine a set of sig­nals from sep­a­rate keys, and there­fore you could reduce the total num­ber of keys. But, of course, this involved the learn­ing of chords… dif­fi­cult to mem­o­rize… But how do you make these chords mem­o­rable? And, one day, star­ing at a sheet of paper on which I was draw­ing a set of five keys in sort of the arch formed by the fin­ger ends, it occurred to me, ah! if I press the thumb key, and the index fin­ger key, any­body can do this just lis­ten­ing now, press your thumb key and your index fin­ger down and you’ll see that a ver­ti­cal line joins those two fin­ger ends, a short ver­ti­cal line. There is an equiv­a­lence between that short ver­ti­cal line and one let­ter of the alpha­bet. It’s the let­ter “I.”

The above video pro­vides a much sim­pler and more con­cise expla­na­tion.

Equipped with 16 kb of RAM and a sin­gle line LED dis­play, the Microwriter allowed users to quick­ly type notes on the go and trans­fer the results to their com­put­ers through the ser­i­al port. Five of the but­tons cor­re­spond­ed to the var­i­ous chord-keys, and the low­er thumb but­ton allowed users to cycle through var­i­ous input modes.

While it was pos­si­ble to achieve a quick pace with the device when typ­ing tex­tu­al rather than numer­ic input, users of the device remem­ber need­ing sev­er­al days of train­ing to remem­ber the var­i­ous key com­bi­na­tions and to begin using the device with some pro­fi­cien­cy. Need­less to say, in spite of End­field­’s claims of being the world’s first portable word proces­sor, the Microwriter sim­ply was­n’t user friend­ly enough to sur­vive. It entered pro­duc­tion in the ear­ly 1980s, and ceased in 1985.

To read or lis­ten to Cy Endfield’s full inter­view, head over to the NPR Archives tum­blr.

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based cul­ture and sci­ence writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mark Twain Wrote the First Book Ever Writ­ten With a Type­writer

The His­to­ry of the Seem­ing­ly Impos­si­ble Chi­nese Type­writer

The Endur­ing Ana­log Under­world of Gramer­cy Type­writer

Dis­cov­er Friedrich Nietzsche’s Curi­ous Type­writer, the “Malling-Hansen Writ­ing Ball”

Com­put­er Sci­ence: Free Online Cours­es

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Comments (3)
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  • Simon Anthony says:

    Hi, I have just found your arti­cle on Microwirit­ng. It was great to actu­al­ly hear Cy End­field after decades of using the Microwriter, the Agen­dA and last­ly the Cykey. I have always thought that it would be great to have a chord­ing input sys­tem for mod­ern tablets , but there was­n’t one, so, I have writ­ten my own. I call it SiWriter — because my name is Simon and it sounds good.

    SiWriter has a web­site, that links to the Apple App Store down­load of the three ver­sions I have so far released for the iPad and iPad mini.

    I would be delight­ed if you took a look. It uses all the main codes that Cy End­field devised plus a few of my own for a mass of oth­er char­ac­ters.

    I have just uploaded a free ver­sion of the ‘Pro’ release, it should be avail­able by next week. Until then, con­tact me at for a free ver­sion of the full Pro release — or, pay $7.99 and down­load one for your­self.

    The cur­rent Free ver­sion is a stripped down vari­ant of the first release which is still avail­able at $1.99 from

    The full priced ver­sion can be got by click­ing here…‑

  • lorraine longford says:

    I have a microwriter for sale if any­one is inter­est­ed in it. Please e:mail me.

  • A S Beesley says:

    Tell me about this? What price had you in mind. What is the con­di­tion of the machine? Where­abouts are you in the world?

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