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In Memory of the First Technical Writer – 1920 to 2011 

24th August 2011 Posted in Blog, Technical Writers 5 Comments

Image for Joseph Chapline Memorial Post

Joseph Chapline, 91, died peacefully Monday, August 8, 2011 – the first noted technical writer. In 1949, he wrote the user’s manual for the BINAC computer, making him an innovator in the field, paving the way for new writers looking for work.

Before that time, there wasn’t a great need for technical writers because there weren’t technologies available for people to use. Chapline helped to develop the Binac and Eniac systems, which meant he needed user manuals to help those who wanted to use them too. After creating a large manual on the Eniac system, he realized the value of passing on his knowledge of the process.

At the Moore School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, Chapline began to offer classes in technical writing, teaching over 200 in his time at the school.

The Story Takes a Strange Turn

While Chapline started the revolution that is technical writing, he didn’t stay in the profession for long. In 1953, he returned to his love of music and was hired as the organist and choirmaster for the Unitarian Church of Germantown in Philadelphia. There, he continued to develop his mastery of music and helped to teach organists.

Perhaps this story has something to tell us about the possibilities of technical writing, maybe not. Perhaps the brain that’s suited to music is also suited to creating complicated documents. After all, isn’t a musical score an assemblage of notes in the right order so that anyone can play them, just as a user manual is a compilation of instructions so anyone can use them?

Chapline knew the answer, and thankfully he passed it on.

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  1. By Joel Meieron 24th, August 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Wow. I knew nothing about Joseph Chapline…

  2. By Bruce Curleyon 16th, August 2012 at 1:40 pm

    Joseph Chapline was the first recognized technical writer, and no doubt a great one if he wrote the manuals for the Binac and Eniac.
    When I was at Penn in the 1970’s, one whole building was taken up in the Moore School of Engineering with those massive vacuum tube computers. Both were developed for the U.S. military and helped us win WWII, which is somehow not mentioned in your story.
    Just before him during WWII, hundreds of technical writers’ wrote manuals for how to build and maintain the military technology in World War Two. They even converted many of them into comics and put them on the backs of stalls so the GIs could study them while they were…taking a break.
    I give the title of “First Technical Writer” to the ancient Greek Archimedes for his writings on Law of the Lever, Turning the Screw, On Plane Equilibriums, On Conoids, On Floating Bodies, various war machines, and many others. He wrote so many technical instruction manuals I can only list a few here.
    Archimedes is the first recognized technical writer I can find. Given the early need for some people to communicate “How to” to others, no doubt there were many others before him.

  3. By editoron 16th, August 2012 at 5:48 pm

    Thanks for the awesome comment, Bruce.

  4. By John Garisonon 26th, November 2012 at 10:53 pm

    I had the pleasure of chairing a tech comm conference some years ago, and of inviting Joe Chapline to be our keynote speaker. He was entertaining and very knowledgeable, and said that even in the 1940’s there was disagreement over whether it was best to teach technical folks how to write, or teach people who could write about the content. I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions we had. I frequently drove past his home on Lake Sunapee and always smiled when I saw his name on the mailbox.

  5. By editoron 29th, November 2012 at 4:02 pm

    John – thanks for dropping by and sharing that!

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