Michael Shrayer

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Steve Jobs

Michael Shrayer (1934-2006)
Michael Shrayer working with Electric Pencil on a TRS-80 Model III in 1980

In 1975, Michael Shrayer, a 41 years old semi-retired filmmaker from New York, moved to California. Enjoying assembling electronic kits, there he purchased and assembled a MITS Altair 8800 computer kit after seeing the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics. He later expanded his Altair with a paper punch, video display, and keyboard and he began writing machine language programs.

In the fall of 1975 at one of the early meetings of the Southern California Computer Society, a guest at the meeting had a special present for the attendees, including Shrayer. Bob Marsh offered up a copy of Processor Technology’s public-domain software package called Software Package One. It was a collection of programmers’ programs—tools to make writing and modifying programs easier. Shrayer started to program, using this package, but he was not fully satisfied with the editor portion of the software package and thought he could come up with something better. Thus he made some improvements to it and named his improved version Extended Software Package 1 or ESP-1.

Fellow computer hobbyists at the Homebrew Computer Club in Menlo Park, California, wanted to buy Shrayer’s ESP-1 software, giving him an unexpected and lucrative new business. Shrayer had to write documentation, but he didn’t want to use a typewriter but his Altair instead. There were no suitable programs available, so he decided to write his own, called Electric Pencil. At that time, he didn’t even know that a product like Pencil was called a word processor. In fact, Electric Pencil was the first word processor ever written for a microcomputer. By Christmas 1976, after nearly a year of work, Shrayer’s Electric Pencil was ready, written in assembly language. The original version required only 8K of memory and an Intel 8080 or Zilog Z80 processor, and had a powerful impact, influencing almost all word processors that followed it.

Electric Pencil 2.0 title screen
Electric Pencil 2.0 title screen

The new Electric Pencil program (see the Operator’s Manual) was unlike anything else available, and there was a great demand for the program. Shrayer began selling it through his company, Michael Shrayer Software, Inc. People wanted versions for computers other than the Altair, and 78 different versions were created for different computers and operating systems (like Sol-20, and TRS-80) by 1980.

The Electric Pencil advertisements promised a number of features:
Write text, delete, insert, or move words, lines, paragraphs, save text on tape (or disk), then print formatted copy with our TRS232 or Centronics printer (RS-232C with disk version). Right justification, page titling and numbering, transparent cursor and repeating keyboard. Upper case only, or lower case with modification.

Electric Pencil II was released in 1978, but was only available for CP/M and (later) Model II TRSDOS. It was considerably more expensive, at $325 for the Model II TRSDOS version and $275 for the CP/M version. Version I (as the original Electric Pencil was now named) remained available for other computers.

In January 1981, IJG Computer Services, Harvard Pennington’s company, took over the distribution of Electric Pencil from Michael Shrayer Software. IJG released a new version in February 1982. Electric Pencil remained on the market into the middle 1980s, including a version for the IBM PC in 1983.

Biography of Michael Shrayer

Michael Shrayer (1934-2006)
Michael Shrayer (1934-2006)

Interestingly, very little is known about Michael Shrayer. He was born on 31 July 1934. From the middle 1950s, he lived in New York, where he used to work as a cameraman, producer, and director of television commercials and films, including several French pictures directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, like Magnet of Doom (1963) with Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Two Men in Manhattan (1959). At one time Shrayer worked as a cameraman for the TV show Candid Camera.

When in 1975 Shrayer moved to California, he was “semi-retired”. There he started programming and developed the pioneering word processor Electric Pencil. The name was a haphazard effort that came to him in the middle of the night, as his wife Deborah came up with one of the words and he came up with the other. Shrayer was an active programmer until the early 1980s when he gradually withdrew from the business. “I never think commercially,” said Shrayer. “The biggest success I had was Electric Pencil because I did it for myself.”

Shrayer had a ham radio license, and he had studied firearms. Michael Shrayer died at age 72 years old on 19 October 2006 in Arlington, Tarrant County, Texas.