The Untold History of How Autocorrect Came into Existence

By Sarah Zhang on at

Despite the well-documented foibles of autocorrect, it actually is pretty good at turning my gibberish touch typing into comprehensible if profanity-free prose. For that, we have a man by the name of Bill Vaginal to thank. Erh, I mean Vignola.

Over at Wired, Gideon Lewis-Kraus was written a fascinating history of autocorrect. (Lewis-Kraus wrote the entire ducking first draft of his book on his phone, so let's say he's qualified to tackle his topic.) If autocorrect has any one father, that guy is Dean Hachamovitch, currently the head of data science at Microsoft.

In the early '90s, Hachamovitch was, yes, also at Microsoft developing the word processor that would soon subsume the life of every white-collar worker. Building on some existing shortcuts, Hachamovitch realised he could easily replace teh with the. He built up a list of other common mistakes like seperate, but it wasn't long before people started dreaming up other uses for autocorrect.

The pranking, for example, started early:

One day Hachamovitch went into his boss's machine and changed the autocorrect dictionary so that any time he typed Dean it was automatically changed to the name of his coworker Mike, and vice versa. (His boss kept both his computer and office locked after that.) Children were even quicker to grasp the comedic ramifications of the new tool. After Hachamovitch went to speak to his daughter's third-grade class, he got emails from parents that read along the lines of "Thank you for coming to talk to my daughter's class, but whenever I try to type her name I find it automatically transforms itself into 'The pretty princess.'"

But early autocorrect ran into some problems with naughty words. Microsoft very well couldn't be suggesting that we mean motherfucker, could it now? The task of excising vulgar words from the dictionary fell to Christopher Thorpe, then a 19-year-old intern at Microsoft. As Thorpe tells Wired, it was all inspired by a guy who emailed Bill Gates complaining that his last name corrected to something a bit too..anatomical.

Whenever Bill Vignola typed his own name in MS Word, the email to Gates explained, it was automatically changed to Bill Vaginal. Presumably Vignola caught this sometimes, but not always, and no doubt this serious man was sad to come across like a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel. His email made it down the chain of command to Thorpe. And Bill Vaginal wasn't the only complainant: as Thorpe recalls, Goldman Sachs was mad that Word was always turning it into Goddamn Sachs.

You can hop over to Wired to read more about autocorrect's ducking awesome history. [Wired]