Word of the Day / Madpeset: How IBM Invented the Modern Word for Printer

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We’ve already discussed how the Hebrew word for print dfus came from the ancient Greek. Today we’ll continue the journey from print to printer, which in Hebrew is mad-PE-set.

At least it is now. It wasn’t always so.

Israel got its first printer together with its first electronic computer back in 1955. The WEIZAC, as the staff at the Weizmann Institute, who built and operated the computer, lovingly termed it, was equipped with Israel’s first printer - a Flexowriter teleprinter.

“You know, now that you ask me, I really don’t know what we called the printer in those days,” Prof. Aviezri Fraenkel, who worked on WEIZAC from the get-go told Haaretz. “We only spoke English. I don’t think we had a Hebrew word. We just called it ‘Flexowriter’ or ‘teleprinter’.”

But the WEIZAC wasn’t only used by the small team of English-speaking applied mathematicians at the institute: it was also used by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics and the Israeli security establishment. The statisticians seem to have called the printer mekhonat ktiva - “writing machine." At least that's what they told statistics students learning how to work with the computer at the time.

The army seeks an end to war

In 1958, the incessant squabbling between the army and the mathematicians over allocation of the computer’s running time led the army to decide to buy its own computer, Israel’s second. The task of heading the new computer unit and buying the computer was given by then General Yitzhak Rabin to Mordechai Kikayon.

Kikayon traveled to the U.S. and after checking out different options, he chose the Philco 2000.

It was Kikayon who gave the printer its first Hebrew name - madpisa - in a letter he wrote in August 1959. In the letter he described the specific needs the army's printer had to meet and asked his fellow officers if there were any features he'd left out.

The army received its computer together with its printer in the summer of 1961. And the word madpisa was in use until it was replaced by the word we use today - madpeset. Where did this new word come from?

In 1962, IBM began selling computers in Israel. These too were equipped with printers, which back then were called "tabulators". In Hebrew they gave the devices a terrible translation - melavakhat.

But in 1964, the company came out with a new highly successful line of computers - the IBM 360, which came equipped with a proper printer, not a tabulator. And when these computers were marketed in Israel in 1965, an anonymous IBM worker gave the accessory the Hebrew name madpeset.

The Israel Defense Forces, Bank Leumi, El Al, the Technion University and the Israeli government all purchased these new computers. With the computers came IBM instructors who taught Israel’s early computer operators that a printer was a madpeset. Quickly the earlier word madpisa disappeared, and madpeset reigned supreme.

Printer technology has reached the 3-D age: This is a sculpture created using a 3-D printer, or in Hebrew - a madpeset.Credit: Reuters
This is a tabulator, which in Hebrew was called "melavakhat". Credit: Courtesy of IBM
At IBM, when the "printer" first came into use - and somebody at the company decided that its Hebrew name should be 'madpeset'.Credit: Courtesy of IBM

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