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Given my advancing years I remember when "multitasking" became a buzz-word in PC operating systems, notably with OS/2. Arguably, earlier version of Windows supported a multitasking as well but I don't think this was not sold heavily as a feature. Soon after, it seemed the term "multitasking" entered the vocabulary to describe when a person does more than one thing at a time. Is this just a coincidence or did the computer term cross over into the general vocabulary? Large scale computers have been multitasking for decades prior so I'm guessing that it took the advertising of the day to make the term better known in the general population (like user-friendly).

Long and short question: where did the term "multitasking" originate in the context of humans.

  • I'll note that the terms "multi-tasking", "multi-processing", and "multi-programming" have all been used, somewhat interchangeably, in this realm. Strictly speaking, they have different meanings, but they overlap a hair, and it was common to grab the wrong term when searching for the right word. Plus there was an ongoing argument for many years as to where the line between "multi-tasking" and "multi-programming" should be drawn. – Hot Licks Feb 17 '17 at 2:39
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Using Google Books, I found several instances of multi-task in print prior to 1966. Here's the earliest I found, in a description of a lawn mower from a 1954 issue of Chambers's Journal:

Last month a multi-task appliance for turf maintenance was described here, but it was pointed out that its size and cost made it more suitable for use on large areas of grass—e.g. sports grounds, parkland, etc.

I believe this shows that the term multi-tasking did not orginate specifically as computer jargon, but was present prior as engineering jargon.

This earlier use probably did not carry the meaning of performing multiple tasks at the same time, but rather meant, simply, able to perform multiple tasks.

  • There's a significant difference between "multi-task", as an adjective for a tool with several different uses, vs "multi-tasking", meaning doing several things at once. They are entirely different, and the idiom "multi-tasking" did not originate from "multi-task", but was independently "invented". – Hot Licks Feb 17 '17 at 1:19
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As a matter of fact, the word multitasking did originate in the computer realm, but it is older than you estimate.

According to the OED, the first citation of the word is from 1966, in a magazine called Datamation:

Multi-tasking is defined as the use of a single CPU for the simultaneous processing of two or more jobs.

The more general sense of multitasking, then, arose from this computing term.

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    I also found a reference to it in 1960s but my personal experience is that I did not hear it in the general population until the 1990s. Perhaps this was the first time that computer technology became relevant to a significant part of the population. Other terms like "user friendly" also popped up in the 1990s (first Mac ads?) but have since died off. – dave Apr 5 '11 at 0:05
  • @dave: Found a possible reference from 1948. – Callithumpian Apr 5 '11 at 1:52
  • Ha, send that reference over to the OED! I wonder if the date is accurate? – Kosmonaut Apr 5 '11 at 2:35
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    @Callithumpian - please correct me if I'm wrong, but ENIAC (the very first general purpose computer) was only constructed in 1946. I doubt it was capable of much more than 1+1, let alone multitasking. – dave Apr 5 '11 at 3:30
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    @dave: I take it all back. I just thought of a way of checking the date. I typed in later dates into the search box and found references within the document all the way up to 1980. Thanks for your justifiable doubt. – Callithumpian Apr 5 '11 at 4:01

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