Personal history of the inventor of copy and paste

From 1968 to 1970, I sometimes pasted up a quarterly catalog for a local nonprofit. While “cutting and pasting” with blades and glue, I imagined an interactive page makeup system that would simplify the process“, wrote Larry Tesler, the computer scientist who’s credited in history as the inventor of cut/copy and paste feature, in his „Personal History of Modeless Text Editing and Cut/Copy-Paste“.

Copy and paste feature became essential part for millions of people in their everyday usage of computers and we should all be thankful that Tesler worked as a catalog editor where he used pre-Computer-Age practice in which editors literally cut out sections of text with editing scissors and then paste them onto a new page.

This is where he picked up the term “cut-and-paste”.

„Before the computer age, the term cut and paste was publishing industry jargon“, said Tesler.

Altough he is a father of cut/copy and paste feature, Tesler with his team also developed the ‘click and type’ interface, whereby users click where they’d like to start typing, and many other features.  

It all started right around 1970 when the chairman of Xerox, Peter McColough was reading forecasts that were even being made at that time of what was called the paperless society and the paperless office and where one day people would shuttle information through computer networks onto screens and push buttons and very little paper would ever get generated or produced or moved from one place to another.

Well as someone who was the chairman of a company that built their entire fortune on, on copying large numbers of pieces of paper onto even larger numbers of pieces of paper he was understandably concerned about the paperless society and the paperless office, as to what this would to his business. So he decided that the best strategy for Xerox would be to get ahead of the problem instead of behind it and help create the paperless office and be the company that started and benefited from it“, said Tesler once.

Peter McColough decided to set up a research center, PARC.

Tesler was hired as one of the computer geeks at Xerox PARC.

During my first week on the job, Bill English asked me to work with another new hire, Jeff Rulifson, to develop a vision of the future of editing“ recalled Tesler.

My suggestion to use cut and paste in both the page-makeup system and the galley editor delighted Ginn management.“

When Tim Mott came to PARC his job was to help Tesler implement the gallery editor, which Mott dubbed Gypsy.

To implement Gypsy, they took early version of the Bravo text editor running on Alto.

They used Bravo’s source code and replaced the modal user interface with a modeless one. At Ginn’s request, they added bold, italic, and underline type and a filing system that supported versions and drafts. The software took a few months to complete, but in that project they implemented a method of capturing text into a computer’s internal memory, i.e. “cut”/”copy,” and then inserting it somewhere else, i.e. “pasting.”

Gypsy introduced several modeless user interface features that are now standard. The user could:

• click between characters, see a blinking insertion point appear, and start typing;

• down-drag-up to select text;

• double-click a word to select it;

• move text in two steps called cut and paste;

• copy text in two steps called copy and paste; and

• to search, type or paste the search text into an editable field.

Although Larry Tesler and Tim Mott may have originated the concept of Cut and Paste in Palo Alto in the mid-70s, this concept wasn’t popularized until programs like WordPerfect put it into widespread use.

Tesler eventually moved on from Xerox PARC, and has had quite the fruitful life in the technology community over the decades – from working as a computer scientist at Apple, to being vice presidents at online shopping sites like Amazon and Yahoo!, to working in biotechnology.

However, no matter what he’s done over the past decades, many will always thank him for the cut/copy and paste.

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317 thoughts on “Personal history of the inventor of copy and paste

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