Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
The origin story of something we all use without thinking. (And, low power mode ends Monday.)
Today is set to be the last day of Low Power Mode. That means “7 Other Things” and other cool stuff returns Monday.
For today however: A short essay on the inventor of something you’ve probably used a dozen times this week alone: “cut and paste.”
This reminds me—maybe in the comments, are there other unheralded inventions we all use for which you might know the origin story? Or other day-to-day conveniences about which you might have wondered: Who do you think came up with that?
Let us know in the comments; I enjoy chasing down these stories and I think they can be inspiring.
Long ago, when I was a lawyer for a big government agency and I had to write briefs in scores or even hundreds of similar cases, I often relied on an old friend.
Copy and paste. Control-C and Control-V. (Maybe Command–C and Command-V if you're on a Mac, as I am now but wasn't then.)
Basically, I used big chunks of the same documents, the same arguments, the same filings—over and over and over. A few facts would be different; occasionally someone would raise a new issue. But otherwise, it was pretty much Groundhog Day.
My work friends and I shared our briefs with each other, too.
At times, it seemed the whole court system would be more efficient if we could just file one brief, and then refer various judges around the country to it, in case after case after case.
That wasn’t going to happen. Too many people’s livelihoods depended on the duplication. But, it turns out that there's a single individual who deserves my thanks for making my life a bit more manageable back then.
The man who invented it
His name: Larry Tessler. This is the guy who came up with the idea of "cut, copy, and paste" in word processing in the first place.
Tessler worked for Xerox PARC in the late 1970s, where two experiences stand out:
His aforementioned development of "cut, copy and paste," which came about while he was working on an early, 1970s word processing program called Gypsy. (More details on this from Andrew Liszewski at Gizmodo.)
His encounter with Steve Jobs, during the latter's now-legendary tour of the Xerox PARC labs in 1979. This is when Jobs supposedly first was introduced to things Xerox was working on, like (a) graphical interfaces and (b) the mouse, that wound up in Apple products a few years later.
Not long after that visit, Tessler left Xerox and headed to the much-smaller Apple. As Luke Dormehl of Cult of Mac recalled him saying years later:
“It’s funny because Apple was really the trigger for me wanting to leave Xerox, but I’d never seriously considered it as a career option.
Even though I had been pretty impressed by the people who attended the PARC demo, I still thought of them as primarily being a hobbyist computer company.”
Tessler was at Apple from 1980 to 1997, working mainly on two products that are now known more for being groundbreaking than for being successful themselves: the Newton and the Lisa.
Like they say, "pioneers get slaughtered; settlers prosper."
Today, Dormehl holds up Tessler as having been typical among the fairly early recruits at Apple: equal parts tech visionary and bearded hippie.
He'd studied computer science at Stanford before working at Xerox. But in between, he'd also helped to found a commune in Oregon.
As you might gather from my use of the past tense in this newsletter, Tessler passed away a few years ago, at age 74.
We take things like “copy and paste” for granted. Heck, I've probably used it 10 times while writing today's newsletter.
But, back in 2014, I joined a digital media startup where we were dead-set on creating the world's best proprietary content management system—basically, the software that writers use in order to write and publish their articles.
Our lead developer did a fantastic job. But can you guess what turned out to be the second-most-difficult feature to build from scratch? Sure enough: Cut, copy and paste.
(Hardest: “Undo,” or “Control-Z,” because building this feature requires taking a virtual snapshot of every change in every document, every few milliseconds.)
Anyway, rest in peace Mr. Tessler.
If only we could copy you so easily.