Monday, February 24, 2020

RIP Lawrence Tessler, Pioneer of Cutting and Pasting Text

Lawrence Tessler was part of the team at Xerox PARC that revolutionized how we interact with computers. They created the mouse with its pointer, icons that could be clicked on to open files or programs, dragging with a mouse, and so on. Tessler had a small part in the initial innovations but then a large one in creating the first modern text editing program:
Early in his Xerox career (he began there in 1973), Mr. Tesler and another researcher, Tim Mott, developed a program known as Gypsy, which did away with the restrictive modes that had made text editing complicated. For example, until Gypsy, most text-editing software had one mode for entering text and another for editing it. . . . For many years the license plate on his car read, “NO MODES.”

His first breakthrough at Xerox PARC came when he took a newly hired secretary, sat her in front of a blank computer monitor and took notes while she described how she would prefer to compose documents with a computer. She proceeded to describe a very simple system, which Mr. Tesler then implemented with Mr. Mott.

The Gypsy program offered such innovations as the “cut and paste” analogy for moving blocks of text and the ability to select text by dragging the cursor through it while holding down a mouse button. It also shared with an earlier Xerox editor, Bravo, what became known as “what you see is what you get” printing (or WYSIWYG), a phrase Mr. Tesler used to describe a computer display that mirrored printed output.

And Gypsy brought to fruition the idea of opening a computer file by simply clicking on a screen icon while pointing at it with the mouse cursor. Before that, files had to be opened by typing the file name into a command line.
I bring up Tessler and Xerox PARC because it has always bothered me that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates get so much credit for creating personal computing when most of the key work had already been done by Stanford, MIT, Xerox and IBM before they came along. Our weird system lavishes billions on people who step in at a very late stage in the game and figure out how to profit from other people's work. Another good example is Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook when all the necessary structure for social media was in place; in fact there were already other social media platforms. He added the last 1% of the product and became insanely rich.

Bugs me.


David said...

Ditto! I wonder what the details of the story are and what made the real difference. My bias is to look at differences in personality, but maybe other factors play a role or are more important. I wonder if a similar story could be told about, say, the Model T.

Shadow said...

It had a lot to do with Xerox losing its lawsuit against Apple for copyright infringement. There are the different objects like mouse, file, etc, that go into defining a user interface, and then there is the overall flow and control designed into the interface. Anyway, Xerox sued for 150 million dollars, which kind of tells you that even they didn't understand the full effect of what was going on. 150 million is some sort of joke looking back.

David said...



Shadow said...

The last paragraph in the NYT article is the most interesting, I think. It says, at least I think it says, that Xerox was half-assed about what it had and because of that lost its claim to its own technology. So Tessler has his employer to thank for his anonymity.