life before Emacs

the early years


Entered the world as I intend to leave it. Kicking, screaming, naked, held upside down by a nurse slapping me on the backside.

a night at the Lesser Free Trade Hall


Wrote my first basic program in BASIC on a Tandy TRS-80. Editing facilities were fairly limited. I think to modify Line 10, you had to simply re-enter Line 10. In its entirety. This was rather time consuming, tiresome and almost put me off computers for life.

20 GOTO 10

These lunchtime sessions also taught me how to interrupt a BASIC program rapidly. Useful, particularly when the physics teacher, Dr. Hands, made an unexpected return to the lab.

losing my religion


At Warwick University, the Computer Science lab was equipped with green VT-100 terminals hooked up to a PDP-11. Warwick was where I was introduced to C programming and forcibly indoctrinated into the ‘vi‘ text editor. I remember thinking it was handy that Rogue used the same key bindings for ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘left’ and right’.


I left the confines of my room and went on the milk round. Instead of coming back with a pint of silver-top, I somehow managed to land a job with a software house as a ‘Junior Programmer’ and started work on a Unix project using ‘vi’ and state of the art amber VT-100’s.

a short stay in purgatory


Reallocated to a project on VMS where I was forced to use a bewildering command syntax and a limited, primeval text editor called EDT that made extensive use of the numeric keypad.

Later, I was made aware of an alternative editor called EVE. Better still, EVE was actually built using an extensible TPU (Text Processing Utility) library for VMS. Joyously, I discovered some clever person had built a ‘vi’ clone using TPU. It took me 3 days and cost me £79 to download the software over a 2400 baud modem but it was worth it.

New Dawn Fades


Left permanent employment and became a freelancer. My nightmares about the DIRECTORY/SIZE command subsided as did my repetitive strain injury. I now found myself porting an Ada compiler from a mainframe system to Unix, reunited with a decent editor, short commands and the joys of pipelining.

the road to salvation and true enlightenment


Started work for a relational database company. On day one, after coffee and introductions, I was offered the choice of a Sun workstation or ‘as you’ve used VMS a lot, you’d probably prefer this DEC Workstation’. I forcefully elected the sensible option, held up a crucifix and threw some garlic cloves in the direction of the VAXStation. I claimed I’d used a Sun workstation for many years (a lie) and had to surreptitiously watch my neighbour to learn how to manage X Windows.

I sensed my colleague was slightly suspicious but he had a beard and a pony-tail and was quiet but helpful. I noticed that while I had my screen divided equally into 6/8/10 equal sections each running an xterm, his large monitor simply displayed had a background of the Monty Python ‘dead parrot’ sketch and a single application taking up 90% of the monochrome screen estate.

‘What is that program you’re using to edit files, Steve ?’

The man with the beard and the pony tail swiveled in his chair and uttered the immortal words

‘It’s called Emacs. Do you want to see how I use it ?’