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Remembering The Pioneer Behind Your Computer's Cut, Copy And Paste Functions


A moment now to remember a computer pioneer whose last name was not Jobs or Gates, but he helped make this sentence possible. Larry Tesler, working with his partner Tim Mott, helped create the computer function now known as cut and paste.

TIM MOTT: Larry was the one who co-opted the term.

SIMON: That's Tim Mott.

MOTT: But it's actually a term that has existed in printing and publishing for centuries going back from the time when they would actually cut and paste elements in paper to put together rough copy.

SIMON: Mott and Tesler worked for Xerox in the 1970s. The company wanted to bring computer technology into the world of publishing. They were asked to design a word processor that made sense to people who weren't computer nerds - publishers and editors.

MOTT: I mean, the prototypical customer or user was a woman I worked with who was in her 60s, and she'd been in publishing our entire life. And we had to design a product that she could actually sit down and use instead of a typewriter and a pencil.

SIMON: Back then, computer users toggled between modes like command and edit. Hansen Hsu, a curator with the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., explained this ancient technology to us.

HANSEN HSU: If you were in edit mode and you typed on your keyboard, everything would be just like you might type in Microsoft Word today.

SIMON: Type E-D-I-T and you'd see the word edit - simple, right? Too simple - if you chanced to type those letters in command mode...

HSU: The E would select everything on the screen. The D would delete it. I meant the insert command, and then it would insert the letter T.

SIMON: Lots of luck writing anything like that. Larry Tesler worked with Tim Mott to make cutting and pasting copy a simple process familiar to everybody in publishing. Larry Tesler later went to work for Apple, where he became chief scientist, and also worked for Amazon and Yahoo!

MOTT: You know, this sounds like a cliche from the '60s, but he had this passion for bringing computing to the people.

SIMON: Tim Mott remembering his former partner, Larry Tesler, who died this week at the age of 74 - cut, paste and save.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.