Larry Tesler, the Inventor of Copy-Paste, Was More Influential Than You Realize

Tesler, who worked at Apple for decades, invented copy-paste functionality while at Xerox PARC and is responsible for a major deal that helped turn ARM into a dominant force in computers.
February 20, 2020, 1:00pm
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Larry Tesler speaks at the annual PC Forum, Tucson, Arizona, 1990. Image: Ann E. Yow-Dyson/Getty Images

Larry Tesler perhaps wasn’t the most high-profile figure in tech history, but his impact is most certainly felt in ways big and small to this day.

By far, his best known contribution is the cut/copy-paste functionality that he is widely credited with inventing.

Tesler, who died this week at the age of 74, is widely credited with the invention of the basic idea thanks to his role at the famed Xerox PARC, the experimental research center that helped formulate many of the general ideas behind the personal computer. While there, Tesler came up with Gypsy, one of the first WYSIWYG document editors that was reliant on a keyboard-mouse combo, for an Xerox subsidiary, Ginn & Company. While an earlier Xerox PARC tool named Bravo predated Gypsy, Gypsy was “modeless,” meaning that the user interface was always in an editable state, rather than an editor with modes, which requires commands to be typed first before text can be modified. (The modern-day Unix editor Vim is an example of a mode-based editor, which is relatively uncommon in the modern day.)

To allow for this, Tesler came up with a mechanism that allowed for simple editing with the mouse. That mechanism for moving around type came to be known as cut/copy-paste.

As Tesler explained to Douglas K. Smith and Robert C. Alexander in the book Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, then Ignored, the First Personal Computer, the copy-paste functionality made the tool easy to master even for people new to the mechanism.

“It was so easy to learn. They would hire temporary typists to come in at eight, they were trained on the system by nine, and typing full speed by ten,” Tesler recalled at the time. “This was revolutionary in publishing. In a couple of years, they were using this word processing for over fifty percent of their books. Nowadays, so what? People use one hundred percent word processing. But this was 1975.”

Tesler also is credited for inventing the term “browser” for the groundbreaking Smalltalk interface decades before it became associated with the web.

“Most Smalltalk programmers leave a browser or two on the screen at all times with the work-space window,” Tesler wrote for Byte in 1981.

Last year, Tesler demoed Gypsy for the Computer History Museum. (If you want to see a master at work, he spends 52 minutes talking about it.)

If this was all Tesler did, it would most certainly be worth an obit, but his work spreads out in many forms, including at Apple, which took on many of Xerox PARC’s ideas for its computers. Some of the things that Tesler is directly or indirectly responsible for:

Apple’s early UI guru. Tesler, who spent nearly two decades at Apple, carried a variety of major roles for the company, most notably as a developer of the Apple Lisa, the company’s first computer with a graphical user interface.

In fact, as Tesler notes in a 1985 MacWorld article, he was literally the guy at Xerox PARC who introduced the company to graphical user interfaces by offering up a demo of the groundbreaking SmallTalk interface. While the Lisa never became the Mac, he noted that it very much influenced what came after.

“In its brief product cycle, the Lisa changed people’s expectations of a personal computer,” he wrote.

Other key things Tesler did while at Apple include the development of some of the first object-oriented programming tools and some of Apple’s earliest internet-focused products. He served as the company’s “chief scientist” throughout much of the 1990s.

But it was perhaps his brokering of a business deal that seemed small at the time that might have turned into his biggest accomplishment.

The success of the ARM platform. In the early 1990s, Tesler convinced Apple executives to offer financial support to ARM, a new type of chipset that devised by the British company Acorn, so it could be developed as a separate company in a joint venture. This technology was then used to develop the unsuccessful Apple Newton, whose development he helped to lead.

However, the RISC-based chip technology had a lot of potential beyond Apple’s doors—and that came in handy for Apple at a pivotal time.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, the company was nearly broke, but was able to financially sustain itself as it regained its footing by selling its shares in ARM, which at that time were worth about $800 million dollars. Later, that same chipset became fundamental to the design of the iPhone, iPad, and iPod.

Not bad for a $1.5 million investment.

Amazon’s and Yahoo’s resident user-interface expert. After leaving Apple, Tesler was hired at Amazon as the company’s vice president of shopping experience, where he helped build out the user-interface discipline for which the company is well-known (and which widely inspired the rest of the web). However, it did not go swimmingly: According to the 2013 book The Everything Store, Tesler left the company after just three years after butting heads repeatedly with Jeff Bezos. He later moved to Yahoo, another company known for a very sophisticated approach to user interface during the 2000s.

Perhaps Larry Tesler, whose last big Silicon Valley job was at the DNA-testing firm 23andMe in the late 2000s, never became as big a deal as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Larry Page. But he was often in the same rooms as all of those guys. And he played just as important a role in modern technology as any of those figures.

Case in point: When was the last time you copied or pasted something? I rest my case.