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The invention of copy and paste

Ben Long

May 26th, 2020

Written by

Ben Long


Tiny Sparks

With the recent passing of its inventor, Larry Tesler, we wanted to shine some light on one of the most important features on the modern computer - copy and paste!

Where would we be without copy-paste? It’s hard to imagine writing code… or even this article without the copy-paste function! We use it so often that ctrl-c > ctrl-v is an automatic reflex.

So, let’s talk about where it all began.

Larry Tesler, 1945-2020

Lawrence Gordon Tesler passed away on February 16, 2020, aged 74. In seven decades, he created an incredible legacy for the world, with inventions and innovations that have helped shape computers and programming.

He’s best known for inventing copy-paste alongside his colleague, Tim Mott.

But aside from copy-paste, Tesler worked on a programming language, and the first word processor with a graphical user interface, and was known for his preference for modeless software. He’s also credited as having coined three industry terms:

  • WYSIWYG - Tesler said, “What you see on the screen should be what you get when you print it”)
  • User-friendly - A salesman talking to Tesler referred to word processors as “just so unfriendly”
  • Browser - He created a code browser for his programming language, SmallTalk (which, incidentally, was taught in the first year of my computer science degree)

So, it’s safe to say we owe a lot to Tesler. 

It’s hard to say which of his inventions have had the biggest impact, but for now, let’s shift our focus back over to copy-paste 🙂

Invention of copy-paste

The Xerox Alto computer.

Larry and Tim invented copy-paste while working at Xerox PARC to develop the Gypsy word processor. They saw that text-based user interfaces would soon be replaced by graphic user interfaces (GUIs) for greater ease-of-use. They came up with the copy-paste function, which has since become standard on all computers.

What’s particularly valuable about copy-paste is it’s the digital version of a traditionally physical or print-based activity. Cutting, copying, and pasting was an important part of many office workflows before the computer - so he made a way to bring this to life in digital form.

Copy-paste with Tiny

Word icon with an arrow pointing towards the TinyMCE rich text editor.

We’re pretty passionate about copy-paste here at Tiny. After all, this little function makes a big difference, especially for content creators and developers. 

One of the greatest copy-paste challenges comes from copying content from one application to another. For example, a lot of our customers want to copy from Microsoft Word or Excel into their workplace CMS (content management system). But when you do this, formatting issues are almost guaranteed, and it can even break the code. Basically, copy-pasting between different applications can lead to a mess. It can take hours of developer time to fix copy-paste errors, and content creators may spend hours manually reformatting content inside the editor. 

That’s why we created PowerPaste for TinyMCE, a premium plugin that allows users to copy in clean content (with 99% accuracy!) without developers needing to worry about the underlying code breaking. With PowerPaste, you can save on support costs, with up to 40% fewer support tickets generated. And your content creators can focus on the content itself, not how it’s formatted.

Find out more about PowerPaste, including demos and videos. Or contact us if you’d like to chat about using TinyMCE in your CMS or other online applications.

Copy-paste is changing

What’s interesting is, since its invention in the 70s, copy-paste technology hasn’t changed all that much. But that’s all about to change with the new Clipboard API 🤯 

We’ll be back in the next week or so with another piece talking about the new API and what it means for developers, so make sure you follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter to get the updates!

byBen Long

Computer scientist, storyteller, teacher, and an advocate of TinyMCE. Reminisces about programming on the MicroBee. Writes picture books for kids. Also the wearer of rad shoes. “Science isn’t finished until you share the story.”

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