History of the undo command FYI

29 Jan 2010 - 1:35pm
6 years ago
2 replies
1641 reads
Paul McInerney

I thought people would enjoy this excerpt from a New York Times

"Our expectations that any action can be taken back have been primed
by a few decades of personal computing, which injected the founding
metaphor of “undoing” into the common consciousness. An early glimmer
of our Age of Undoing appeared in a prescient 1976 research report by
Lance A. Miller and John C. Thomas of I.B.M., drably titled
“Behavioral Issues in the Use of Interactive Systems.” “It would be
quite useful,” Miller and Thomas observe, “to permit users to ‘take
back’ at least the immediately preceding command (by issuing some
special ‘undo’ command).” Useful indeed!

"The undo command would become a crucial feature of text editors and
word processors in the PC era, assigned the now-familiar keyboard
shortcut of Control-Z by programmers at the research center Xerox
PARC. In the software of the ’80s, some undo commands became
“multi­level,” allowing users to take back a whole series of actions
(called the undo stack), not just the most recent one. Ad-hoc un-
verbs began to emerge for these reversible innovations. In 1984, the
software company NewStar introduced the unerase command for its
word-processing program NewWord, while I.B.M.’s VisiWord countered
with undelete. From there it was a quick step to unbolding,
unitalicizing and even un-underlining your errantly formatted



29 Jan 2010 - 4:37pm
John Charles Thomas

I'm amazed that someone was willing and able to track down a
reference from pre-web days. :) I think the reporter said the
TITLE was drab, not the ARTICLE. However, language changes so what
seems "drab" today was necessarily (?) academic at the time. If
only I could retitle it now....

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Posted from the new ixda.org

31 Jan 2010 - 11:25am
Fredrik Matheson

Thanks for creating CTRL-Z, John!

Is your article (http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=743034) available via
open access somewhere?

- Fredrik

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