[nycbug-talk] Some history of Unix utilities

James E Keenan jkeen at verizon.net
Mon Aug 5 18:46:13 EDT 2013

nycbug-talk is one of the few lists I subscribe to where I know people 
take an interest in Unix history.  This discussion of the origins of 
several Unix utilities popped up on the Perl 5 Porters newsgroup today. 
  The participants are usually among the most well informed on p5p, so I 
figured I'd share it.

Thank you very much.
Jim Keenan

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: [perl #119095] Empty regular expression does not match in 
some cases
Date: Mon, 5 Aug 2013 19:09:18 +0100
From: arc at cpan.org (Aaron Crane)
To: Aristotle Pagaltzis <pagaltzis at gmx.de>
CC: Perl5 Porters <perl5-porters at perl.org>
Newsgroups: perl.perl5.porters

Aristotle Pagaltzis <pagaltzis at gmx.de> wrote:
> A lot of the syntax and idioms lore that we think of as “regexps”, at
> least in a Unix-y tradition, is really the regexp vernacular of ed. The
> entire grep utility is an extraction of an ed idiom as a stand-alone
> program.
> And even when I say all this, I am almost certainly being ahistorical –
> I do not know in detail the lineage and history of ed and all its next
> of kin (ex/vi, grep, sed, patch etc) and would actually be surprised if
> the story weren’t more intertwined and complex than my portrayal, even
> WRT just this one aspect.
> (I expect Aaron to come up behind me and embarrass me now. :-) )

Nope, your summary pretty much covers it. :-)

ed(1) already exists in the First Edition manual (so before November
1971), but neither sed(1) nor grep(1) do:

grep(1) came next, in Fourth Edition (so between February and November 


In 1975, George Coulouris at Queen Mary College (in London;
subsequently renamed Queen Mary and Westfield, and then Queen Mary,
University of London) wrote em ("editor for mortals"), an interactive
ed(1)-like editor for cursor-addressed displays.  When he visited
Berkeley in 1976, he took it with him, and a certain Bill Joy took it
and morphed it into ex(1), which shipped in 1BSD (March 1978):


vi(1) was originally (in 2BSD, May 1979) a hard link to ex(1); when it
was launched under that name, it would start in visual mode rather
than normal mode, but ex(1) had all the same abilities.

sed(1) didn't appear till Seventh Edition, in January 1979:


The original diff(1) appeared in Fifth Edition (June 1974), and
originally generated only "edit scripts" (à la modern `diff -e`) that
could be passed to ed(1):


As for patch(1), Larry first wrote it in 1984, and published it in
1985; it already handled context and unified diffs at that point, as
well as the traditional edit scripts:


Now, Ken Thompson wrote the Unix ed(1) in PDP-11 assembler:


This means it can be dated to some time in 1971, according to Dennis 


But it turns out we can rewind a little further.  A team at UCB
(including L. Peter Deutsch) wrote an editor called qed in 1968:


It's still possible to see the core of the ed(1) design in that, even
though the details differ quite a lot; for example, the 1968 qed
doesn't have regexes at all.

Ken Thompson ported qed to CTSS circa 1970, and therefore shortly
*before* he wrote ed(1); the manual for his port can be found here:


This is much more similar to the ed(1) we know and (presumably) love,
including regexes strictly more powerful than those in traditional
ed(1), and slashes to delimit them (where the 1968 qed used square
brackets for its search strings).  And we find that the manual says
"The null regular expression standing alone is equivalent to the last
regular expression encountered."

So this aspect of Perl can be dated back to code written no later than
1970, for a text editor running on an operating system that I suspect
noone subscribed to this list has ever used.


Aaron Crane ** http://aaroncrane.co.uk/

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