Larry Tesler, the Apple employee who invented cut, copy and paste, dies at 74

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Larry Tesler
Larry Tesler worked for Apple from 1980 through 1997.
Photo: Yahoo!

Larry Tesler, a pioneering computer scientist who worked at Apple from 1980 to 1997 and created computerized cut, copy and paste, died Monday at the age of 74.

Tesler served as VP of AppleNet and Apple’s Advanced Technology Group. During his time at Apple, he played a key role in the development of products ranging from the Lisa to the Newton MessagePad.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to his contribution to computing.

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Larry Tesler’s route into computing

Tesler was a fascinating figure in the history of personal computing. He perfectly encapsulated the mix of hippie and high-tech culture that helped create Apple as a company. (Remember how Steve Jobs began his career as a bearded, bare-footed hippie?)

Born in New York in 1945, Tesler studied computer science at Stanford University. For a time he worked at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. In the 1960s, Tesler participated in antiwar demonstrations and taught classes at San Francisco’s Free University. One of these, in the autumn of 1968, was titled, “How to End the IBM Monopoly.” Most of the people who turned up were IBM employees.

In 1970, Tesler helped found a hippie commune in rural Oregon, before being offered a job at the legendary R&D facility Xerox PARC. The person who offered him the job, Alan Kay, also later worked at Apple.

Tesler was passionate about something called modeless computing, meaning a type of computing (now taken for granted) in which the user doesn’t have to switch constantly between different input states. His Dodge Valiant bore a customized license plate reading “NO MODES.” He regularly wore a T-shirt warning colleagues not to “Mode Me In.” And his Twitter handle was @nomodes.

He also invented cut, copy and paste: a standard piece of today’s computer interfaces.

Tesler met Steve Jobs

Larry Tesler was part of the group of three PARC employees who met Steve Jobs when Apple got to look around the facility in late 1979. That visit first exposed Jobs to the graphical user interface, which Apple later introduced to a mass audience with the Lisa and, more successfully, the Macintosh.

“You could see the ideas running through Steve’s brain really fast,” Tesler told me when I interviewed him in 2011 for my book The Apple Revolution. “He could make connections at an incredibly high rate.”

Jobs impressed Tesler. He was particularly dazzled by the Apple co-founder’s mastery of seemingly every aspect of the computer industry. “We were technologists with very logical minds,” Tesler told me. “But Steve also knew about marketing, distribution, finance – every aspect of the business you could think of.”

Shortly after the Apple demonstration, Tesler quit his job at Xerox. He wound up joining Apple — even though it was still a relatively new startup at the time.

How Tesler joined Apple

“It’s funny because Apple was really the trigger for me wanting to leave Xerox, but I’d never seriously considered it as a career option,” he told me. “Even though I had been pretty impressed by the people who attended the PARC demo, I still thought of them as primarily being a hobbyist computer company. It wasn’t like I was against going to work for them, but I also didn’t come out of the demo thinking, ‘I’ve got to go and work for Apple.’”

Nonetheless, Tesler started at Apple on July 15, 1980. “Apple was just in a couple of buildings [at the time],” he said. “At Xerox I would make an appointment with a VP, and that appointment would be three months or six months from now…. Nothing could get decided. At Apple, I’d walk a few doors down from my office and talk to Steve Jobs. If Steve wasn’t in, I’d talk to his secretary and have a meeting with him four hours later or else I’d catch him in the hall. It was just a totally different situation in terms of the ability to reach people and to get decisions made.”

Tesler worked first on the Apple Lisa project. This ill-fated computer was the first Apple machine to ship with a mouse and a graphical interface. Because Tesler previously worked with similar technology at PARC, he was a natural for the team.

Larry Tesler and Steve Jobs

While many Lisa engineers remember Jobs as a troublemaker, Tesler became amused by Jobs’ enthusiasm. For the most part, at least. One day, Jobs woke Tesler up at 2 a.m. with a phone call about some minor detail of the project.

“I can’t remember whether he even apologized for the late hour,” Tesler said. “I was kind of flattered that he would call me at that time. But I thought that it was a little off-base and I jokingly mentioned it to my boss the next day. It turned out that that wasn’t the right thing for Steve to do at all. A lot of people had mentioned similar experiences and they were saving these up to build a case against him.”

It ended with Jobs being booted from the Lisa team. Looking for another team to work with, he joined a bunch of renegades building a little computer called the Mac.

After the Lisa, Tesler jumped around working on various Apple projects. Perhaps the most notable of these was the Newton MessagePad. Like the Lisa, the Newton was a comparative failure at the time, although it is an enormously significant computer in retrospect.

After Larry Tesler left Apple

Tesler left Apple in 1997. For a while he worked at Amazon as VP of shopping experience. Later, he joined Yahoo! as VP of the user experience and design group. For the past decade, he worked as a freelance technology consultant.

Larry Tesler died on February 17, 2020. He was a passionate advocate of better human-computer interaction. He was always very generous with his time when he spoke with me, and was a very gracious individual.

If you’re interested in reading more about him, I’d recommend John Markoff’s excellent book, What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. It details the early development of the personal computer. Tesler played a huge part in that revolution.