The true story behind vi

Robert Boys

written for a contest for course 1551s


This is the true story of the origin of the famous and versatile editor: vi. It is NOT true that the creator of vi was on hallucinogenic drugs. The fact is that the development of vi was a giant leap forward in the annals of computer software. How vi got its name (vi) is not known and probably never will be.

This program was written in the 1960s by a person called Vince Idiot. Vince was born in 1944 in Syracuse, New York. Vince's mother started the Girl Guides, held a Phd in Computer science from MIT, was a famous radio evangelist and faith healer and coined the term "stupid is as stupid does". His father never finished high school and was a self-taught man. He single handedly invented the hydrogen bomb, colour television and rock'n'roll in his basement workshop.

It is not true that vi is designed with one of the worst user-interfaces ever. At the time Vince wrote vi, computers were programmed not with keyboard input as today but with punched Hollerith cards; each with one instruction or data word on it. These cards were stacked often many inches thick and the data on them were fed in order into the computer by an ingenious mechanism that read the holes in these cards.

Vince wrote the program optimized for these Hollerith cards. While vi commands may seem incomprehensible to humans, it made perfect sense to the cards and anyone who programmed computers in those days. The interface we see today reflects this card-machine relationship.

Vince had intended to create a user interface after he had thoroughly debugged vi. This is where Vince's career really took off. He had great difficulty determining the last error in vi: the one that caused it to not execute at all. He spent many agonizing month's searching for this error and when he found it and vi suddenly started to work - he was so overjoyed that he fell over backwards in his chair and struck the back of his head on the card reader behind him. This blow to his head caused Vince to have no recollection of his authorship of vi whatsoever. Vince never created that badly needed human interface. Such is fate.

All was not lost however. Since he had forgotten about writing vi, he was destined to miss the opportunity to learn from his mistakes and promptly wrote the USENET newsreader program RN (read news). TRN, as installed on the Tortoise computer at OISE and WLU, is RN with the now familiar and helpful user interface that Vince did get around to writing.

Vince wrote other programs such as troff/nroff and participated in the streamlining of the Internet Sendmail protocols but eventually tired of this and helped develop the Intel 8080 microprocessor with its non- orthogonal register set, dog's-breakfast instruction set and the twisted system of multiplexed data and address ports. Anybody programming an Intel processor in machine language can clearly see Vince's contribution to the project. Of course, the 8080 evolved into the popular Intel Pentium and 80x86 products of today.

Vince also collaborated with Edwin Lingerie of Great Britain in the writing of the MS-Dos editor edlin. (Edwin's great-grandfather designed a new line of women's clothing in 1903). Once again, the origin of the acronym edlin is lost forever. Some have suggested that since a lin is a precipice or ravine (which is where you will probably end up if you use edlin); lin forms edlin along with ed (editor).

Vince has since left the computer discipline and it is reported that he is now working for U.S. President Bill Clinton's public relations department.