I've looked all around for footage of ancient Emacs distributions, but to no avail. The source code for Emacs 16.56 from July 15, 1985 is available on Github, but under no circumstances could I manage to build it.

The original Stallman Emacs paper describes Elisp, the motivation behind Emacs, and some old extensions - but is not enough for one to reconstruct what it felt like to play around with it.

My question is, how did Emacs look like back in the days? Before org-mode, MELPA, magit, most of the languages we know today - did people do anything besides hacking Lisp?

Were there packages that people used that are now completely forgotten? How did the "UI" look like?

And as a last question: is there anything we have today that lives unchanged since the first release of GNU Emacs?

I'd be interested to hear from those who used it then.

(I tagged terminal-emacs because the question needs at least one tag.)

  • 1
    I was a little surprised to learn that the earliest release tag in the repository is 19.34. The dates for the initial commits in the history briefly suggested that the code in there may date back to 17.36 or even 15.10. Unfortunately there's almost nothing in those early commits, so the first buildable version in the repository was presumably some version of Emacs 18 (still untagged, though).
    – phils
    Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 23:00
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    The copy of 16.56 is quite interesting, therefore. It would be neat if that and any older versions still available were added to the repository as separate branches -- unrelated to the main history, but still present.
    – phils
    Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 23:08
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    Did you just call us ancient? Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 8:20
  • You can run zmacs from lisp machines on the emulator you can find at unlambda.com/cadr. It's probably older than GNU Emacs, but it still feels quite familiar.
    – user12563
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 4:27
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    You could login to an ITS or TOPS-20 machine, and then you would see how Emacs looked like back in the 70s! Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 18:07

2 Answers 2


Emacs predates GNU Emacs and thus predates Emacs Lisp.

In most of the 80s, Emacs was only what we now call terminal-mode (and only one frame), and there was no mouse, menu-bar, tool-bar, fringe, faces, color, or Customize.

The rest looked and acted about the same as now (for terminal mode). Help mode (e.g. C-h f) was essentially the same, but with no Back etc. Info was essentially the same. The minibuffer, windows, echo area, region, isearch, apropos, and query-replace etc. were all essentially the same as now. The use of TAGS files to jump to a function etc. definition was essentially the same.

So yes, most of the basic stuff probably lives more or less unchanged, but stuff has been added. Much of the stuff added, at first, was stuff that existed elsewhere in GUIs: mouse, color, separate frames, etc.

The EmacsWiki History category page can give you more background. Among other info, there you will find a link to an Emacs timeline.


The first edition of O'Reilly's Learning GNU Emacs dates from 1991, so that book will probably give you a fair idea of at least the late-'80s GNU Emacs experience.

The hardware of the time would have shaped the '80s GNU Emacs experience as much as the state of Emacs itself. Remember that 80-column monochrome text-only displays or video modes were common, and "Eight Megs And Constantly Swapping" was still current. The lengths people were going to to minimise edit distances in Emacs display code tells a story too.

In 1985 the Gosling/Unipress Emacs controversy was apparently still current or recent, while the XEmacs schism was a couple of years away.

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