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Yes yes, I am aware that '\n' writes a newline in UNIX while for Windows there is the two character sequence: '\r\n'. All this is very nice in theory, but my question is why? Why the carriage return character is extra in Windows? If UNIX can do it in \n why does it take Windows two characters to do this?

I am reading David Beazley's Python book and he says:

For example, on Windows, writing the character '\n' actually outputs the two- character sequence '\r\n' (and when reading the file back, '\r\n' is translated back into a single '\n' character).

Why the extra effort?

I will be honest. I have known the difference for a long time but have never bothered to ask WHY. I hope that is answered today.

Thanks for your time.

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It should also be noted that Windows isn't the only one that uses \r\n. It's also used by most text-based internet protocols (e.g. SMTP, HTTP, etc) for largely the same reason as Windows (ie history). –  Dean Harding Dec 22 '10 at 13:19
Also, when in Java and using format strings (e.g. System.out.printf() or String.format()) make sure you use %n as your CRLF for OS compatibility purposes. \n is deprecated. –  Gary Rowe Dec 22 '10 at 13:43
I've seen \n\r several times. (I think it was something from NetWare.) –  grawity Dec 22 '10 at 21:05
Related question at SO: Historical reason behind different line ending at different platforms –  Imran Jul 2 '11 at 8:37
For information, on Linux, telnet sends \r\n and netcat sends \n. –  baptx Feb 19 at 20:58

7 Answers 7

up vote 80 down vote accepted

Backward compatibility.

Windows is backward compatible with MS-DOS (aggressively so, even) and MS-DOS used the CR-LF convention because MS-DOS was compatible with CP/M-80 (somewhat by accident) which used the CR-LF convention because that was how you drove a printer (because printers were originally computer controlled typewriters).

Printers have a separate command to move the paper up one line to a new line, and a separate command for returning the carriage (where the paper was mounted) back to the left margin.

That's why. And, yes, it is an annoyance, but it is part of the package deal that allowed MS-DOS to win over CP/M, and Windows 95 to win over all the other GUI's on top of DOS, and Windows XP to take over from Windows 98.

(Note: Modern laser printers still have these commands because they too are backwards compatible with earlier printers - HP in particular do this well)

For those unfamiliar with typewriters, here is a video showing how typing was done: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJvGiU_UyEQ. Notice that the paper is first moved up, and then the carriage is returned, even if it happens in a simple movement. The ding notified the typist that the end was near, and to prepare for it.

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If Windows does write the newline character eventually, why do I need to explicitly take care of it? –  sukhbir Dec 22 '10 at 12:17
+1 for answer. I suspected it had something to do with typewriters, but hadn't hear it said before. –  WernerCD Dec 22 '10 at 18:25
How did Unix with its \n only used to work with those old days printer? I assume they did have Unix Consoles connected to typewriter type printers? –  Senthil Kumaran Dec 23 '10 at 5:51
@Senthil, in Unix the newline character is converted by the end driver. It is just a different design decision. –  user1249 Dec 23 '10 at 16:59
@Senthil, to be precise, in Unix printers and terminals are abstracted in the operating system, and their description determines which byte sequences are generated for the device. CP/M had no such abstraction leaving it all to the program running - this is most likely because this was not needed by all programs so having it in the resident operating system would take away precious memory from programs not needing it. Remember that CP/M was designed for a 16 Kilobyte system. –  user1249 Feb 26 '11 at 12:12

As far as I'm aware this harks back to the days of typewriters.

\r is carriage return, which is what moves where you are typing on the page back to the left (or right if that is your culture)

\n is new line, which moves your paper up a line.

Doing only one of these on a typewriter would put you in the wrong place to start writing a new line of text.

When computers came about I guess some people kept the old model, but others realised that it wasn't necessary and encapsulated a full newline as one character.

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So why does Windows still stick to it? –  sukhbir Dec 22 '10 at 11:45
Backward compatibility. Imagine how many text documents would break if they changed now –  Matt Ellen Dec 22 '10 at 11:47
Strictly speaking, the "oddball" here is the unixoid 'use newline only', initially done (I believe) to keep the number of stored characters down (the translation to CR LF is done in the terminal driver, it's the 'onlcr' flag that controls it for output. –  Vatine Dec 22 '10 at 11:50
Windows had a Predecessor named DOS, that had the same line-ending. Windows kept compatibility. DOS had predecessors itself, namely CP/M. That used also CRLF. DOS kept compatibility. The development of CP/M was influenced by DECs TOPS. And you can guess, which lineending they used. :-) Compatability explains much. –  Mnementh Dec 22 '10 at 12:03
OK, but why does Notepad still not recognize "\n" line endings? –  dan04 Feb 20 '11 at 10:06

Historically, line feed meant that the platen - the roller on which you type - rotated one line, causing text to appear on the next line... but in the next column.

Carriage return meant "return the bit with which you type to the beginning of the line".

Windows uses CR+LF because MS-DOS did, because CP/M did, because it made sense for serial lines.

Unix copied its \n convention because Multics did.

I suspect if you dig far enough back, you'll find a political disagreement between implementors!

(You left out the extra fun bit, where Mac convention is (or used to be) to just use CR to separate lines. And now Unicode also has its own line separator, U+2028!)

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Wow! didn't know about the Mac... –  Michael K Dec 22 '10 at 13:54
I'm not sure you'd find a political disagreement. It's also possible that you'd find people doing similar things independently. –  David Thornley Dec 22 '10 at 15:09
When there are different standards bodies involved? I'd be surprised not to find political reasons! –  Frank Shearar Dec 22 '10 at 15:19

What is it with people asking "why can Unix do \n and not Windows"? It's such a strange question.

  1. The OS has almost nothing to do with it. It's more a matter of how apps, libraries, protocols and file formats deal with things. Other than where the OS reads/writes text-based configuration or command line commands, it makes no sense to fault the OS.
  2. Most Windows apps can read both \n and \r\n just fine. They also output \r\n so that everyone's happy. A program doesn't simply "do" either \n or \r\n -- it accepts one, the other, or both, and outputs one, the other, or both.
  3. As a programmer this should really almost never bother you. Practically every language/platform has facilities to write the correct end-line and read most robustly. The only time I've had to deal with the problem was when I wrote an HTTP server -- and it was because a certain browser (hint: the next most popular browser after IE) was doing \n instead of the correct \r\n.
  4. A much more pertinent question is, why do so many modern Unix apps output only \n fully knowing that there are some protocols and programs that don't like it?
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Another pertinent question: since many protocols were developed primarily on Unix systems, why didn't they use '\n'? –  David Thornley Dec 22 '10 at 15:11
@DavidThornley Because \r\n is more likely to work cross-platform (\r for older macs, \r\n for windows and \n for *nix). –  Basic Mar 30 at 1:59

The reason the conventions hold on their various systems (\n on unix type systems, \r\n on Windows, etc) is that once you've picked a convention you CAN'T change it without breaking a bunch of people's files. And that's generally frowned upon.

Unix-type systems were developed (very early days) using various models of teletype, and at some point someone decided the equipment should carriage return when it did a line feed.

Windows came from DOS, so for Windows the question really is: Why did DOS use this cr/lf sequence? I'm guessing it has something to do with CP/M, where DOS has some of it's roots. Again, specific models of teletype may have played a role.

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Hmm interesting. –  sukhbir Dec 22 '10 at 12:00
Why can't Windows handle lines ending with \n, but continue to use \r\n for now? If they did that starting with Windows XP, they could now start saving files with \n instead of \r\n. –  DisgruntledGoat Dec 22 '10 at 13:13
Windows has nothing to do with it. It's the apps' decision, and most apps will read both '\n' and '\r\n', and write '\r\n' -- so everyone's happy. –  Rei Miyasaka Dec 22 '10 at 14:34

History of the Newline Character (Wikipedia):

ASCII was developed simultaneously by the ISO and the ASA, the predecessor organization to ANSI. During the period of 1963–1968, the ISO draft standards supported the use of either CR+LF or LF alone as a newline, while the ASA drafts supported only CR+LF.

The sequence CR+LF was in common use on many early computer systems that had adopted teletype machines, typically an ASR33, as a console device, because this sequence was required to position those printers at the start of a new line. On these systems, text was often routinely composed to be compatible with these printers, since the concept of device drivers hiding such hardware details from the application was not yet well developed; applications had to talk directly to the teletype machine and follow its conventions.

The separation of the two functions concealed the fact that the print head could not return from the far right to the beginning of the next line in one-character time. That is why the sequence was always sent with the CR first. In fact, it was often necessary to send extra characters (extraneous CRs or NULs, which are ignored) to give the print head time to move to the left margin.

Even after teletypes were replaced by computer terminals with higher baud rates, many operating systems still supported automatic sending of these fill characters, for compatibility with cheaper terminals that required multiple character times to scroll the display.

MS-DOS (1981) adopted CP/M's CR+LF; CP/M's use of CR+LF made sense for using computer terminals via serial lines. This convention was inherited by Microsoft's later Windows operating system.

The Multics operating system began development in 1964 and used LF alone as its newline. Unix followed the Multics practice, and later systems followed Unix.

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I don't know if this is common knowledge, but it should be noted that CR is still understood by modern terminal emulators:

$ printf "hey world\rsup\n"
sup world

It's handy for progress indicators, e.g.

for i in {1..100}
    printf "\rLoading... %d%%" $i
    sleep 0.01
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