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Nowadays we have a lot of programming aids that make work easier, including:

  • IDEs

  • Debuggers (line by line, breakpoints, etc)

  • Ant scripts, etc for compiling

  • Sites like StackOverflow to help if you're stuck on a programming problem

20 years ago, none of these things were around. Which tools did people use to program, and how did they make do without these newer tools? I'm interested in learning more about how programming was done back then.


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We certainly had IDEs and debuggers 20 years ago. In 1991 there was even an early version of Visual Studio. – ChrisF Mar 15 '11 at 13:06
Hammer and Chisel – Matthew Whited Mar 15 '11 at 13:36
Bah! You whipper-snappers, when I was young, all I had to make programs with were rocks and sand: – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Mar 15 '11 at 13:59
Bah, we couldn't even have zeros, we had to use the letter O. – Loïc Wolff Mar 15 '11 at 14:25
20 years ago you actually had to know stuff. There was no Internet that knew everything. – Joel Etherton Mar 15 '11 at 14:28

37 Answers 37

20 years ago.

At home I was using a beige machine with an ARM cpu and a unique operating system with a nice windowing gui. It even had completely flat memory where you could trade screen resolution and font cache for program heap while a job was running. I think the company is now doing rather well.

At work I was using beige machines with a custom risc CPU and a BSD-unix operating system. The company is doing rather less well.

So many things have changed, I know have to do "ps -elf", when I used to do "ps -aux"

ps aux still works fine on my OpenSUSE box. – Jim Balter Mar 16 '11 at 10:43

I read this and thought wow that must be along time ago. Then I realized it is not a long time ago GRIN.

I was doing Clipper with the Norton Help. I really liked Clipper.

In my brain its not that long ago?

20 years ago were all those cool PC games. right after the spectrum/commodore/amiga age right after the TI 99 4/A :) (where I began programming in BASIC and EXTENDED BASIC)

This is not long ago ? Or am getting old?

+1 for 'cool PC games.' I still have some catalogs from Public Brand Software laying around somewhere. – oosterwal Mar 15 '11 at 22:00
To be honest I have about 8 extended Ikea billy's full of Magz starting from 197x . My wife wants em to throw them all away :( – edelwater Mar 15 '11 at 22:17
I'm to the point where I'm going to scan in all those magazines I can't part with. It's not the same as a real magazine, but PDFs take up a lot less physical space. – oosterwal Mar 15 '11 at 22:22
LOL I was thinking that too, I found however some nice archives such as that save some work – edelwater Mar 15 '11 at 22:28
and now that I'm thinking of it... with all my mags and these archives I can probably give a pretty EXACT answer on what was available 20 years ago GRIN even with prices grin – edelwater Mar 15 '11 at 22:30

The number one difference: a CD holds a lot less music than an iPod, so you took breaks a little more often -- once an hour (or so) you had to change to a different CD. Oh, and back then I used Sennheiser HD-420 headphones, but now I use HD-650's instead, which are almost amazingly better.

Second biggest difference: at that time I put in a lot of time customizing my editor to work exactly the way I wanted it to. I knew its macro language well enough to do a lot, and did so on a regular basis. Nowadays I just install Visual Assist-X, and call it good.


Remotely from home in my dressing gown on a dumb terminal with 2400 baud acoustic modem to an HP Mini cluster. Upped the connection speed and got a Mac now but still got the same dressing gown.

This down vote was uncalled for. If you are going to down vote someone, explain why... – Jordan Mar 17 '11 at 8:18

20 Years ago I was working in C.

My IDE was vi (without syntax coloring).

My debugger was sprintf

My Ant was "Make"


1986: Z80 assembler, then i386 - Turbo Pascal and such. Wrote a program to beep Bach's prelude #1 for CP/M

1991: MVS/ESA Big iron - designing ISPF screens and Rexx procedures to do what ant/maven does today. Had plenty of debuggers. Eyeballed CICS dumps.

Used email to gopher files until I got a CompuServe account - good old days

It would be nice if you could also say what those weird terms mean for those of us who are newer to programming :P – Click Upvote Mar 16 '11 at 3:14
@Click Done.... – mplungjan Mar 16 '11 at 9:36

The first debugger was the guy gal who pulled the moth out of the vacuum tube ;)

I've read that the term was used long before that – edelwater Mar 15 '11 at 21:15
Er, make that a moth from a relay. – Walter Mitty Mar 16 '11 at 10:22
And here it is: ... although you can tell from the jokey log entry that the term was already in use. – Jim Balter Mar 16 '11 at 10:49
And it wasn't a was a gal... – Jordan Mar 17 '11 at 8:15

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