Ruby Creator Matz on How Emacs Changed My Life

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .
Matz Ruby how emacs changed my life
Yukihiro Matsumoto (aka Matz), creator of Ruby, giving a talk: “How Emacs changed my life”. Slide at (photo by Corey Goldberg, used with permission.)

This is at LibrePlanet 2012 conference at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, around . Also, Matz is given FSF's “Award for the Advancement of Free Software” for 2011.

Matz and rms 2012 03
Matz and RMS. (source


Here's a transcript of the slide. (with added photos and annotations)

1. How Emacs changed my Life Yukihiro “Matz” Matsumoto @yukihiro_matz

2. 1980

3. I started programming

4. (picture of a Sharp PC-1211 programmable calculator)

Sharp PC 1211 pocket computer 62842
Sharp PC-1211 pocket computer, introduced in 1980. It has BASIC builtin. 〔image source

Note: see also: HP-28S Advanced Scientific Calculator (1988)


6. 400 steps

7. 1988

8. I met Emacs

9. on Sun-3

Note: Sun-3 series launched in 1985.

Sun-3/80 workstation
Sun-3/80 workstation. image source

Note: the keyboard is precursor to Sun Microsystem's Type 6 Keyboard. The mouse is a optical mouse, but requires a special grid-pattern mirror mouse pad. This optical mouse is standard with Sun Microsystems at the time.

10. shared by 200 undergraduates

11. I tried Emacs

12. but I never used

13. Emacs was prohibited

14. It consumed too much precious memory

15. We are free to download free software

16. We are free to read the source code

17. I downloaded Emacs source code

18. and investigated

19. Emacs was my first Lisp interpreter

20. I learned a lot about language implementation from Emacs

21. Embedding integers in pointers

22. Mark and sweep garbage collection

23. Calling convention between Lisp and C

24. I really understood how Lisp work

25. I was fascinated by Lisp objects

26. Lisp objects implemented by C

27. Then I got a Sparc Station

Note: the SPARCstation (aka Sun-4) series was introduced in 1989.

28. I started to use Emacs

29. Emacs become part of me

30. If I didn't like anything in Emacs, I could change it

31. Emacs is totally configurable

32. Emacs made me realize anything can be changed by a programmer

33. It is total freedom

34. I could edit without thinking key binding

35. I didn't want to write anything without Emacs

36. Programs, Documents and Mails

37. so I wrote my own mail client

38. named “cmail”

39. in Emacs lisp

Note: 〔►see Emacs Lisp Basics

40. It was my first non-trivial (Emacs) Lisp program

41. I used it everyday

42. 1993

1993 Xah Notes

around 1993, Desktop publishing revolution lead by Apple is at its heyday, with mouse, WYSIWYG GUI, LaserWriter printer (opposed to Dot matrix printer), software such as PageMaker, FrameMaker, QuarkXPress, Photoshop, Illustrator, Freehand, and Macintosh II series was very popular.

Microsoft Windows 3.0 is released in 1990, and Microsoft Windows 95 in 1995. DOS programs were still very popular. Laughter at mouse and GUI from programers were still common.

GNU Emacs 18.59 was released in 1992. XEmacs, called Lucid Emacs at the time, was perhaps more popular than GNU Emacs at the time. 〔►see GNU Emacs and XEmacs Schism, by Ben Wing

Perl started in 1987, but the major change Perl 4, was released in 1993, Perl 5, almost a complete rewrite, was released in 1994. 〔►see Perl Basics by Example

By 1993, the web, internet, was starting to become mainstream. People connected to internet thru modem and services such as AOL. More popular were Bulletin board system, and private online services such as CompuServe.

43. I started Ruby development

44. with influence from Emacs implementation

45. Integers are coded in tagged pointers

46. It uses simple mark and sweep garbage collector

47. It uses similar object model to Lisp

Note: the “object” of lisp object just means a internal representation of code, not the sense of “object oriented programing”. (info "(elisp) Lisp Data Types")

48. Then I put Smalltalk-like OO system on top

49. For syntax, I wanted ALGOL/Ada/Eiffel like one

50. But as an Emacs addict,I needed a language mode

51. auto-indent was a must

52. Back in 1993, there was no auto-indenting language mode for a language with such syntax

53. So I tried to write experimental ruby-mode.el

Note: as of , the ruby mode shipped with GNU Emacs is still the one written by Matz.

54. fighting with emacs lisp and regular expression,

55. for almost whole week

56. I somehow succeeded to implement auto-indentation

57. for a language with “end” delimiters

58. If I couldn't make ruby-mode to work

59. the syntax of Ruby would have changed

60. to more C-like one

61. too similar to other scripting languages

62. as a result, Ruby would not have gained current popularity

63. Summary

64. 1. Emacs taught me freedom for software

65. 2. Emacs taught me how to read code

66. 3. Emacs taught me power of Lisp

67. 4. Emacs taught me how to implement a language core

68. 5. Emacs taught me how to implement a garbage collector

69. 6. Emacs helped me to code and debug

70. 7. Emacs helped me to write and edit text/mails/documents

71. 8. Emacs helped me to be a effective programmer

72. 9. Emacs made me a hacker

73. 10. Emacs has changed my life

74. forever

75. Thank you


in the slide, Matz indicated that he learned a lot about language implementation from emacs, and how many concepts in Ruby are borrowed from emacs lisp.

at first i was skeptical. I wasn't sure how much of it is politeness.

after studying Ruby for a while, one can see a lot similarity between emacs lisp. For example, chars datatype in ruby are just integers, same as in emacs lisp, and Ruby also has a “symbols” datatype, same as emacs lisp. … what else i missed? (note: character datatype as integer was a mistake. Ruby 1.9 changed that. XEmacs also changed that.)

so, Matz's remark that he learned/created Ruby from reading emacs source code is genuine.

〔►see Xah Ruby Tutorial: Learn Ruby in 1 Hour

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