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• Famous Emacs People With Hand Injuries

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Famous Emacs People With Hand Injuries

Xah Lee, 2010-06-28

This page collect tales of computer programer celebrities who have
injured their hand seriously by Repeatitive Strain Injury (RSI), in
particular, due to use emacs.

Richard Stallman, FSF/GNU Founder

Richard Stallman's RSI is well known during the 1990s. I remember
reading about it somewhere on his website in the 1990s, perhaps on, but i couldn't find it now. At one point, i remember that he
is trying to switch to voice systems. Here's a second hand tale.

Which Keyboard? (2007-06-21), by Michael Tiemann, at

Fast forward twenty years and I was working 12-16 hours a day
hacking on the GNU C++ compiler with more than 100,000 lines of code
to my name, and loving every minute of it. One weekend I visited
Richard Stallman at MIT and I was shocked to learn that he could no
longer type. He was given strict instructions by his doctor to not
touch a computer keyboard for 6-12 months, and that if he did, he may
lose forever his ability to type. He was a programming pioneer, and at
the time, his symptoms were not well known or understood. We all came
to understand that it was RSI--repetitive stress injury, exacerbated
by the very keystroke combinations that made the Emacs editor such a
powerful programming environment. But the root cause was not Emacs--it
was the punative design of the QWERTY keyboard, a legacy of the
industrial era when complex keyboard mechanisms were not able to keep
up with the speed of human fingers. ...

Note: Michael Tiemann was a founder of Cygnus (Cygwin), then later was
CEO of Redhat when Redhat bought it.

Jamie W Zawinski

Jamie Zawinski is the main developer of Xemacs, when it was called
Lucid Emacs around 1989, and he is often the one blamed for the emacs/
xemacs schisim. Jamie is also well known for being the main developer
of Netscape browser when the web started in mid 1990s.

Jamie keeps a diary on computer, before there's a word “blog”, and in
his writings scattered around his diaries he has talked about his hand
injury situation, in his dot com work-to-death years.

Here are some quotes from his writings online:

my wrists and welcome to them (1999), by Jamie Zawinski. At

For several years I had pretty severe wrist pain, and it terrified
me. I had these visions of me with withered stumps at the ends of my
arms, trying to limp along using speech-recognition software, and my
career being over.

The folllowing is from: the netscape dorm (1994), by Jamie Zawinski,

My hands have been really been hurting lately; I hope all this
typing hasn't finally blown out my wrists. If I can't type, my life is
over. My right hand especially is flaking out -- the last knuckle of
the middle two fingers ache, as if they're badly bruised. I guess it's
time to figure out how to use our medical program. As if a doctor is
going to tell me something other than ``stop typing so much.'' Ha ha
ha, that's a good one.

Ben Wing, Xemacs Main Developer

Ben Wing, is the main developer of Xemacs in the 1990s, following
Jamie W Zawinski.

Following is a quote from his xemacs home page at

Since September 1992, I've worked on XEmacs as a contractor for
various companies and more recently as an unpaid volunteer.

Alas, life has not been good to me recently. This former San
Francisco "Mission Critter" developed insidious hand and neck problems
after a brief stint working on a Java-based VRML toolkit for the now
defunct Dimension X, and I was forced to quit working. I was exiled
first to "Stroller Valley" and later all the way to Tucson, Arizona,
and for two years was almost completely disabled due to pain. More
recently I have fought my way back with loads and loads of narcotic
painkillers, and after a stint as an art student at the University of
Arizona I'm currently a Ph.D. student in linguistics at the University
of Texas, Austin.

It's hard to find much info about Ben Wing online. His pages haven't
been updated for something like 15 years, and his domain name
has been squatted. I gather he's no longer in the programing industry
since late 1990s.

John Ousterhout

John Ousterhout, most well known as the inventor of the tcl language,
developed RSI. He switched to using a voice system for almost
everything. Here's his article on RSI.

Dealing With RSI (1995-2007), by John Ousterhout. At Source.

I started having pain in my left wrist in 1995, and the problems
got progressively worse in spite of (and partly because of) various
attempts at treatment. In 1996 I started using a speech recognition
system and stopped using my left hand for any typing at all.

My experience suggests that once you start having RSI problems
they are unlikely to go away by themselves. Everyone I've ever heard
of with RSI problems (myself included) ignored early warning signs and
didn't take action anywhere near soon enough, even when the symptoms
started becoming severe. It's not clear to me that you can ever
"recover" from RSI; all you can do is stabilize at your current level
of disability. If there is any recovery, it takes many years.

Though, not sure if John is a emacs user.


Bill Clementson, a long time lisp programer and emacs user (career
started in 1992 according to resume), developed RSI, and adopted the
Kinesis Contoured Keyboard as a solution. He wrote about 7 blog
articles about it from 2004 to 2006. See his blog at:

Alex Schroeder, best known as the one who started, also
developed RSI. You can find some discussion about RSI here: RepeatedStrainInjury. On tips of Kinesis + emacs, see: KinesisKeyboard.

If you know other programing celebrities with RSI, please let me know.


* Why Emacs's Keyboard Shortcuts Are Painful
* A Ergonomic Keyboard Shortcut Layout For Emacs
* How To Avoid The Emacs Pinky Problem
* The Idiocy of Hacker Keyboards
* Keyboard Hardware's Influence on Keyboard Shortcut Design
* Keyboard Hardware Design Flaws