Which tools were around »back in the day« to aid presentation Unix/Linux environments? I just wondered how somebody would accomplish something like slides in a e.g. text-based environment or low-end graphics environment.

Research has been a little difficult since websites tend to remove outdated / abandoned tools. For instance, my search brought up TPP, the Text Presentation Program, but it is as recent as 2004. It supports

any text terminal that is supported by ncurses – ranging from an old VT100 to the Linux framebuffer to an xterm.

This includes...

VT100 Terminal

Which raises the additional question how exactly a computer aided presentation would be held if there are relatively small screens available. After giving TPP a short try, without specifying headlines normal slide content is rendered in default terminal font size which can be as small as 12 point.

I really appreciated comparatively long and exhaustive answers that may consist out of your own experiences.

  • 3
    I doubt computers were used at all in presentations until the mid eighties, when GUIs were already the norm -- unless you count print outs onto transparencies, but in this case a computer is still not used in the actual presentation.
    – goldilocks
    Dec 6, 2013 at 17:35
  • So, if there's consent that there was no tool support, then I'll accept it as answer of course. But it's worhty pointing out that computer support may include displaying presenter notes (similarly to a teleprompter) etc. The question is not limited to showing visuals to audience.
    – f4lco
    Dec 6, 2013 at 17:42
  • Yeah, I would say the defining property of "a presentation" is that whoever's watching receives information passively; the information is displayed at a rate determined by the presentation software or the presenter. If the user has to click something to proceed, it's exactly the same as documentation (info, man, less, ad infinitum). If you consider documentation a form of presentation, there are lots of things, of course. The first text display would have included presentations by that definition, just by virtue of being.
    – goldilocks
    Dec 6, 2013 at 17:49
  • 5
    I'm curious to see there are any relevant answers, as during the early '90s it seemed to me that we didn't do "computer aided presentations". You might demo something on a screen to a small number of people, but presentation usually implies a larger number at some distance. Projection of a computer screen was rare and expensive - if you wanted to project you used drawn or printed transparancies and an overhead projector. Mind you, Powerpoint had yet to corrupt expectations so that slide are expected to accompany all talks. You just tied an onion to your belt, which was the style at the time.
    – R Perrin
    Dec 6, 2013 at 19:03
  • 1
    The answer that was deleted seemed to be more on the mark with this Q. It discussed troff which I know is for typesetting but there were early applications for displaying this type of output to screens rather than just paper. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troff. The man page tool is one of these such viewers.
    – slm
    Dec 6, 2013 at 19:36

1 Answer 1


Not sure if you're asking solely about presentations that were viewed on a terminal or something else controlled by a computer, or were generated via computer, but I'll answer the latter.

Back in the 1970's, most UNIX users created papers and vugraphs and man pages using troff, which was both a markup language and a program to translate that markup language into a format that could be used by printers. nroff was a version of troff that took the same input language, but its output consisted of fixed-width ASCII characters. In many cases, it was sufficient for someone preparing a presentation to use nroff, print the resulting document on a lineprinter (with fanfold paper), then use a photocopier to copy it onto ordinary paper or vugraph material.

Documents that needed to have multiple fonts were sent to phototypesetters and, later, laser printers. At Bell Labs, for instance, troff would send its output, using lpr, to a GCOS system in a large comp center that drove a phototypesetter. lpr used the GECOS field in /etc/passwd, which contained one's name and other identifying data (such as department and bin number) so that the job could be billed and routed appropriately.

A set of tools grew up around troff/nroff, including the tbl preprocessor to format tables and the eqn preprocessor to format mathematical equations. Since the troff language was rather low-level (for instance, to know when to output a footer, you had to set a trap using .wh ("when") that would be activated when the output was, say, 10.5 inches from the top of the current page), macro packages such as ms and mm were written to make writing the markup easier.

ditroff was a followon to troff that could handle additional types of printers (such as Postscript laser printers); it separated troff (and nroff) into a front end and a variety of device-dependent back ends, connected with a pipe.

  • This is really about typesetting and documentation systems.
    – goldilocks
    Dec 6, 2013 at 17:50

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