Nowadays within the programming community, console mostly refers to a text-based environment, either software (shells, terminals, cli) only or hardware included. But why is it so called?

  • 1
    related (but not dupplicate) : unix.stackexchange.com/questions/4126/… – Archemar Oct 8 '19 at 5:13
  • I like "console is a kind of cabinet", even though that already refers to the mainframe situation, with a machine room and a controlling room. – user373503 Oct 8 '19 at 5:56
  • Actually the Q is very bad. sorry: "nowadays": Linux? Unix? Computers? Electrical Devices? Complicated mechanical devices like organs? "programming community...mostly": also very broad. "either software only or hardware included": dito. And it has zero google results/research effort, only herarsay and "but why?". – user373503 Oct 8 '19 at 6:10
  • @rastafile I think the word "console" itself in computing is vague enough (virtual console, terminal, etc) to make it very hard to formulate a precise question. I would appreciate if you can give an exact and well established definition of console. But even that is not my point. All vague definitions share some common elements, which I tried to summarize in my post. And my point is from the perspective of etymology, how did these elements evolved into the word "console". – wlnirvana Oct 8 '19 at 6:31
  • 1
    @wlnirvana: "summarize in my post" -- which post of yours? I was complaining you gave no summary... – user373503 Oct 8 '19 at 6:45

There’s a similar question on Retrocomputing.

The earliest computers were controlled using cables, switches and buttons on panels on the computer itself, and provided output using lights. Eventually the control devices were “extracted” from the computer into a separate device; for example the IBM 704’s operator console, which still used switches and lights but was a separate cabinet (see the IBM 704 operating manual, pages 13 and 14). Later on this became a separate piece of furniture based on a desk, with a keyboard and some form of output device (a printer or a screen). This is reminiscent of an organ console which can be separated from the instrument itself.

On early multi-user computers, the console often had a special role: it was typically the only active terminal during early boot, and on some systems, logging in on the console granted more privileges than any other terminal. On most early systems the console was a text-only terminal, and that limitation has been associated with the term ever since. On PCs running Unix-like systems, the console generally used the built-in text-mode support, which probably helped preserve that association; but even on graphical workstations, emergency logins were typically text-only (albeit on a graphical framebuffer).

| improve this answer | |


This pic of a Z3 (1941, but replica) is almost self-explanatory. Try "console" in google and compare the images. It's 50% neat tables, 50% digital devices. Here you see a console placed on a console in front of the calculator/CPU itself.

It looks like "console" started out as an architectural term in french around 1500. It denotes a kind of ornamented pillar or some kind of furniture to put vases etc. on. Harps also have it.

It really is connected to the verb "to consolate" - probably because the supporting structures often came in form of a human figures.

The term "console cable" appears 1810, they say, similar to "teletypewriter" (from where tty has it's name). See wikipedia etc.!

Cars also have it: "center console": a nicely made set of knobs and lights arranged for the driver (passengers have only a button for their own window - just a "terminal", one of many endpoints).

Pilots (and F1 racers) have a "cockpit". (We all know what that is. But check the etymology: very interesting and debated..."converging etymology")

Sysadmins (and init processes) can have the "console", users get the "terminals".

"console" refers not to "shell" or "terminal" nor "hardware", but to the essential builtin char device /dev/console, which the kernel sets up quite towards the end of initialisation.

This pic on computerhistory.org gives a overview of a 1964 reconstruction of a 1941 "Z3" System. That clumsy "laptop" (but lots of buttons!) on a piece of furniture is the controlling unit for the huge system in the background. I can't say if Zuse called that his "Konsole". Blueprints are lost in war, he is dead. German wikipedia says "Terminal" is "Konsole" is "data view device" (translated back).

Now compare to a picture of an organ where you see the impressive console (or keydesk) with the manuals in front of the impressive pipes. It is the same kind of complicated device controlling an even more complictated machine. In german organs are played only from the "playing table" it seems...

| improve this answer | |
  • Honestly this is a very enlightening answer with various rich meanings of the word "console". Just one caveat, it is more or less like a dictionary (but of course with very high quality, sincerely). I would have upvoted this twice if the evolution of the meaning of "console" (esp. with regard to computing) could be added. – wlnirvana Oct 8 '19 at 9:29
  • "meaning of console with regard to computing": 100% agree! But what a task! I swear I was about to google "zuse" etc. I want to see some very earlly systems without keyboard. With all the IC evolution this will be difficult. What does "part of the CPU" mean in a 1960 system? – user373503 Oct 8 '19 at 13:26
  • That 1941 picture link I added is so impressive: the console/terminal looks like today's laptop, the sytem looks like today's server rack. And our cheapo laptops must be x times more powerful than their "server rack". But it looks exactly the same. – user373503 Oct 8 '19 at 14:54
  • Thank you so much for the continuous effort. The picture is very impressive and persuasive enough to convince a non-native English speaker the relationship between the organ console and the (early) computer console. I wish I could accept two answers. Unfortunately, I have to pick only one. Since Stephen pointed that out first, I think he deserves the credit. But again thank you very much. – wlnirvana Oct 9 '19 at 12:28
  • It's not an effort, but a pleasure, and I am not answering for you, but thanks to to you (an off-topic quiestion). – user373503 Oct 9 '19 at 12:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.