Scribe (markup language)

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Scribe is a markup language and word processing system which pioneered the use of descriptive markup[1][2]. Scribe was revolutionary when it was proposed, because it involved for the first time a clean separation of structure and format.[3][4]




Scribe was designed and developed by Brian Reid of Carnegie Mellon University. It formed the subject of his 1980 doctoral dissertation, for which he received the Association for Computing Machinery's Grace Murray Hopper Award in 1982[1].

Reid presented a paper describing Scribe in the same conference session in 1981 in which Charles Goldfarb presented GML, the immediate predecessor of SGML.

Scribe sold to Unilogic

In 1979, at the end of his graduate-student career, Reid sold Scribe to a Pittsburgh-area software company called Unilogic, founded by Michael Shamos, another Carnegie Mellon computer scientist, to market the program. Reid said he simply was looking for a way to unload the program on developers that would keep it from going into the public domain.

Michael Shamos was embroiled in a dispute with Carnegie Mellon administrators over the intellectual-property rights to Scribe. The dispute with the administration was settled out of court, and the university conceded it had no claim to Scribe.[5]


Reid agreed to insert a set of time-dependent functions (called "time bombs") that would deactivate freely copied versions of the program after a 90-day expiration date. To avoid deactivation, users paid the software company, which then issued a code that defused the internal time-bomb feature.

Richard Stallman saw this as a betrayal of the programmer ethos. Instead of honoring the notion of share-and-share alike, Reid had inserted a way for companies to compel programmers to pay for information access[6] (see MIT's hacker culture declines).

Using Scribe Word Processor

Using Scribe involved a two phase process:

  • Typing a manuscript file using any text editor, conforming to the Scribe markup.
  • Processing this file through the Scribe compiler to generate an associated document file, which can be printed.

The Scribe markup language defined the words, lines, pages, spacing, headings, footings, footnotes, numbering, tables of contents, etc, in a way similar to HTML. The Scribe compiler used a database of Styles (containing document format definitions), which defined the rules for formatting a document in a particular style.

Because of the separation between the content (structure) of the document, and its style (format), writers did not need to concern themselves with the details of formatting. In this, there are similarities to the TeX formatting system by Donald Knuth.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "1982 – Brian K. Reid". Grace Murray Hopper Award. Retrieved 2009-02-24. "For his contributions in the area of computerized text-production and typesetting systems, specifically Scribe which represents a major advance in this area. It embodies several innovations based on computer science research in programming language design, knowledge-based systems, computer document processing, and typography." 
  2. "Scribe(ID:2481/scr010) - Text-formatting language". Retrieved 2009-02-24. "Brian Reid. Ground-breaking text-formatting language. Reason for Reid getting a Hopper Medal in 1982." 
  3. "Markup Technologies '98 Conference. Agenda and Schedule". November 1998. Retrieved 2009-02-24. "Brian Reid's work with markup systems began in the 1970s. He independently invented and implemented descriptive markup and developed its theory. His Scribe system may have been the cleanest separation of structure and format ever built. His dissertation on it was already complete in 1981, the year he presented in Lausanne in the same session where Charles Goldfarb publicly presented GML; SGML was proposed about a year later" 
  4. "XML Linking". November 1998. Retrieved 2009-02-24. "“Generalized”, “generic”, or “descriptive” markup has been discovered several times, apparently independently. Scribe [Reid 1981] is an early formatter based on structure rather than formatting commands." 
  5. The Chronicle: August 10, 2001: 2 Scholars Face Off in Copyright Clash
  6. Williams, Sam (March 2002). "Free as in Freedom - Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software". O'Reilly. Retrieved 2008-09-26. "For Reid, the deal was a win-win. Scribe didn't fall into the public domain, and Unilogic recouped on its investment. For Stallman, it was a betrayal of the programmer ethos, pure and simple. Instead of honoring the notion of share-and-share alike, Reid had inserted a way for companies to compel programmers to pay for information access." 

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