Remember all your bash history forever

Wouldn't it be great to remember every line ever typed at the bash prompt for life? This article has instructions to configure the bash history just for that.

Configuring bash to save every command line

Append the following lines to /etc/bash.bashrc:

shopt -s histappend                 # append to history, don't overwrite it
# attempt to save all lines of a multiple-line command in the same history entry
shopt -s cmdhist
# save multi-line commands to the history with embedded newlines
shopt -s lithist

This configures bash to save every command line typed at the interactive shell prompt (HISTFILESIZE) to ~/.bash_history (default), including a timestamp (HISTTIMEFORMAT) and ignoring consecutive duplicate entries (HISTCONTROL). By setting HISTSIZE to the same value as HISTFILESIZE, all saved commands are read back to memory when a new interactive shell starts. The default value for HISTSIZE (500) would load only a fraction of the saved history.

When saving the history at shell exit, history lines are appended to existing ones, instead of replacing them (shopt -s histappend).

By setting HISTIGNORE=?:??, lines consisting of just one or two characters are discarded from the history (e.g. ls commands).

These settings are a variation of some very useful discussion in this debian administration article.

Removing duplicate history entries

We need to get rid of duplicate lines in the history file. For me an appropiate point to do it is on each reboot of the machine. This can be accomplished by adding the following crontab entry (add it with crontab -e):

@reboot $HOME/bin/

where does the actual work:

# keep only the first occurrence of each duplicate entry in ~/.bash_history
# 1. Break records at points matching a timestap. Special case
# for the first and last lines in the history file (setting RS to a regexp is a
# GNU awk extension). This way the script matches multi-line commands in the file
# 2. Set the timestamp of the current record to the previous record separator,
# trim starting line break
# 3. Skip empty lines (e.g. the one produced while processing the first line)

gawk -vRS='(^|\n)#[0-9]+\n' \
        sub(/\n$/, "")
        if ($0 && cmds[$0]++ == 0)
            print time $0
        time = RT
        sub(/^\n/, "", time)
    }' < ~/.bash_history > $out
mv $out ~/.bash_history

The script is a bit tricky because, as explained in the comments, special care must be taken on multi-line commands and the first and last file entries. Running the script automatically on every reboot before even the user has logged in ensures that nobody is using the history file, and avoids mangling its contents.

Browsing the history

The Ctrl-R key is bound by default to reverse-search-history. Likewise, the Ctrl-S key is bound to forward-search-history (man 3 readline), but this clashes with the standard key assigned to terminal flow control. To fix that, add the following to /etc/bash.bashrc:

# Instead of using control-s for flow control, pass it to readline to enable
# forward incremental search
stty stop ""

Having both keys available makes it easy to go back to the previous match if you hit one key too many times.

There is another method to get to a specific history entry. As explained in this hacker news comment, the up and down keys can be used to jump to the previous/next history line matching the current line. Add the following lines to /etc/inputrc to configure the key bindings:

"\e[A": history-search-backward
"\e[B": history-search-forward

If you just made a typo in the last command you entered, you may want to remove that entry from the history immediately. Here are some key bindings you can add to /etc/inputrc for that:

$if Bash
# delete last command from history
Control-x: "history -d $((HISTCMD-2))"
# delete second to last command from history
Control-y: "history -d $((HISTCMD-3))"

Doesn't this slow down every bash startup? Does it turn bash in a memory hog?

After having this setup running for months, my history file has grown over a couple of thousand lines. Now, every interactive shell must load and maintain every history line into memory. I haven't meassured the startup time, but it still feels immediate anyway. A quick check comparing the RSS field of ps u -C bash indicates that, for each interactive bash shell, maintaining 20k history lines in memory requires approximately 3 MiB of additional RAM. For me the convenience of always having every command I ever typed on a shell at my dispostion outweights this cost.


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