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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Origins and History of Unix, 1969-1995

A notorious ‘second-system effect‘ often afflicts the successors of small experimental prototypes. The urge to add everything that was left out the first time around all too frequently leads to huge and overcomplicated design. Less well known, because less common, is the ‘third-system effect’; sometimes, after the second system has collapsed of its own weight, there is a chance to go back to simplicity and get it really right.

The original Unix was a third system. Its grandfather was the small and simple Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS), either the first or second timesharing system ever deployed (depending on some definitional questions we are going to determinedly ignore). Its father was the pioneering Multics project, an attempt to create a feature-packed ‘information utility’ that would gracefully support interactive timesharing of mainframe computers by large communities of users. Multics, alas, did collapse of its own weight. But Unix was born from that collapse.

Unix was born in 1969 out of the mind of a computer scientist at Bell Laboratories, Ken Thompson. Thompson had been a researcher on the Multics project, an experience which spoiled him for the primitive batch computing that was the rule almost everywhere else. But the concept of timesharing was still a novel one in the late 1960s; the first speculations on it had been uttered barely ten years earlier by computer scientist John McCarthy (also the inventor of the Lisp language), the first actual deployment had been in 1962, seven years earlier, and timesharing operating systems were still experimental and temperamental beasts.

Computer hardware was at that time more primitive than even people who were there to see it can now easily recall. The most powerful machines of the day had less computing power and internal memory than a typical cellphone of today.[13] Video display terminals were in their infancy and would not be widely deployed for another six years. The standard interactive device on the earliest timesharing systems was the ASR-33 teletype — a slow, noisy device that printed upper-case-only on big rolls of yellow paper. The ASR-33 was the natural parent of the Unix tradition of terse commands and sparse responses.

When Bell Labs withdrew from the Multics research consortium, Ken Thompson was left with some Multics-inspired ideas about how to build a file system. He was also left without a machine on which to play a game he had written called Space Travel, a science-fiction simulation that involved navigating a rocket through the solar system. Unix began its life on a scavenged PDP-7 minicomputer[14] like the one shown in Figure2.1, as a platform for the Space Travel game and a testbed for Thompson's ideas about operating system design.

The full origin story is told in [Ritchie79] from the point of view of Thompson's first collaborator, Dennis Ritchie, the man who would become known as the co-inventor of Unix and the inventor of the C language. Dennis Ritchie, Doug McIlroy, and a few colleagues had become used to interactive computing under Multics and did not want to lose that capability. Thompson's PDP-7 operating system offered them a lifeline.

Ritchie observes: “What we wanted to preserve was not just a good environment in which to do programming, but a system around which a fellowship could form. We knew from experience that the essence of communal computing, as supplied by remote-access, time-shared machines, is not just to type programs into a terminal instead of a keypunch, but to encourage close communication”. The theme of computers being viewed not merely as logic devices but as the nuclei of communities was in the air; 1969 was also the year the ARPANET (the direct ancestor of today's Internet) was invented. The theme of “fellowship” would resonate all through Unix's subsequenthistory.

Thompson and Ritchie's Space Travel implementation attracted notice. At first, the PDP-7's software had to be cross-compiled on a GE mainframe. The utility programs that Thompson and Ritchie wrote to support hosting game development on the PDP-7 itself became the core of Unix — though the name did not attach itself until 1970. The original spelling was “UNICS” (UNiplexed Information and Computing Service), which Ritchie later described as “a somewhat treacherous pun on Multics”, which stood for MULTiplexed Information and Computing Service.

Even at its earliest stages, PDP-7 Unix bore a strong resemblance to today's Unixes and provided a rather more pleasant programming environment than was available anywhere else in those days of card-fed batch mainframes. Unix was very close to being the first system under which a programmer could sit down directly at a machine and compose programs on the fly, exploring possibilities and testing while composing. All through its lifetime Unix has had a pattern of growing more capabilities by attracting highly skilled volunteer efforts from programmers impatient with the limitations of other operating systems. This pattern was set early, within Bell Labs itself.

The Unix tradition of lightweight development and informal methods also began at its beginning. Where Multics had been a large project with thousands of pages of technical specifications written before the hardware arrived, the first running Unix code was brainstormed by three people and implemented by Ken Thompson in two days — on an obsolete machine that had been designed to be a graphics terminal for a ‘real’ computer.

Unix's first real job, in 1971, was to support what would now be called word processing for the Bell Labs patent department; the first Unix application was the ancestor of the nroff(1) text formatter. This project justified the purchase of a PDP-11, a much more capable minicomputer. Management remained blissfully unaware that the word-processing system that Thompson and colleagues were building was incubating an operating system. Operating systems were not in the Bell Labs plan — AT&T had joined the Multics consortium precisely to avoid doing an operating system on its own. Nevertheless, the completed system was a rousing success. It established Unix as a permanent and valued part of the computing ecology at Bell Labs, and began another theme in Unix's history — a close association with document-formatting, typesetting, and communications tools. The 1972 manual claimed 10 installations.

Later, Doug McIlroy would write of this period [McIlroy91]: “Peer pressure and simple pride in workmanship caused gobs of code to be rewritten or discarded as better or more basic ideas emerged. Professional rivalry and protection of turf were practically unknown: so many good things were happening that nobody needed to be proprietary about innovations”. But it would take another quarter century for all the implications of that observation to come home.


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The Art of Unix Programming
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