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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Origins and History of Unix, 1969-1995 - Exodus: 1971–1980

Exodus: 1971–1980

The original Unix operating system was written in assembler, and the applications in a mix of assembler and an interpreted language called B, which had the virtue that it was small enough to run on the PDP-7. But B was not powerful enough for systems programming, so Dennis Ritchie added data types and structures to it. The resulting C language evolved from B beginning in 1971; in 1973 Thompson and Ritchie finally succeeded in rewriting Unix in their new language. This was quite an audacious move; at the time, system programming was done in assembler in order to extract maximum performance from the hardware, and the very concept of a portable operating system was barely a gleam in anyone's eye. As late as 1979, Ritchie could write: “It seems certain that much of the success of Unix follows from the readability, modifiability, and portability of its software that in turn follows from its expression in high-level languages”, in the knowledge that this was a point that still needed making.

Ken (seated) and Dennis (standing) at a PDP-11 in 1972.

A 1974 paper in Communications of the ACM [Ritchie-Thompson] gave Unix its first public exposure. In that paper, its authors described the unprecedentedly simple design of Unix, and reported over 600 Unix installations. All were on machines underpowered even by the standards of that day, but (as Ritchie and Thompson wrote) “constraint has encouraged not only economy, but also a certain elegance of design”.

After the CACM paper, research labs and universities all over the world clamored for the chance to try out Unix themselves. Under a 1958 consent decree in settlement of an antitrust case, AT&T (the parent organization of Bell Labs) had been forbidden from entering the computer business. Unix could not, therefore, be turned into a product; indeed, under the terms of the consent decree, Bell Labs was required to license its nontelephone technology to anyone who asked. Ken Thompson quietly began answering requests by shipping out tapes and disk packs — each, according to legend, with a note signed “love, ken”.

This was years before personal computers. Not only was the hardware needed to run Unix too expensive to be within an individual's reach, but nobody imagined that would change in the foreseeable future. So Unix machines were only available by the grace of big organizations with big budgets: corporations, universities, government agencies. But use of these minicomputers was less regulated than the even-bigger mainframes, and Unix development rapidly took on a countercultural air. It was the early 1970s; the pioneering Unix programmers were shaggy hippies and hippie-wannabes. They delighted in playing with an operating system that not only offered them fascinating challenges at the leading edge of computer science, but also subverted all the technical assumptions and business practices that went with Big Computing. Card punches, COBOL, business suits, and batch IBM mainframes were the despised old wave; Unix hackers reveled in the sense that they were simultaneously building the future and flipping a finger at the system.

The excitement of those days is captured in this quote from Douglas Comer: “Many universities contributed to UNIX. At the University of Toronto, the department acquired a 200-dot-per-inch printer/plotter and built software that used the printer to simulate a phototypesetter. At Yale University, students and computer scientists modified the UNIX shell. At Purdue University, the Electrical Engineering Department made major improvements in performance, producing a version of UNIX that supported a larger number of users. Purdue also developed one of the first UNIX computer networks. At the University of California at Berkeley, students developed a new shell and dozens of smaller utilities. By the late 1970s, when Bell Labs released Version 7 UNIX, it was clear that the system solved the computing problems of many departments, and that it incorporated many of the ideas that had arisen in universities. The end result was a strengthened system. A tide of ideas had started a new cycle, flowing from academia to an industrial laboratory, back to academia, and finally moving on to a growing number of commercial sites” [Comer].

The first Unix of which it can be said that essentially all of it would be recognizable to a modern Unix programmer was the Version 7 release in 1979.[15] The first Unix user group had formed the previous year. By this time Unix was in use for operations support all through the Bell System [Hauben], and had spread to universities as far away as Australia, where John Lions's 1976 notes [Lions] on the Version 6 source code became the first serious documentation of the Unix kernel internals. Many senior Unix hackers still treasure a copy.

The Lions book was a samizdat publishing sensation. Because of copyright infringement or some such it couldn't be published in the U.S., so copies of copies seeped everywhere. I still have my copy, which was at least 6th generation. Back then you couldn't be a kernel hacker without a Lions.

-- Ken Arnold

The beginnings of a Unix industry were coalescing as well. The first Unix company (the Santa Cruz Operation, SCO) began operations in 1978, and the first commercial C compiler (Whitesmiths) sold that same year. By 1980 an obscure software company in Seattle was also getting into the Unix game, shipping a port of the AT&T version for microcomputers called XENIX. But Microsoft's affection for Unix as a product was not to last very long (though Unix would continue to be used for most internal development work at the company until after 1990).


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The Art of Unix Programming
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