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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Origins and History of the Hackers, 1961-1995

The Unix tradition is an implicit culture that has always carried with it more than just a bag of technical tricks. It transmits a set of values about beauty and good design; it has legends and folk heroes. Intertwined with the history of the Unix tradition is another implicit culture that is more difficult to label neatly. It has its own values and legends and folk heroes, partly overlapping with those of the Unix tradition and partly derived from other sources. It has most often been called the “hacker culture”, and since 1998 has largely coincided with what the computer trade press calls “the open source movement”.

The relationships between the Unix tradition, the hacker culture, and the open-source movement are subtle and complex. They are not simplified by the fact that all three implicit cultures have frequently been expressed in the behaviors of the same human beings. But since 1990 the story of Unix is largely the story of how the open-source hackers changed the rules and seized the initiative from the old-line proprietary Unix vendors. Therefore, the other half of the history behind today's Unix is the history of the hackers.

The roots of the hacker culture can be traced back to 1961, the year MIT took delivery of its first PDP-1 minicomputer. The PDP-1 was one of the earliest interactive computers, and (unlike other machines) of the day was inexpensive enough that time on it did not have to be rigidly scheduled. It attracted a group of curious students from the Tech Model Railroad Club who experimented with it in a spirit of fun. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution [Levy] entertainingly describes the early days of the club. Their most famous achievement was SPACEWAR, a game of dueling rocketships loosely inspired by the Lensman space operas of E.E. “Doc” Smith.[18]

Several of the TMRC experimenters later went on to become core members of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, which in the 1960s and 1970s became one of the world centers of cutting-edge computer science. They took some of TMRC's slang and in-jokes with them, including a tradition of elaborate (but harmless) pranks called “hacks”. The AI Lab programmers appear to have been the first to describe themselves as “hackers”.

After 1969 the MIT AI Lab was connected, via the early ARPANET, to other leading computer science research laboratories at Stanford, Bolt Beranek & Newman, Carnegie-Mellon University and elsewhere. Researchers and students got the first foretaste of the way fast network access abolishes geography, often making it easier to collaborate and form friendships with distant people on the net than it would be to do likewise with colleagues closer-by but less connected.

Software, ideas, slang, and a good deal of humor flowed over the experimental ARPANET links. Something like a shared culture began to form. One of its earliest and most enduring artifacts was the Jargon File, a list of shared slang terms that originated at Stanford in 1973 and went through several revisions at MIT after 1976. Along the way it accumulated slang from CMU, Yale, and other ARPANET sites.

Technically, the early hacker culture was largely hosted on PDP-10 minicomputers. They used a variety of operating systems that have since passed into history: TOPS-10, TOPS-20, Multics, ITS, SAIL. They programmed in assembler and dialects of Lisp. PDP-10 hackers took over running the ARPANET itself because nobody else wanted the job. Later, they became the founding cadre of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and originated the tradition of standardization through Requests For Comment (RFCs).

Socially, they were young, exceptionally bright, almost entirely male, dedicated to programming to the point of addiction, and tended to have streaks of stubborn nonconformism — what years later would be called ‘geeks’. They, too, tended to be shaggy hippies and hippie-wannabes. They, too, had a vision of computers as community-building devices. They read Robert Heinlein and J.R.R.Tolkien, played in the Society for Creative Anachronism, and tended to have a weakness for puns. Despite their quirks (or perhaps because of them!) many of them were among the brightest programmers in the world.

They were not Unix programmers. The early Unix community was drawn largely from the same pool of geeks in academia and government or commercial research laboratories, but the two cultures differed in important ways. One that we've already touched on is the weak networking of early Unix. There was effectively no Unix-based ARPANET access until after 1980, and it was uncommon for any individual to have a foot in both camps.

Collaborative development and the sharing of source code was a valued tactic for Unix programmers. To the early ARPANET hackers, on the other hand, it was more than a tactic: it was something rather closer to a shared religion, partly arising from the academic “publish or perish” imperative and (in its more extreme versions) developing into an almost Chardinist idealism about networked communities of minds. The most famous of these hackers, Richard M. Stallman, became the ascetic saint of that religion.


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The Art of Unix Programming
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