The Strange Birth and Long Life of Unix

Warren Toomey has written a wonderful little history of the development of Unix. From IEEE Spectrum:

They say that when one door closes on you, another opens. People generally offer this bit of wisdom just to lend some solace after a misfortune. But sometimes it’s actually true. It certainly was for Ken Thompson and the late Dennis Ritchie, two of the greats of 20th-century information technology, when they created the Unix operating system, now considered one of the most inspiring and influential pieces of software ever written.

A door had slammed shut for Thompson and Ritchie in March of 1969, when their employer, the American Telephone & Telegraph Co., withdrew from a collaborative project with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and General Electric to create an interactive time-sharing system called Multics, which stood for “Multiplexed Information and Computing Service.” Time-sharing, a technique that lets multiple people use a single computer simultaneously, had been invented only a decade earlier. Multics was to combine time-sharing with other technological advances of the era, allowing users to phone a computer from remote terminals and then read e-mail, edit documents, run calculations, and so forth. It was to be a great leap forward from the way computers were mostly being used, with people tediously preparing and submitting batch jobs on punch cards to be run one by one.

These guys were fighting for the users before it was cool, and you gotta love the use of a suburban dead drop to distribute an operating system. +1 espionage Ken Thompson!

Read the whole thing — you’ll be glad you did!

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  1. Long live January 1, 1970 when computing for the rest of us started to break away from the mainframe.

  2. Article excerpt with [ed]…

    "With heavy hearts, the researchers returned to using their old batch system. At such an inauspicious moment, with management dead set against the idea, it surely would have seemed foolhardy to continue designing [multi-taksing] computer operating systems. But that’s exactly what Thompson, Ritchie, and many of their Bell Labs colleagues did."


    So they did the right thing – they kept at it because they understood what Management didn’t…

    Would this be possible these days with Programmer labor costs being accrued by bean-counters at the key-stroke level and Marketing MBA-types hovering over your tiny cubicle saying over-and-over, "Why isn’t it done yet!?"

    And today we must mention the teams of corrupt Patent Lawyers that make you do everything over-and-over again (resulting in lousy code) to avoid law suits.

    I wonder if it is like this today in China?

  3. Also worth a read:

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