Thursday, December 1, 2011

Unix is 40!

IEEE Spectrum this month recognizes the 40th birthday of Unix. Anyone who uses an Apple computer running OS X, anybody with an Android phone, has a Unix variant running on that device. The chances are that most of the web sites one visits run at least part of their stack on Unix variants.

Spectrum's account is worth a look for techies, and I suppose for anyone interested in the way that interesting projects sometimes get started and run beneath the notice of management in large organizations. It is well known in techie circles that UNIX got started when Ken Thompson ported a computer game from a GE-465 computer to a PDP-7.  But I had never heard that
End runs around AT&T's lawyers indeed became the norm—even at Bell Labs. For example, between the release of the sixth edition of Unix in 1975 and the seventh edition in 1979, Thompson collected dozens of important bug fixes to the system, coming both from within and outside of Bell Labs. He wanted these to filter out to the existing Unix user base, but the company's lawyers felt that this would constitute a form of support and balked at their release. Nevertheless, those bug fixes soon became widely distributed through unofficial channels. For instance, Lou Katz, the founding president of Usenix, received a phone call one day telling him that if he went down to a certain spot on Mountain Avenue (where Bell Labs was located) at 2 p.m., he would find something of interest. Sure enough, Katz found a magnetic tape with the bug fixes, which were rapidly in the hands of countless users.

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