A Brief History Of Hackerdom

23/06/2011 11:45

  Prologue: The Real Programmers

In the beginning, there were Real Programmers.

That's not what they called themselves. They didn't call themselves 
"hackers," either, or anything in particular; the sobriquet "Real 
Programmer" wasn't coined until after 1980. But from 1945 onward, the 
technology of computing attracted many of the world's brightest and most 
creative minds. From Eckert and Mauchly's ENIAC onward there was a more 
or less continuous and self-conscious technical culture of enthusiast 
programmers, people who built and played with software for fun.

The Real Programmers typically came out of engineering or physics 
backgrounds. They wore white socks and polyester shirts and ties and 
thick glasses and coded in machine language and assembler and FORTRAN 
and half a dozen ancient languages now forgotten. These were the hacker 
culture's precursors, the largely unsung protagonists of its prehistory.

From the end of World War II to the early 1970s, in the great days of 
batch computing and the "big iron" mainframes, the Real Programmers were 
the dominant technical culture in computing. A few pieces of revered 
hacker folklore date from this era, including the well-known story of 
Mel (included in the Jargon File), various lists of Murphy's Laws, and 
the mock-German "Blinkenlights" poster that still graces many computer 

Some people who grew up in the "Real Programmer"' culture remained 
active into the 1990s. Seymour Cray, designer of the Cray line of 
supercomputers, is said to have once toggled an entire operating system 
of his own design into a computer of his own design. In octal. Without 
an error. And it worked. Real Programmer macho supremo.

On a lighter note, Stan Kelly-Bootle, author of The Devil's DP 
Dictionary (McGraw-Hill, 1981) and folklorist extraordinaire, programmed 
on the Manchester Mark I, the first fully-operational stored-program 
digital computer, in 1948. Nowadays he writes technical humor columns 
for computing magazines which often take the form of a vigorous and 
knowing dialogue with today's hacker culture.

Others, such as David E. Lundstrom, have written anecdotal histories of 
those early years (A Few Good Men From UNIVAC, 1987).

What did the "Real Programmer" culture in was the rise of interactive 
computing, the universities, and the networks. These gave birth to a 
continuous engineering tradition that, eventually, would evolve into 
today's open-source hacker culture.

The Early Hackers

The beginnings of the hacker culture as we know it today can be 
conveniently dated to 1961, the year MIT acquired the first PDP-1. The 
Signals and Power committee of MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club adopted 
the machine as their favorite tech-toy and invented programming tools, 
slang, and an entire surrounding culture that is still recognizably with 
us today. These early years have been examined in the first part of 
Steven Levy's book Hackers (Anchor/Doubleday, 1984).

MIT's computer culture seems to have been the first to adopt the term 
"hacker." The TMRC's hackers became the nucleus of MIT's Artificial 
Intelligence Laboratory, the world's leading center of AI research into 
the early 1980s. And their influence was spread far wider after 1969, 
the first year of the ARPAnet.

The ARPAnet was the first transcontinental, high-speed computer network. 
It was built by the Defense Department as an experiment in digital 
communications, but grew to link together hundreds of universities and 
defense contractors and research laboratories. It enabled researchers 
everywhere to exchange information with unprecedented speed and 
flexibility, giving a huge boost to collaborative work and tremendously 
increasing both the pace and intensity of technological advance.

But the ARPAnet did something else as well. Its electronic highways 
brought together hackers all over the U.S. in a critical mass; instead 
of remaining in isolated small groups each developing their own 
ephemeral local cultures, they discovered (or re-invented) themselves as 
a networked tribe.

The first intentional artifacts of hackerdom--the first slang lists, the 
first satires, the first self-conscious discussions of the hacker 
ethic--all propagated on the ARPAnet in its early years. (The first 
version of the Jargon File, as a major example, dated from 1973.) 
Hackerdom grew up at the universities connected to the Net, especially 
(though not exclusively) in their computer science departments.

Culturally, MIT's AI Lab was first among equals from the late 1960s. But 
Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) and 
(later) Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) became nearly as important. All 
were thriving centers of computer science and AI research. All attracted 
bright people who contributed great things to hackerdom, on both the 
technical and folkloric levels.

To understand what came later, though, we need to take another look at 
the computers themselves, because the Lab's rise and its eventual fall 
were both driven by waves of change in computing technology.

Since the days of the PDP-1, hackerdom's fortunes had been woven 
together with Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP series of 
minicomputers. DEC pioneered commercial interactive computing and 
time-sharing operating systems. Because their machines were flexible, 
powerful, and relatively cheap for the era, lots of universities bought 

Cheap time sharing was the medium the hacker culture grew in, and for 
most of its lifespan the ARPAnet was primarily a network of DEC 
machines. The most important of these was the PDP-10, first released in 
1967. The 10 remained hackerdom's favorite machine for almost fifteen 
years; TOPS-10 (DEC's operating system for the machine) and MACRO-10 
(its assembler) are still remembered with nostalgic fondness in a great 
deal of slang and folklore.

MIT, though it used the same PDP-10's as everyone else, took a slightly 
different path; they rejected DEC's software for the PDP-10 entirely and 
built their own operating system, the fabled ITS.

ITS stood for "Incompatible Timesharing System," which gives one a 
pretty good fix on their attitude. They wanted it their way. Fortunately 
for all, MIT's people had the intelligence to match their arrogance. 
ITS, quirky and eccentric and occasionally buggy though it always was, 
hosted a brilliant series of technical innovations and still arguably 
holds the record for time-sharing system in longest continuous use.

ITS itself was written in assembler, but many ITS projects were written 
in the AI language LISP. LISP was far more powerful and flexible than 
any other language of its day; in fact, it is still a better design than 
most languages of today, twenty-five years later. LISP freed ITS's 
hackers to think in unusual and creative ways. It was a major factor in 
their successes, and remains one of hackerdom's favorite languages.

Many of the ITS culture's technical creations are still alive today; the 
Emacs program editor is perhaps the best-known. And much of ITS's 
folklore is still "live" to hackers, as one can see in the Jargon 

SAIL and CMU weren't asleep, either. Many of the cadre of hackers that 
grew up around SAIL's PDP-10 later became key figures in the development 
of the personal computer and today's window/icon/mouse software 
interfaces. And hackers at CMU were doing the work that would lead to 
the first practical large-scale applications of expert systems and 
industrial robotics.

Another important node of the culture was Xerox PARC, the famed Palo 
Alto Research Center. For more than a decade, from the early 1970s into 
the mid-1980s, PARC yielded an astonishing volume of groundbreaking 
hardware and software innovations. The modern mice, windows, and icons 
style of software interface was invented there. So was the laser 
printer, and the local-area network; and PARC's series of D machines 
anticipated the powerful personal computers of the 1980s by a decade. 
Sadly, these prophets were without honor in their own company; so much 
so that it became a standard joke to describe PARC as a place 
characterized by developing brilliant ideas for everyone else. Their 
influence on hackerdom was pervasive.

The ARPAnet and the PDP-10 cultures grew in strength and variety 
throughout the 1970s. The facilities for electronic mailing lists that 
had been used to foster cooperation among continent-wide 
special-interest groups were increasingly also used for more social and 
recreational purposes. DARPA deliberately turned a blind eye to all the 
technically "unauthorized" activity; it understood that the extra 
overhead was a small price to pay for attracting an entire generation of 
bright young people into the computing field.

Perhaps the best-known of the "social" ARPAnet mailing lists was the 
SF-LOVERS list for science-fiction fans; it is still very much alive 
today, in fact, on the larger "Internet" that ARPAnet evolved into. But 
there were many others, pioneering a style of communication that would 
later be commercialized by for-profit time-sharing services like 
CompuServe, GEnie, and Prodigy.

The Rise of Unix

Meanwhile, however, off in the wilds of New Jersey, something else had 
been going on since 1969 that would eventually overshadow the PDP-10 
tradition. The year of ARPAnet's birth was also the year that a Bell 
Labs hacker named Ken Thompson invented Unix.

Thompson had been involved with the development work on a time-sharing 
OS called Multics, which shared common ancestry with ITS. Multics was a 
test-bed for some important ideas about how the complexity of an 
operating system could be hidden inside it, invisible to the user and 
even to most programmers. The idea was to make using Multics from the 
outside (and programming for it!) much simpler, so that more real work 
could get done.

Bell Labs pulled out of the project when Multics displayed signs of 
bloating into an unusable white elephant (the system was later marketed 
commercially by Honeywell but never became a success). Ken Thompson 
missed the Multics environment, and began to play at implementing a 
mixture of its ideas and some of his own on a scavenged DEC PDP-7.

Another hacker named Dennis Ritchie invented a new language called "C" 
for use under Thompson's embryonic Unix. Like Unix, C was designed to be 
pleasant, unconstraining, and flexible. Interest in these tools spread 
at Bell Labs, and they got a boost in 1971 when Thompson and Ritchie won 
a bid to produce what we'd now call an office-automation system for 
internal use there. But Thompson and Ritchie had their eye on a bigger 

Traditionally, operating systems had been written in tight assembler to 
extract the absolute highest efficiency possible out of their host 
machines. Thompson and Ritchie were among the first to realize that 
hardware and compiler technology had become good enough that an entire 
operating system could be written in C, and by 1974 the whole 
environment had been successfully ported to several machines of 
different types.

This had never been done before, and the implications were enormous. If 
Unix could present the same face, the same capabilities, on machines of 
many different types, it could serve as a common software environment 
for all of them. No longer would users have to pay for complete new 
designs of software every time a machine went obsolete. Hackers could 
carry around software toolkits between different machines, rather than 
having to re-invent the equivalents of fire and the wheel every time.

Besides portability, Unix and C had some other important strengths. Both 
were constructed from a "Keep It Simple, Stupid" philosophy. A 
programmer could easily hold the entire logical structure of C in his 
head (unlike most other languages before or since) rather than needing 
to refer constantly to manuals; and Unix was structured as a flexible 
toolkit of simple programs designed to combine with each other in useful 

The combination proved to be adaptable to a very wide range of computing 
tasks, including many completely unanticipated by the designers. It 
spread very rapidly within AT&T, in spite of the lack of any formal 
support program for it. By 1980, it had spread to a large number of 
university and research computing sites, and thousands of hackers 
considered it home.

The workhorse machines of the early Unix culture were the PDP-11 and its 
descendant, the VAX. But because of Unix's portability, it ran 
essentially unaltered on a wider range of machines than one could find 
on the entire ARPAnet. And nobody used assembler; C programs were 
readily portable among all these machines.

Unix even had its own networking, of sorts--Unix-to-Unix Copy Protocol 
(UUCP): low-speed and unreliable, but cheap. Any two Unix machines could 
exchange point-to-point electronic mail over ordinary phone lines; this 
capability was built into the system, not an optional extra. Unix sites 
began to form a network nation of their own, and a hacker culture to go 
with it. In 1980, the first Usenet board that would quickly grow bigger 
than ARPAnet.

A few Unix sites were on the ARPAnet themselves. The PDP-10 and Unix 
cultures began to meet and mingle at the edges, but they didn't mix very 
well at first. The PDP-10 hackers tended to consider the Unix crowd a 
bunch of upstarts, using tools that looked ridiculously primitive when 
set against the baroque, lovely complexities of LISP and ITS. "Stone 
knives and bearskins!" they muttered.

And there was yet a third current flowing. The first personal computer 
had been marketed in 1975. Apple was founded in 1977, and advances came 
with almost unbelievable rapidity in the years that followed. The 
potential of microcomputers was clear, and attracted yet another 
generation of bright young hackers. Their language was BASIC, so 
primitive that PDP-10 partisans and Unix aficionados both considered it 
beneath contempt.

The End of Elder Days

So matters stood in 1980: three cultures, overlapping at the edges but 
organized around very different technologies. The ARPAnet/PDP-10 
culture, wedded to LISP and MACRO and TOPS-10 and ITS. The Unix and C 
crowd with their PDP-11s and VAXen and pokey telephone connections. And 
an anarchic horde of early microcomputer enthusiasts bent on taking 
computer power to the people.

Among these, the ITS culture could still claim pride of place. But storm 
clouds were gathering over the Lab. The PDP-10 technology ITS depended 
on was aging, and the Lab itself was split into factions by the first 
attempts to commercialize AI technology. Some of the Lab's (and SAIL's 
and CMU's) best were lured away to high-paying jobs at startup 

The death blow came in 1983, when DEC cancelled its follow-on to the 
PDP-10 in order to concentrate on the PDP-11 and VAX lines. ITS no 
longer had a future. Because it wasn't portable, it was more effort than 
anyone could afford to move ITS to new hardware. The Berkeley variant of 
Unix running on a VAX became the hacking system par excellence, and 
anyone with an eye on the future could see that microcomputers were 
growing in power so rapidly that they were likely to sweep all before 

It was around this time that Levy wrote Hackers. One of his prime 
informants was Richard M. Stallman (inventor of Emacs), a leading figure 
at the Lab and its most fanatical holdout against the commercialization 
of Lab technology.

Stallman (who is usually known by his initials and login name, RMS) went 
on to form the Free Software Foundation and dedicate himself to 
producing high-quality free software. Levy eulogized him as "the last 
true hacker," a description that happily proved incorrect.

Stallman's grandest scheme neatly epitomized the transition hackerdom 
underwent in the early 80s--in 1982 he began the construction of an 
entire clone of Unix, written in C and available for free. Thus, the 
spirit and tradition of ITS was preserved as an important part of the 
newer, Unix- and VAX-centered hacker culture.

It was also around this time that microchip and local-area network 
technology began to have a serious impact on hackerdom. Ethernet and the 
Motorola 68000 microchip made a potentially potent combination, and 
several different startups had been formed to build the first generation 
of what we now call workstations.

In 1982, a group of Unix hackers from Berkeley founded Sun Microsystems 
on the belief that Unix running on relatively inexpensive 68000-based 
hardware would prove a winning combination for a wide variety of 
applications. They were right, and their vision set the pattern for an 
entire industry. While still priced out of reach of most individuals, 
workstations were cheap for corporations and universities; networks of 
them (one to a user) rapidly replaced the older VAXes and other 
timesharing systems.

The Proprietary Unix Era

By 1984, when AT&T divested and Unix became a commercial product for the 
first time, the most important fault line in hackerdom was between a 
relatively cohesive "network nation" centered around the Internet and 
Usenet (and mostly using minicomputer- or workstation-class machines 
running Unix), and a vast disconnected hinterland of microcomputer 

The workstation-class machines built by Sun and others opened up new 
worlds for hackers. They were built to do high-performance graphics and 
pass around shared data over a network. During the 1980s, hackerdom was 
preoccupied by the software and tool-building challenges of getting the 
most use out of these features. Berkeley Unix developed built-in support 
for the ARPAnet protocols, which offered a solution to the networking 
problem and encouraged further growth of the Internet.

There were several attempts to tame workstation graphics. The one that 
prevailed was the X Window System. A critical factor in its success was 
that the X developers were willing to give the sources away for free in 
accordance with the hacker ethic, and were able to distribute them over 
the Internet. X's victory over proprietary graphics systems (including 
one offered by Sun itself) was an important harbinger of changes which, 
a few years later, would profoundly affect Unix itself.

There was a bit of factional spleen still vented occasionally in the 
ITS/Unix rivalry (mostly from the ex-ITSers' side). But the last ITS 
machine shut down for good in 1990; the zealots no longer had a place to 
stand and mostly assimilated to the Unix culture with various degrees of 

Within networked hackerdom itself, the big rivalry of the 1980s was 
between fans of Berkeley Unix and the AT&T versions. Occasionally you 
can still find copies of a poster from that period, showing a cartoony 
X-wing fighter out of the Star Wars movies streaking away from an 
exploding Death Star patterned on the AT&T logo. Berkeley hackers liked 
to see themselves as rebels against soulless corporate empires. AT&T 
Unix never caught up with BSD/Sun in the marketplace, but it won the 
standards wars. By 1990, AT&T and BSD versions were becoming harder to 
tell apart, having adopted many of each others' innovations.

As the 1990s opened, the workstation technology of the previous decade 
was beginning to look distinctly threatened by newer, low-cost and 
high-performance personal computers based on the Intel 386 chip and its 
descendants. For the first time, individual hackers could afford to have 
home machines comparable in power and storage capacity to the 
minicomputers of ten years earlier--Unix engines capable of supporting a 
full development environment and talking to the Internet.

The MS-DOS world remained blissfully ignorant of all this. Though those 
early microcomputer enthusiasts quickly expanded to a population of DOS 
and Mac hackers orders of magnitude greater than that of the "network 
nation" culture, they never become a self-aware culture themselves. The 
pace of change was so fast that fifty different technical cultures grew 
and died as rapidly as mayflies, never achieving quite the stability 
necessary to develop a common tradition of jargon, folklore, and mythic 
history. The absence of a really pervasive network comparable to UUCP or 
the Internet prevented them from becoming a network nation themselves. 
Widespread access to commercial online services like CompuServe and 
Genie was beginning to take hold, but the fact that non-Unix operating 
systems don't come bundled with development tools meant that very little 
source was passed over them. Thus, no tradition of collaborative hacking 

The mainstream of hackerdom, (dis)organized around the Internet and by 
now largely identified with the Unix technical culture, didn't care 
about the commercial services. They wanted better tools and more 
Internet, and cheap 32-bit PCs promised to put both in everyone's reach.

But where was the software? Commercial Unixes remained expensive, in the 
multiple-kilobuck range. In the early 1990s, several companies made a go 
at selling AT&T or BSD Unix ports for PC-class machines. Success was 
elusive, prices didn't come down much, and (worst of all) you didn't get 
modifiable and redistributable sources with your operating system. The 
traditional software-business model wasn't giving hackers what they 

Neither was the Free Software Foundation. The development of HURD, RMS's 
long-promised free Unix kernel for hackers, got stalled for years and 
failed to produce anything like a usable kernel until 1996 (though by 
1990 FSF supplied almost all the other difficult parts of a Unix-like 
operating system).

Worse, by the early 1990s it was becoming clear that ten years of effort 
to commercialize proprietary Unix was ending in failure. Unix's promise 
of cross-platform portability got lost in bickering among half a dozen 
proprietary Unix versions. The proprietary-Unix players proved so 
ponderous, so blind, and so inept at marketing that Microsoft was able 
to grab away a large part of their market with the shockingly inferior 
technology of its Windows OS.

In early 1993, a hostile observer might have had grounds for thinking 
that the Unix story was almost played out, and with it the fortunes of 
the hacker tribe. And there was no shortage of hostile observers in the 
computer trade press, many of whom had been ritually predicting the 
imminent death of Unix at six-month intervals ever since the late 1970s.

In those days it was conventional wisdom that the era of individual 
techno-heroism was over, that the software industry and the nascent 
Internet would increasingly be dominated by colossi like Microsoft. The 
first generation of Unix hackers seemed to be getting old and tired 
(Berkeley's Computer Science Research group ran out of steam and lost 
its funding in 1994). It was a depressing time.

Fortunately, there had been things going on out of sight of the trade 
press, and out of sight even of most hackers, that would produce 
startlingly positive developments in later 1993 and 1994. Eventually, 
these would take the culture in a whole new direction and to 
undreamed-of successes.

The Early Free Unixes

Into the gap left by the HURD's failure had stepped a Helsinki 
University student named Linus Torvalds. In 1991 he began developing a 
free Unix kernel for 386 machines using the Free Software Foundation's 
toolkit. His initial, rapid success attracted many Internet hackers to 
help him develop Linux, a full-featured Unix with entirely free and 
redistributable sources.

Linux was not without competitors. In 1991, contemporaneously with Linus 
Torvalds's early experiments, William and Lynne Jolitz were 
experimentally porting the BSD Unix sources to the 386. Most observers 
comparing BSD technology with Linus's crude early efforts expected that 
BSD ports would become the most important free Unixes on the PC.

The most important feature of Linux, however, was not technical but 
sociological. Until the Linux development, everyone believed that any 
software as complex as an operating system had to be developed in a 
carefully coordinated way by a relatively small, tightly-knit group of 
people. This model was and still is typical of both commercial software 
and the great freeware cathedrals built by the Free Software Foundation 
in the 1980s; also of the freeBSD/netBSD/OpenBSD projects that spun off 
from the Jolitzes' original 386BSD port.

Linux evolved in a completely different way. From nearly the beginning, 
it was rather casually hacked on by huge numbers of volunteers 
coordinating only through the Internet. Quality was maintained not by 
rigid standards or autocracy but by the naively simple strategy of 
releasing every week and getting feedback from hundreds of users within 
days, creating a sort of rapid Darwinian selection on the mutations 
introduced by developers. To the amazement of almost everyone, this 
worked quite well.

By late 1993, Linux could compete on stability and reliability with many 
commercial Unixes, and hosted vastly more software. It was even 
beginning to attract ports of commercial applications software. One 
indirect effect of this development was to kill off most of the smaller 
commercial Unix vendors--without developers and hackers to sell to, they 
folded. One of the few survivors, BSDI (Berkeley Systems Design, 
Incorporated), flourished by offering full sources with its BSD-based 
Unix and cultivating close ties with the hacker community.

These developments were not much remarked on at the time even within the 
hacker culture, and not at all outside it. The hacker culture, defying 
repeated predictions of its demise, was just beginning to remake the 
commercial-software world in its own image. It would be five more years, 
however, before this trend became obvious.

The Great Web Explosion

The early growth of Linux synergized with another phenomenon: the public 
discovery of the Internet. The early 1990s also saw the beginnings of a 
flourishing Internet-provider industry, selling connectivity to the 
public for a few dollars a month. Following the invention of the World 
Wide Web, the Internet's already-rapid growth accelerated to a breakneck 

By 1994, the year Berkeley's Unix development group formally shut down, 
several different free Unix versions (Linux and the descendants of 
386BSD) served as the major focal points of hacking activity. Linux was 
being distributed commercially on CD-ROM and selling like hotcakes. By 
the end of 1995, major computer companies were beginning to take out 
glossy advertisements celebrating the Internet-friendliness of their 
software and hardware!

In the late 1990s the central activities of hackerdom became Linux 
development and the mainstreaming of the Internet. The World Wide Web 
has at last made the Internet into a mass medium, and many of the 
hackers of the 1980s and early 1990s launched Internet Service Providers 
selling or giving access to the masses.

The mainstreaming of the Internet has even brought the hacker culture 
the beginnings of mainstream respectability and political clout. In 1994 
and 1995, hacker activism scuppered the Clipper proposal, which would 
have put strong encryption under government control. In 1996 hackers 
mobilized a broad coalition to defeat the misnamed "Communications 
Decency Act" (CDA) and prevent censorship of the Internet.

With the CDA victory, we pass out of history into current events. We 
also pass into a period in which your historian became an actor rather 
than just an observer. This narrative will continue in "The Revenge of 
the Hackers."

    All governments are more or less combinations against the people... 
and as rulers have no more virtue than the ruled... the power of 
government can only be kept within its constituted bounds by the display 
of a power equal to itself, the collected sentiment of the people. 

    --Benjamin Franklin Bache, in a Philadelphia Aurora editorial, 1794