On the Appreciation of Users

  April 01, 2014

Forty years ago, on 15 May 1974, a small group of Unix users met at Columbia University. They met to hear Ken Thompson, to exchange bugs and solutions concerning the Unix operating system and to share bugs and solutions concerning their DEC hardware.

They needed each other.

Created by Thompson and Dennis Ritchie at AT&T Bell Labs in late 1969, Unix was first described publicly in October 1973 at the Symposium on Operating Systems Principles. Many of the 200 attendees returned to their institutions and requested copies. After tussles with the AT&T Legal Department, Ken supplied just over two dozen copies. But it was largely a do-it-yourself system: There was no installation manual, there was no help line.

The users were all implementers.

The IBM 701 was the first mass-produced computer: 18 were shipped! On 7 May 1954, the redesigned 701 was announced as the IBM 704. It was more than merely a redesign. The 704 was incompatible with the 701. It had 4096 words of magnetic core memory. It had three index registers. It employed the full, 36-bit word (as opposed to the 701's 18-bit words). It had floating-point arithmetic. It could perform 40,000 instructions per second. While deliveries began in late 1955, the operators (today we would think of them as system administrators) of the eighteen 701s were already fretful months earlier.

IBM itself had no solution to the problem. Though it had hosted a "training class" for customers of the 701 in August 1952, there were no courses, no textbooks. But several participants in the training class decided to continue to meet informally and discuss mutual problems. Their first meeting was in February 1953 during an AIEE-IRE Computer Conference in Los Angeles.

The participants agreed to hold a second meeting after their own 701s had been installed. That meeting was hosted by Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica in August 1953. There were other informal meetings. Then, following an IBM Symposium, The RAND Corporation hosted a meeting in Los Angeles in August 1955 of representatives from all 17 organizations that had ordered 704s. It was at this meeting that the world's first computer user group was formed. It was called SHARE.

IBM encouraged the operators to meet, to discuss their problems, and to share their solutions to those problems. IBM funded the meetings as well as making a library of 300 computer programs available to members. SHARE, over 60 years later, is still the place where IBM customers gain information. Though it is now independent, for many years SHARE was supported by IBM. Other user groups, e.g., DECUS, started up, all supported by hardware manufacturers.

The Unix-users weren't supported by a manufacturer. In fact, after 1976, Unix wasn't limited to DEC equipment. In 1976/77, Tom Lyon ran part of Unix on Princeton's IBM 360. In 1977/78, Ritchie and Steve Johnson ported Unix to the Interdata 8/32 at the same time that Richard Miller and his colleagues at the University of Woolongong in Australia ported it to an Interdata 7/32.

This was truly important. IBM had shown itself unable to assist its users; DEC was unwilling to even attempt to encourage use of an alien OS on its proprietary hardware. (DEC's own systems were not at all well-supported.)

Unix was the work of users (at AT&T and elsewhere) who had produced an operating system that wasn't limited to a single manufacturer's hardware.

And, to me, that was the single greatest achievement of Unix.

The May 1974 meeting at Columbia University had been organized by Lou Katz and Reidar Bornholdt. (Prior to Unix, Katz had been running RSX-11 at Columbia. RSX-11 first appeared on the PDP-11/40 in 1972.) It was followed by other meetings of the “UNIX Users;” by spring 1975 Mel Ferentz (then at Brooklyn College) sent out an “invitation” to three dozen sites to be placed on a Unix mailing list. Ken Thompson was complicitous in this, supplying Mel with the names and addresses of those who received the system on RK05s (the RK05 DECpack was a moving head magnetic disk drive about 14” in diameter and storing 2.5 MB) or on tapes. Mel sent out a notice of a meeting to be held June 18, 1975 to the respondents plus “20 new institutions.” A third notice was sent on June 16 to a revised list of 37 about the “new edition of Unix” (Sixth Edition).

Ferentz, Katz and Bornholdt set up the meeting, with Ira Fuchs making the arrangements. Over 40 people from 20 institutions attended. Mel wrote it up in UNIX News, Number 1, July 30, 1975; circulation 37.

By sent I mean by postal service. In 1974 there were under 50 hosts on the ARPAnet. Only in 1976 did that number reach 63. “Mel ran everything from a corner of his desk,” Lou Katz told me. “UNIX News was purple ditto. Mel addressed them and put stamps on them and mailed them.” But the May-June 1977 issue was the last. Beginning in July 1977, the publication was called ;login:. It still is.

Mel had been called by an AT&T lawyer and told that the group (which still had no name) couldn't employ the term “UNIX” without permission. A group of users met and decided on the name “Usenix,” coined by Margaret Law, a Harvard-Radcliffe faculty member. The announcement carried the AT&T letter and the footnote: “USENIX is not a trademark of Bell Laboratories, Inc.” Geeks were arrogant even 35 years ago.

USENIX meetings grew and became important. Installations and programs were described. New languages, new games, computer go and chess, graphical terminals, voice and music – all were featured.

Mel's 1975 mailing list is fascinating. In addition to North American (U.S. and Canada) institutions, there were the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Herriot-Watt University (Edinburgh) and the Universite Catholique de Louvain (Belgium). A year later, that list had grown to 138: 13 in Canada, 10 in Great Britain, four in Australia, three each in Israel and the Netherlands, and one each in Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Venezuela. Haruhisa Ishida had introduced Unix to Japan at the University of Tokyo in 1976.

Unix was in worldwide use on several varieties of hardware.

But real explosive growth was in the immediate offing. Steve Holmgren, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, posted RFC 681, “NETWORK UNIX,” on 14 May 1975. Many said that he was “putting Unix on the Net.” But it was far, far more. Holmgren's exposition convinced many that Unix was the appropriate system for the Internet. So the Net was on Unix.

Today, most smartphones run a Unix variant, as do most tablets and pads. Android and OS X are both varieties of Unix; Windows uses Unix for many purposes. And Unix is the linear ancestor of Linux.

But most important is the fact is that it began with a small group at AT&T, and it was proliferated and implemented by the academic and research user community. We owe it all to those users.

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