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In their own words: Unix pioneers remember the good times

Julie Sartain | Aug. 20, 2013
We caught up with the pioneers who brought us the Unix operating system and asked them to share some memories of the early days of Unix development.

"Ritchie and Thompson made an amazing team; and they played Unix and C like a fine instrument. They sometimes divided up work almost on a subroutine-by-subroutine basis with such rapport that it almost seemed like the work of a single person. In fact, as Dennis has recounted, they once got their signals crossed and both wrote the same subroutine. The two versions did not merely compute the same result; they did it with identical source code. Their output was prodigious. Once I counted how much production code they had written in the preceding year -- 100,000 lines. Prodigious didn't mean slapdash. Ken and Dennis have unerring design sense. They write code that works, code that can be read, code that can evolve."

Peter Neumann remembers Joe Ossanna, who died in 1977.

"Joe and Stan Dunten at MIT were the two people with the deepest experience on input-output system issues. They became the go-to' folks at Bell Labs and MIT for the Multics I/O subsystem, in addition to what it had to do in order to fit in with the rest of Multics.

"Joe had an amazing grasp of everything in that area. He was invaluable to the Multics effort. He was also a warm and thoughtful person. I miss him very much."

Douglas McIlroy shares vivid memories from the Unix lab

"Personal high for me was the introduction of pipes -- a story that's often been told. I had been smitten with stream processing back in 1964 when Conway published the idea of co-routines. I had lobbied for direct process-to-process IO for some time, but only when I came up with the catchy name, pipe' and suggested a workable shell syntax did Ken Thompson vow to do it. It happened overnight and, the next day, we had a wonderful orgy of  look at this one.' Within a week, even our secretaries were using pipes as if the feature had always been there.

"The birth of C, which I think can fairly be called the baseline workhorse language even today -- it is the implementation language for myriad other languages and systems.

"I don't know the counts of Unix and Linux servers. I do know that my heart sinks whenever I look under the hood in Linux. It is has been so overfed by loving hands. Over 240 system calls! Gigabytes of source! AC compiler with a 250-page user manual (not counting the language definition)! A simple page turner, less,' has over 40 options and 60 commands! It's proof that open-source can breed monsters just like the commercial pros. Miraculously, though, this monster works."

Peter Neumann explains the etymology of Unix.

"Don't fall for the story in Peter Salus's book that I coined the name Unics. I don't think I ever claimed that, although I certainly contributed to the pun on the original version of Ken's system being a castrated one-user Multics (Eunuchs). Brian Kernighan may well have been the initiator of unics.' The Bell Labs PR folks eventually wanted it changed to Unix, probably to avoid the pun."


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