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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.

"I remember Ken coming in for lunch one day (he tended to program into the wee hours) with a thousand-line operating system kernel that he had written to run on a PDP-7, which Max Matthews had that no one was using. I suggested that it was only a one-user system, so the next morning, Ken came in with another thousand lines and it had become a multiuser system. The rest is history..."

Rudd Canaday shares fond memories, plus why he left.

"Because I had children, I tended to work normal hours. With no such restriction, both Ken and Dennis usually would come to work in the early afternoon and work well into the night. Early in the design of Unix, Ken, Dennis and I fell into the habit of having lunch every day in the service dining room, which closed, as I remember, at 1:30 pm. Most days around noon, I would have to call Ken and Dennis at home to remind them to come to work before the dining room closed. We would go for lunch just before they closed and work at our lunch table well into the afternoon. The staff got used to cleaning up around us and then leaving us there to work.

"One day Ken, Dennis, and I were in my office using the blackboard to design the Unix file system. Bell Labs had just inaugurated a new telephone dictation system available 24/7, which I had wanted to try. So, when we finished for the day, I picked up the phone and dictated notes on our design. The next day the notes arrived on my desk. The notes were useful even though the typist's attempts to make sense of the technical jargon were hilarious. After using the notes to continue our design work, I threw them away. I would love to have those notes now. Several years after I left the Unix project, a patent application for the Unix file system by me, Ken, and Dennis arrived for my signature. I signed it, but did not keep a copy. I wish I had. Subsequently the patent was denied because, I was told, the U.S. Patent Office, at that time, was unsure about and uncomfortable with software patents.

"I left because Ken, Dennis, and I had gone about as far as we could with Unix without a machine. But, when we asked for funds to buy a machine, we were told that BTL, which had just abandoned MULTICS, was not willing to fund another operating system. I believed management and left the Unix project to start a new research group (which built the back-end database machine). I've often said that was the last time I believed what my management told me. Ken and Dennis went to (I was told) the patent department and promised a system that would do their paperwork if they supplied a machine. That's why, I believe, the early Unix had so many text processing tools (nroff, troff, etc.)."


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