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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.

Brian Kernighan chats about pipes and pipelines:

"It's hard to imagine just how far Unix systems have come in the past 40 years. A bit of searching reminded me of the wonderful remark by Dennis Ritchie that the number of Unix installations has grown to 10, with more expected,' which I think dates from about 1972, probably around the time of the third or fourth edition. I do recall one occasion, a few years after that, when someone brought in a classified advertisement from the New York Times (remember when papers still had classifieds?) that was seeking Unix programmers; the consensus in the Unix room at Bell Labs was that in some way Unix had made the big leagues; it had arrived.'"

"In his 1979 paper on The Evolution of Unix, Dennis Ritchie said, One of the comforting things about old memories is their tendency to take on a rosy glow. The memory fixes on what was good and what lasted, and on the joy of helping to create the improvements that made life better.' I cherish a lot of memories of those good old days."

"The Unix room was, in some ways, ahead of the curve in providing a large open space with tables where people could work or just hang out. It was often noisy, but it made for very effective communication. Everyone had a private office, but everyone spent some time in the communal space, perhaps just for coffee, or to ask a question about how something worked. And when the system was small and the group was compact, it was also the place to hear about new ideas and new programs."

"I remember one day where the new pipe' feature had just been implemented in the shell. What a neat idea: take the output of one program and make it the input of another program. There was a frenzy of activity as people modified programs, so that they would work in pipelines, not just from file arguments. It probably only lasted a day (in my rosy memory) but, in some ways, it changed the world forever."

Michael Lesk:

"Unix also was created at a time when we had keyboard input and minimal graphics capabilities. So the text processing software lost out to WYSIWYG methods. The result is that it's easier for me to create a table when writing it by hand; but it's more difficult to generate a table out of a software script. This suits the industry -- when success is measured by counting eyeballs, the industry likes programs that require the user to be personally present and paying attention. But it raises the effort required to link up multiple applications, which was a great strength of the pipe' mechanism on Unix."


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