A Brief History of Hackerdom

Eric Steven Raymond

This is version 1.24


Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the Open Publication License, version 2.0.

$Date: 2002/08/02 08:21:12 $

Revision History
Revision 1.2425 August 2000esr
First DocBook version.
Revision 1.2329 Dec 1999esr
This version went into the first printed edition.
Revision 1.2017 August 1999esr
First SGML version with bibliography.
Revision 1.115 Feb 1997esr
This document dates from around 1992, but was not version-controlled until 1997.


I explore the origins of the hacker culture, including prehistory among the Real Programmers, the glory days of the MIT hackers, and how the early ARPAnet nurtured the first network nation. I describe the early rise and eventual stagnation of Unix, the new hope from Finland, and how `the last true hacker' became the next generation's patriarch. I sketch the way Linux and the mainstreaming of the Internet brought the hacker culture from the fringes of public consciousness to its current prominence.

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Real Programmers
The Early Hackers
The Rise of Unix
The End of Elder Days
The Proprietary-Unix Era
The Early Free Unixes
The Great Web Explosion

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, retrospectively by one of their own. But from 1945 onward, the technology of computing attracted many of the world's brightest and most creative minds. From Eckert and Mauchly's first ENIAC computer 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 were often amateur-radio hobbyists. 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.

From the end of World War II to the early 1970s, in the great days of batch processing 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 various lists of Murphy's Laws and the mock-German ``Blinkenlights'' poster that still graces many computer rooms.

Some people who grew up in the `Real Programmer' culture remained active into the 1990s and even past the turn of the 21st century. Seymour Cray, designer of the Cray line of supercomputers, was among the greatest. He is said once to have toggled an entire operating system of his own design into a computer of his own design through its front-panel switches. In octal. Without an error. And it worked. Real Programmer macho supremo.

The `Real Programmer' culture, though, was heavily associated with batch (and especially batch scientific) computing. It was eventually eclipsed by the rise of interactive computing, the universities, and the networks. These gave birth to another engineering tradition that, eventually, would evolve into today's open-source hacker culture.