Next Previous Contents

5. The End of Elder Days

So matters stood in 1980; three cultures, overlapping at the edges but clustered around very different technologies. The ARPANET/PDP-10 culture, wedded to LISP and MACRO and TOPS-10 and ITS and SAIL. The Unix and C crowd with their PDP-11s and VAXen and pokey telephone connections. And an anarchic horde of early microcomputer enthusiasts bent on taking computer power to the people.

Among these, the ITS culture could still claim pride of place. But stormclouds were gathering over the Lab. The PDP-10 technology ITS depended on was aging, and the Lab itself was split into factions by the first attempts to commercialize artificial intelligence. Some of the Lab's (and SAIL's and CMU's) best were lured away to high-paying jobs at startup companies.

The death blow came in 1983, when DEC cancelled its `Jupiter' followon to the PDP-10 in order to concentrate on the PDP-11 and VAX lines. ITS no longer had a future. Because it wasn't portable, it was more effort than anyone could afford to move ITS to new hardware. The Berkeley variant of Unix running on a VAX became the hacking system par excellence, and anyone with an eye on the future could see that microcomputers were growing in power so rapidly that they were likely to sweep all before them.

It's around this time that Levy wrote Hackers. One of his prime informants was Richard M. Stallman (inventor of EMACS), a leading figure at the Lab and its most fanatical holdout against the commercialization of Lab technology.

Stallman (who is usually known by his initials and login name, RMS) went on to form the Free Software Foundation and dedicate himself to producing high-quality free software. Levy eulogized him as ``the last true hacker'', a description which happily proved incorrect.

Stallman's grandest scheme neatly epitomized the transition hackerdom underwent in the early eighties --- in 1982 he began the construction of an entire clone of Unix, written in C and available for free. His project was known as the GNU (Gnu's Not Unix) operating system, in a kind of recursive acronym. GNU quickly became a major focus for hacker activity. Thus, the spirit and tradition of ITS was preserved as an important part of the newer, Unix and VAX-centered hacker culture.

Indeed, for more than a decade after its founding RMS's Free Software Foundation would largely define the public ideology of the hacker culture, and Stallman himself would be the only credible claimant to leadership of the tribe.

It was also around 1982-83 that microchip and local-area network technology began to have a serious impact on hackerdom. Ethernet and the Motorola 68000 microchip made a potentially potent combination, and several different startups had been formed to build the first generation of what we now call workstations.

In 1982, a group of Unix hackers from Stanford and Berkeley founded Sun Microsystems on the belief that Unix running on relatively inexpensive 68000-based hardware would prove a winning combination for a wide variety of applications. They were right, and their vision set the pattern for an entire industry. While still priced out of reach of most individuals, workstations were cheap for corporations and universities; networks of them (one to a user) rapidly replaced the older VAXes and other timesharing systems.

Next Previous Contents