I excavated a bit of hacker history from old memories today. Not dead history either, but an important beginning of some large good things.
Here’s how it happened. I got email from a person requesting me to identify a source for the following allegedly famous quote: “All operating systems eventually turn into Unix”.
I told him that I’d never heard that quote as written but that it reminded me of a line by Henry Spencer: “Those who do not understand Unix are condemned to reinvent it, poorly.” This is of course a take on a well-known aphorism by Santayana.
I googled Henry Spencer’s name and some keywords to make sure I had the quote correct. The top hit, from which I verified the quote, was Henry’s Wikipedia page. I read it and something caught my eye – the assertion that Henry wrote his well-known and widely distributed regex package around 1987. And suddenly I remembered something.
Years ago I wrote Eminent Domains: The First Time I Changed History in which I mentioned Henry Spencer’s presence at the conference where I persuaded the NWG not to drop the functional domains in favor of a strict geographic system.
What I just remembered today is something else that happened at that conference that may have been as important, though in a less obvious way. It also pins the date to 1984, because I remember now that anxiety about what AT&T’s recent commercialization of Unix meant to us was very much in the air at that conference (IIRC the big announcement had happened in January or February). We were all worried that this meant the Bell Labs source code would no longer be shared with universities and research labs…as was indeed to become the case.
To fully understand this story you need to know that Henry was already a hugely respected figure in the tiny, not yet very conscious hacker culture of the time (there were, at a guess, somewhere around 500 of us then in the U.S. and Canada – maybe 700 worldwide). I knew him from USENET; I’d seen some of his code, in the relatively small amounts we passed around back then.
It also matters that the GNU Manifesto hadn’t been written yet – wouldn’t be until the following year, though I had some idea what was coming because Richard Stallman had discussed his plans with me at Boskone in February. (That was when I suggested to him that the flagship project for the FSF ought to be Emacs. Duh!) Stallman’s concept of “Free Software” was not yet part of the hacker zeitgeist,
So in October 1984 I was in a crowd of people watching a presentation by a woman from Bell Labs describing the then-new getopt(3) library, written by AT&T as a way to regularize the processing of command-line arguments in C programs. The custom up to then had been to write ad-hoc code for each application, leading to some odd and unpredictable variations in behavior.
Everybody thought this was a fine idea, and several people asked questions probing whether AT&T was going to let anyone else use the getopt code they had written. These questions related to the general anxiety about Unix source code distributions drying up.
Frustration mounted as the woman gave evasive answers which seemed to add up to “No, we refuse to commit to allowing general access to this code.” Which seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears about what was going to happen to Unix source code access in general.
At which point Henry Spencer stands up and says (not in these exact words) “I will write and share a conforming implementation.” – and got a cheer from the assembled.
If you’re thinking “That’s not a big deal, we do this sort of thing all the time,” my actual point is that in October 1984 this was indeed a big deal. It took an actual imaginative leap for Henry Spencer to, in effect, say “Screw AT&T and its legalisms and evasions, if they’re going to cut off source access we hackers are gonna do it for ourselves.”
Yes, we had DECUS tapes and the Unix sources newsgroups on Unix already; Henry was building on that. But he got an actual cheer exactly because he was pushing forward, exposing the possibility of doing not just small projects and demos and quirky little tools but at competing with the likes of AT&T itself at software production.
Of course RMS was, as I was then one of the very few to already know, thinking along the same lines. But RMS’s was a more personal, ideological vision. Henry didn’t have any grand plan to save the world; he was just being a hacker, seeing where the solution to the problem posed by AT&T’s source-code lockdown had to lie, pointing it out just a bit sooner than anyone else, and putting his own skin and considerable reputation in the game.
So yeah. In retrospect I think this was a historically pivotal moment. A respected elder of our tiny tribe (so tiny that probably a substantial fraction of it was in the room listening) declared his independence from what AT&T chose to do about restricting its code. And they took that possibility home with them.
I’m put in mind of the historian Oswald Spengler’s notion that cultures are born at a moment of what Nietzsche called “transvaluation of all values”. Arguably this was one, rather like the one I semi-accidentally triggered in the late 1990s, at which the hacker culture woke up some – became aware of the possibilities implied by its existing folkways.
And there’s a more direct and personal aspect I had half-forgotten. I was a young, unknown programmer then – just 27, still figuring out what I wanted. I watched Henry make that promise. I heard the cheer, and felt the change in the air as culturally, we realized what the solution to AT&T fscking us over had to be.
And I thought “I want to be like that guy.”