Origins and History of the Hackers, 1961-1995

The Unix tradition is an implicit culture that has always carried with it more than just a bag of technical tricks. It transmits a set of values about beauty and good design; it has legends and folk heroes. Intertwined with the history of the Unix tradition is another implicit culture that is more difficult to label neatly. It has its own values and legends and folk heroes, partly overlapping with those of the Unix tradition and partly derived from other sources. It has most often been called the “hacker culture”, and since 1998 has largely coincided with what the computer trade press calls “the open source movement”.

The relationships between the Unix tradition, the hacker culture, and the open-source movement are subtle and complex. They are not simplified by the fact that all three implicit cultures have frequently been expressed in the behaviors of the same human beings. But since 1990 the story of Unix is largely the story of how the open-source hackers changed the rules and seized the initiative from the old-line proprietary Unix vendors. Therefore, the other half of the history behind today's Unix is the history of the hackers.

The roots of the hacker culture can be traced back to 1961, the year MIT took delivery of its first PDP-1 minicomputer. The PDP-1 was one of the earliest interactive computers, and (unlike other machines) of the day was inexpensive enough that time on it did not have to be rigidly scheduled. It attracted a group of curious students from the Tech Model Railroad Club who experimented with it in a spirit of fun. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution [Levy] entertainingly describes the early days of the club. Their most famous achievement was SPACEWAR, a game of dueling rocketships loosely inspired by the Lensman space operas of E.E. “Doc” Smith.[18]

Several of the TMRC experimenters later went on to become core members of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, which in the 1960s and 1970s became one of the world centers of cutting-edge computer science. They took some of TMRC's slang and in-jokes with them, including a tradition of elaborate (but harmless) pranks called “hacks”. The AI Lab programmers appear to have been the first to describe themselves as “hackers”.

After 1969 the MIT AI Lab was connected, via the early ARPANET, to other leading computer science research laboratories at Stanford, Bolt Beranek & Newman, Carnegie-Mellon University and elsewhere. Researchers and students got the first foretaste of the way fast network access abolishes geography, often making it easier to collaborate and form friendships with distant people on the net than it would be to do likewise with colleagues closer-by but less connected.

Software, ideas, slang, and a good deal of humor flowed over the experimental ARPANET links. Something like a shared culture began to form. One of its earliest and most enduring artifacts was the Jargon File, a list of shared slang terms that originated at Stanford in 1973 and went through several revisions at MIT after 1976. Along the way it accumulated slang from CMU, Yale, and other ARPANET sites.

Technically, the early hacker culture was largely hosted on PDP-10 minicomputers. They used a variety of operating systems that have since passed into history: TOPS-10, TOPS-20, Multics, ITS, SAIL. They programmed in assembler and dialects of Lisp. PDP-10 hackers took over running the ARPANET itself because nobody else wanted the job. Later, they became the founding cadre of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and originated the tradition of standardization through Requests For Comment (RFCs).

Socially, they were young, exceptionally bright, almost entirely male, dedicated to programming to the point of addiction, and tended to have streaks of stubborn nonconformism — what years later would be called ‘geeks’. They, too, tended to be shaggy hippies and hippie-wannabes. They, too, had a vision of computers as community-building devices. They read Robert Heinlein and J. R. R. Tolkien, played in the Society for Creative Anachronism, and tended to have a weakness for puns. Despite their quirks (or perhaps because of them!) many of them were among the brightest programmers in the world.

They were not Unix programmers. The early Unix community was drawn largely from the same pool of geeks in academia and government or commercial research laboratories, but the two cultures differed in important ways. One that we've already touched on is the weak networking of early Unix. There was effectively no Unix-based ARPANET access until after 1980, and it was uncommon for any individual to have a foot in both camps.

Collaborative development and the sharing of source code was a valued tactic for Unix programmers. To the early ARPANET hackers, on the other hand, it was more than a tactic: it was something rather closer to a shared religion, partly arising from the academic “publish or perish” imperative and (in its more extreme versions) developing into an almost Chardinist idealism about networked communities of minds. The most famous of these hackers, Richard M. Stallman, became the ascetic saint of that religion.

After 1983 and the BSD port of TCP/IP, the Unix and ARPANET cultures began to fuse together. This was a natural development once the communication links were in place, since both cultures were composed of the same kind of people (indeed, in a few but significant cases the same people). ARPANET hackers learned C and began to speak the jargon of pipes, filters, and shells; Unix programmers learned TCP/IP and started to call each other “hackers”. The process of fusion was accelerated after the Project Jupiter cancellation in 1983 killed the PDP-10's future. By 1987 the two cultures had merged so completely that most hackers programmed in C and casually used slang terms that went back to the Tech Model Railroad Club of twenty-five years earlier.

(In 1979 I was unusual in having strong ties to both the Unix and ARPANET cultures. In 1985 that was no longer unusual. By the time I expanded the old ARPANET Jargon File into the New Hacker's Dictionary [Raymond96] in 1991, the two cultures had effectively fused. The Jargon File, born on the ARPANET but revised on Usenet, aptly symbolized the merger.)

But TCP/IP networking and slang were not the only things the post-1980 hacker culture inherited from its ARPANET roots. It also got Richard Stallman, and Stallman's moral crusade.

Richard M. Stallman (generally known by his login name, RMS) had already proved by the late 1970s that he was one of the most able programmers alive. Among his many inventions was the Emacs editor. For RMS, the Jupiter cancellation in 1983 only finished off a disintegration of the MIT AI Lab culture that had begun a few years earlier as many of its best went off to help run competing Lisp-machine companies. RMS felt ejected from a hacker Eden, and decided that proprietary software was to blame.

In 1983 Stallman founded the GNU project, aimed at writing an entire free operating system. Though Stallman was not and had never been a Unix programmer, under post-1980 conditions implementing a Unix-like operating system became the obvious strategy to pursue. Most of RMS's early contributors were old-time ARPANET hackers newly decanted into Unix-land, in whom the ethos of code-sharing ran rather stronger than it did among those with a more Unix-centered background.

In 1985, RMS published the GNU Manifesto. In it he consciously created an ideology out of the values of the pre-1980 ARPANET hackers — complete with a novel ethico-political claim, a self-contained and characteristic discourse, and an activist plan for change. RMS aimed to knit the diffuse post-1980 community of hackers into a coherent social machine for achieving a single revolutionary purpose. His behavior and rhetoric half-consciously echoed Karl Marx's attempts to mobilize the industrial proletariat against the alienation of their work.

RMS's manifesto ignited a debate that is still live in the hacker culture today. His program went way beyond maintaining a codebase, and essentially implied the abolition of intellectual-property rights in software. In pursuit of this goal, RMS popularized the term “free software”, which was the first attempt to label the product of the entire hacker culture. He wrote the General Public License (GPL), which was to become both a rallying point and a focus of great controversy, for reasons we will examine in Chapter 16. You can learn more about RMS's position and the Free Software Foundation at the GNU website.

The term “free software” was partly a description and partly an attempt to define a cultural identity for hackers. On one level, it was quite successful. Before RMS, people in the hacker culture recognized each other as fellow-travelers and used the same slang, but nobody bothered arguing about what a ‘hacker’ is or should be. After him, the hacker culture became much more self-conscious; value disputes (often framed in RMS's language even by those who opposed his conclusions) became a normal feature of debate. RMS, a charismatic and polarizing figure, himself became so much a culture hero that by the year 2000 he could hardly be distinguished from his legend. Free as in Freedom [Williams] gives us an excellent portrait.

RMS's arguments influenced the behavior even of many hackers who remained skeptical of his theories. In 1987, he persuaded the caretakers of BSD Unix that cleaning out AT&T's proprietary code so they could release an unencumbered version would be a good idea. However, despite his determined efforts over more than fifteen years, the post-1980 hacker culture never unified around his ideological vision.

Other hackers were rediscovering open, collaborative development without secrets for more pragmatic, less ideological reasons. A few buildings away from Richard Stallman's 9th-floor office at MIT, the X development team thrived during the late 1980s. It was funded by Unix vendors who had argued each other to a draw over the control and intellectual-property-rights issues surrounding the X windowing system, and saw no better alternative than to leave it free to everyone. In 1987–1988 the X development prefigured the really huge distributed communities that would redefine the leading edge of Unix five years later.


X was one of the first large-scale open-source projects to be developed by a disparate team of individuals working for different organizations spread across the globe. E-mail allowed ideas to move rapidly among the group so that issues could be resolved as quickly as necessary, and each individual could contribute in whatever capacity suited them best. Software updates could be distributed in a matter of hours, enabling every site to act in a concerted manner during development. The net changed the way software could be developed.

-- Keith Packard  

The X developers were no partisans of the GNU master plan, but they weren't actively opposed to it, either. Before 1995 the most serious opposition to the GNU plan came from the BSD developers. The BSD people, who remembered that they had been writing freely redistributable and modifiable software years before RMS's manifesto, rejected GNU's claim to historical and ideological primacy. They specifically objected to the infectious or “viral” property of the GPL, holding out the BSD license as being “more free” because it placed fewer restrictions on the reuse of code.

It did not help RMS's case that, although his Free Software Foundation had produced most of the rest of a full software toolkit, it failed to deliver the central piece. Ten years after the founding of the GNU project, there was still no GNU kernel. While individual tools like Emacs and GCC proved tremendously useful, GNU without a kernel neither threatened the hegemony of proprietary Unixes nor offered an effective counter to the rising problem of the Microsoft monopoly.

After 1995 the debate over RMS's ideology took a somewhat different turn. Opposition to it became closely associated with both Linus Torvalds and the author of this book.

Even as the HURD (the GNU kernel) effort was stalling, new possibilities were opening up. In the early 1990s the combination of cheap, powerful PCs with easy Internet access proved a powerful lure for a new generation of young programmers looking for challenges to test their mettle. The user-space toolkit written by the Free Software Foundation suggested a way forward that was free of the high cost of proprietary software development tools. Ideology followed economics rather than leading the charge; some of the newbies signed up with RMS's crusade and adopted the GPL as their banner, and others identified more with the Unix tradition as a whole and joined the anti-GPL camp, but most dismissed the whole dispute as a distraction and just wrote code.

Linus Torvalds neatly straddled the GPL/anti-GPL divide by using the GNU toolkit to surround the Linux kernel he had invented and the GPL's infectious properties to protect it, but rejecting the ideological program that went with RMS's license. Torvalds affirmed that he thought free software better in general but occasionally used proprietary programs. His refusal to be a zealot even in his own cause made him tremendously attractive to the majority of hackers who had been uncomfortable with RMS's rhetoric, but had lacked any focus or convincing spokesperson for their skepticism.

Torvalds's cheerful pragmatism and adept but low-key style catalyzed an astonishing string of victories for the hacker culture in the years 1993–1997, including not merely technical successes but the solid beginnings of a distribution, service, and support industry around the Linux operating system. As a result his prestige and influence skyrocketed. Torvalds became a hero on Internet time; by 1995, he had achieved in just four years the kind of culture-wide eminence that RMS had required fifteen years to earn — and far exceeded Stallman's record at selling “free software” to the outside world. By contrast with Torvalds, RMS's rhetoric began to seem both strident and unsuccessful.

Between 1991 and 1995 Linux went from a proof-of-concept surrounding an 0.1 prototype kernel to an operating system that could compete on features and performance with proprietary Unixes, and beat most of them on important statistics like continuous uptime. In 1995, Linux found its killer app: Apache, the open-source webserver. Like Linux, Apache proved remarkably stable and efficient. Linux machines running Apache quickly became the platform of choice for ISPs worldwide; Apache captured about 60% of websites,[19] handily beating out both of its major proprietary competitors.

The one thing Torvalds did not offer was a new ideology — a new rationale or generative myth of hacking, and a positive discourse to replace RMS's hostility to intellectual property with a program more attractive to people both within and outside the hacker culture. I inadvertently supplied this lack in 1997 as a result of trying to understand why Linux's development had not collapsed in confusion years before. The technical conclusions of my published papers [Raymond01] will be summarized in Chapter 19. For this historical sketch, it will be sufficient to note the impact of the first one's central formula: “Given a sufficiently large number of eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”.

This observation implied something nobody in the hacker culture had dared to really believe in the preceding quarter-century: that its methods could reliably produce software that was not just more elegant but more reliable and better than our proprietary competitors' code. This consequence, quite unexpectedly, turned out to present exactly the direct challenge to the discourse of “free software” that Torvalds himself had never been interested in mounting. For most hackers and almost all nonhackers, “Free software because it works better” easily trumped “Free software because all software should be free”.

The paper's contrast between ‘cathedral’ (centralized, closed, controlled, secretive) and ‘bazaar’ (decentralized, open, peer-review-intensive) modes of development became a central metaphor in the new thinking. In an important sense this was merely a return to Unix's pre-divestiture roots — it is continuous with McIlroy's 1991 observations about the positive effects of peer pressure on Unix development in the early 1970s and Dennis Ritchie's 1979 reflections on fellowship, cross-fertilized with the early ARPANET's academic tradition of peer review and with its idealism about distributed communities of mind.

In early 1998, the new thinking helped motivate Netscape Communications to release the source code of its Mozilla browser. The press attention surrounding that event took Linux to Wall Street, helped drive the technology-stock boom of 1999–2001, and proved to be a turning point in both the history of the hacker culture and of Unix.

[18] SPACEWAR was not related to Ken Thompson's Space Travel game, other than by the fact that both appealed to science-fiction fans.

[19] Current and historical webserver share figures are available at the monthly Netcraft Web Server Survey.