Maybe its pervasiveness has long obscured its origins. But Unix, the operating system that in one derivative or another powers nearly all smartphones sold worldwide, was born 50 years ago from the failure of an ambitious project that involved titans like Bell Labs, GE, and MIT. Largely the brainchild of a few programmers at Bell Labs, the unlikely story of Unix begins with a meeting on the top floor of an otherwise unremarkable annex at the sprawling Bell Labs complex in Murray Hill, New Jersey.#History #ComputerHistory #Unix #OperatingSystems #ComputerScience #Computers
It wasn’t until late 1971 that the computer science department got a truly modern computer. The Unix team had developed several tools designed to automatically format text files for printing over the past year or so. They had done so to simplify the production of documentation for their pet project, but their tools had escaped and were being used by several researchers elsewhere on the top floor. At the same time, the legal department was prepared to spend a fortune on a mainframe program called “AstroText.” Catching wind of this, the Unix crew realized that they could, with only a little effort, upgrade the tools they had written for their own use into something that the legal department could use to prepare patent applications.
The computer science department pitched lab management on the purchase of a DEC PDP-11 for document production purposes, and Max Mathews offered to pay for the machine out of the acoustics department budget. Finally, management gave in and purchased a computer for the Unix team to play with. Eventually, word leaked out about this operating system, and businesses and institutions with PDP-11s began contacting Bell Labs about their new operating system. The Labs made it available for free—requesting only the cost of postage and media from anyone who wanted a copy.
As recounted in IEEE Spectrum’s March 1985 design case history [PDF]of the C64 by Tekla S. Perry and Paul Wallich, MOS originally intended just to make a new graphics chip and a new sound chip. The idea was to sell them as components to microcomputer manufacturers. But those chips turned out to be so good that MOS decided to make its own computer.#RetroComputing #ComputerHistory #Computers #Commodore64 #Music #MusicSynthesis
Creation of the sound chip fell to a young engineer called Robert Yannes. He was the perfect choice for the job, motivated by a long-standing interest in electronic sound. Although there were some advanced microcomputer-controlled synthesizers available, including the Super Sound board designed for use with the Cosmac VIP system, the built-in sound generation tech in home computers was relatively crude. Yannes had higher ambitions. “I’d worked with synthesizers, and I wanted a chip that was a music synthesizer,” Yannes told Spectrum in 1985. His big advantage was that MOS had a manufacturing fab on-site. This allowed for cheap and fast experimentation and testing: “The actual design only took about four or five months,” said Yannes.
Fernando Corbató, whose work on computer time-sharing in the 1960s helped pave the way for the personal computer, as well as the computer password, died on Friday at a nursing home in Newburyport, Mass. He was 93.#ComputerHistory #Obituaries #Computers #ComputerScience #OperatingSystems
His wife, Emily Corbató, said the cause was complications of diabetes. At his death he was a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Dr. Corbató, who spent his entire career at M.I.T., oversaw a project in the early 1960s called the Compatible Time-Sharing System, or C.T.S.S., which allowed multiple users in different locations to access a single computer simultaneously through telephone lines.
In the course of refining time-sharing systems in the 1960s, Dr. Corbató came up with another novelty: the computer password.
C.T.S.S. gave each user a private set of files, but the lack of a login system requiring a password meant that users were free to peruse others’ files.
“Putting a password on for each individual user as a lock seemed like a very straightforward solution,” Dr. Corbató told Wired magazine in 2012. The passwords for C.T.S.S. are widely considered to be among the earliest computer security mechanisms.
When the Apollo missions were planned, the process of writing code began on large sheets of paper. A keypunch operator would create holes in paper cards, keying the codes into what were called punch cards. “Not too many people know what punch cards are anymore, but that’s how you programmed it,” says Paul Ceruzzi, a curator emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, who has known Hamilton for the past two decades.#Profiles #History #ComputerHistory #Women #Nasa #Programming #Programmers #SoftwareEngineering #SpaceFlight #Rockets
The museum holds in its collections the Apollo Flight Guidance Computer Software Collection created by Hamilton. The archival material includes printout sheets, known as “the listings,” which show results of guidance equation calculations. When the computer’s output identified no problems, software engineers would “eyeball” the listings, verifying that no issues required attention.
Once everything looked good, the code was sent to a Raytheon factory, where mostly women—many of them former employees of New England textile mills—wove copper wires and magnetic cores into a long “rope” of wire. With coding written in ones and zeroes, the wire went through the tiny magnetic core when it represented a one, and it went around the core when it represented a zero. This ingenious process created a rope that carried software instructions. The women who did the work were known as LOL, Hamilton told Ceruzzi, not because they were funny; it was short for “little old ladies.” Hamilton was called “rope-mother.”
NASA honored Hamilton with the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award in 2003, acknowledging her contributions to software development and granting her the biggest financial prize that the agency had ever awarded to one person until that time—$37,200. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom, noting that “her example speaks of the American spirit of discovery that exists in every little girl and little boy who know that somehow to look beyond the heavens is to look deep within ourselves.”"