4.2 The three strains of hackerdom

Eric Raymond dates the start of the hacker culture as we know it to day to 1961, the year Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) acquires it’s first PDP-1. The PDP-X strain of computers were made by DEC and sold at considerably lower price than the IBM mainframes. The lower price on computer hardware allowed university departments and corporate research units to buy computers.

Computer power was still expensive and giving each programmer his own computer was not an option. There was a need to divide computer power between users. One early solution to this was to execute programs in batch. A programmer would give a paper strip to a computer administrator who in turn assembled different paper strips into a magnetic tape. This tape would be given to the Central Processing Unit (CPU), and programs would execute in sequence. This did not utilised the processor time very efficiently. The processor would be idle while the program was read into memory from the tape, or when the result was written to tape or printer.

The solution to utilise the processor better was to overlap different jobs in time. While one job was waiting for the tape, an other job could be executed. If you could change between different jobs for one user there was no reason that you could not do this for many users. From multitasking in batch processing the idea of Time Sharing-System came. Time Sharing-Systems are important because it allowed each programmer to have access to his own terminal. To send source code though a compiler in a batch processing system, waiting for an hour only to find that there was a compilation error must be frustrating.

The access to a terminal gave the programmer freedom to do more experimenting and playing with the computer. This spirit of playfulness and experimenting with the possibilities offered by the computer is a basic value among hackers. According to Eric Raymond the term “hacker” originates from the computer culture at MIT. Other places where the hacker culture flourished in the early years were Standford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) and Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU).

This earliest strain of the hacker culture grew on time-sharing systems, like Incompatible Time-sharing System (ITS) and TOPS-10 combined with MACRO-10, and DEC hardware, most importantly PDP-10 machines. ITS was a time-sharing system developed at MIT, TOPS-10 and MACRO-10 were the Operating System (OS) and assembler made by DEC. The predecessor for the Internet, ARPAnet was primary a network of PDP-10 machines. Many prominent free software advocates, like Richard Stallman founder of Free Software Foundation, have their background from this strain of the hacker culture.

The hacker culture also found inroads into a business research laboratory called PARC in the XEROX company. The modern day LAN based on Ethernet have its origin here. The Graphical User Interface (GUI), with windows, menues and icons, was also invented here.

A second strain of the hacker culture that would later replace the PDP-10 strain of the culture started to emerge from 1969 and onwards. In 1969 Ken Thompson made the first version of the class of operating systems called Unix. A colleague named Dennis Ritchie invented the programming language called C. Both were working for Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL).

Unix was reimplemented in C during the seventies, which made Unix highly portable. Earlier system like ITS was made in assembly, which made ITS obsolete when the PDP-10 line of computers were discontinued. Because of juridical reason AT&T who owned BTL sold source licenses at nominal fee. The Unix strain of the hacker culture was spread out to universities across the US and Europe.

The third strain of the hacker culture was a part of the emerging computer revolution which was going to give computing to the masses. The first personal computers (PC) were marketed in 1975. Apple were founded in 1977. At the same time Commodore Corporation entered the computer industry. Commodore later acquired and developed the Amiga strain of computers. Commodore sold cheap machines and sold their computers mostly i Europe. The Commodore 64 and Amiga introduced me to the computer, though I mostly used it to play games, so I have a slight emotional tie to this machines.

When you turned on a Commodore 64 you went straight into a BASIC interpreter. BASIC became the language of the first computer hobbyists. While the Unix and PDP-10 strains of the hacker culture was based in universities, colleges and research institutions, the PC strain was the one that made it into the sleeping room of high school boys. The only early connection with FLOSS I can see from this strain is the practise of sharing BASIC source, and computer magazines often listed BASIC code which made your computer do interesting things. Shareware, where you give out the binary of a program and ask people to pay, became more common. Shareware is also referred to as nagware or donationware because they often display a message each time you start the program asking you to pay for the software. Shareware, however, is not open source, as no source is distributed.

Even if you could not get the source for a program the practise of sharing, or pirating, binaries was common among hobbyists. The hobbyists were more interested in experimenting and having fun with their computers than being efficient. The hobbyists naturally shared code and binaries because they were interested in making their computer do new and interesting things without reinventing the wheel. It was against this crowd that Bill Gates, one of the founders of Microsoft, sent his “open letter to hobbyists” accusing them of stealing software.