Forty years ago this summer, a programmer sat down and knocked out in one month what would become one of the most important pieces of software ever created.
In August 1969, Ken Thompson, a programmer at AT&T subsidiary Bell Laboratories, saw the month-long departure of his wife and young son as an opportunity to put his ideas for a new operating system into practice. He wrote the first version of Unix in assembly language for a wimpy Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) PDP-7 minicomputer, spending one week each on the operating system, a shell, an editor and an assembler.
Thompson and a colleague, Dennis Ritchie, had been feeling adrift since Bell Labs had withdrawn earlier in the year from a troubled project to develop a time-sharing system called Multics (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service). They had no desire to stick with any of the batch operating systems that predominated at the time, nor did they want to reinvent Multics, which they saw as grotesque and unwieldy.
After batting around some ideas for a new system, Thompson wrote the first version of Unix, which the pair would continue to develop over the next several years with the help of colleagues Doug McIlroy, Joe Ossanna and Rudd Canaday. Some of the principles of Multics were carried over into their new operating system, but the beauty of Unix then (if not now) lay in its less-is-more philosophy.
"A powerful operating system for interactive use need not be expensive either in equipment or in human effort," Ritchie and Thompson would write five years later in the Communications of the ACM (CACM), the journal of the Association for Computing Machinery. "[We hope that] users of Unix will find that the most important characteristics of the system are its simplicity, elegance, and ease of use."
Apparently they did. Unix would go on to become a cornerstone of IT, widely deployed to run servers and workstations in universities, government facilities and corporations. And its influence spread even farther than its actual deployments, as the ACM noted in 1983 when it gave Thompson and Ritchie its top prize, the A.M. Turing Award for contributions to IT: "The model of the Unix system has led a generation of software designers to new ways of thinking about programming."
Next: Early steps