Saturday 22 August 2009

Anniversaries

Last year was the 40th anniversary of some of the important events in Vietnam and also the 40th anniversary of important demonstrations, sit-ins and student occupations of college campus buildings in several countries -- as a part of the civil rights movement against racism and the anti-war movement. This summer brings the 40th anniversary of both the Woodstock music festival (I was also there) and the invention of the Unix operating system.

According to an article by Mark Ward published in this morning's Business Line, Unix was developed at Bell Labs after a joint effort by AT&T, MIT and GE failed miserably to build an ambitious multi-user system called Multics. Ken Thomson and Dennis Ritchie at Bell Labs consequently with a lot of time on their hands decided to persist and it was in August 1969 that Thomson apparently wrote the core components of the operating system, shell, editor and assembler. It sort of helped that his wife was away visiting her family for a month.

The software started running on a DEC PDP7 and by the early 1970's five people were working on the OS which had been named Unix by Brian Kernighan who wanted to contrast Unix with the failed Multics. As they say the rest is history but the details can be interesting and software has played a large role in what is called globalisation. As far as I can see Unix has been crucial for the development of the Indian expertise in information technology. Although like almost everywhere the pioneer programmers used all kinds of assembly languages and Fortran on hardware from IBM, it seems to me (and I may be wrong) that it was the installation of the DEC PDP computers in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and other scientific installations that really spawned a huge number of Unix and C-language programmers in the country.

For the most part the DEC PDP-10's came to the Institutes with Unix (and thirty or forty binders of documentation) but very little application software. And there were many young students and academics who were ready to spend days and nights and weeks in those tube-lit super-air-conditioned computer labs ready to learn Unix and to write all kinds of applications. I think that many of these students became formidable programmers and researchers. We met some of them during the 1970's and early 1980's in the course of the discussion of computers and non-Roman languages for the purpose of typesetting in Indian scripts. Publishing system developments in America were similarly influenced when an MIT grad student was motivated (and financed) to build the Atex editorial system that ran on the DEC PDP system.

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