A BRIEF HISTORY OF HACKERDOM by Eric S. Raymond
$Date: 2000/05/05 18:57:21$
I explore the origins of the hacker culture, including prehistory
among the Real Programmers, the glory days of the MIT AI Lab, and how
the early ARPANET nurtured the first network nation. Storm clouds
over Jupiter. I describe the early rise and eventual stagnation of
Unix, the new hope from Finland, and how `the last true hacker' became
the next generation's patriarch. I sketch the way Linux and the main-
streaming of the Internet brought the hacker culture from the fringes
of public consciousness to its current prominence.
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2. Prologue: The Real Programmers
In the beginning, there were Real Programmers.
That's not what they called themselves. They didn't call themselves
`hackers', either, or anything in particular; the sobriquet `Real
Programmer' wasn't coined until after 1980, retrospectively by one of
their own. But from 1945 onward, the technology of computing
attracted many of the world's brightest and most creative minds. From
Eckert & Mauchly's first ENIAC computer onward there was a more or
less continuous and self-conscious technical culture of enthusiast
programmers, people who built and played with software for fun.
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The Real Programmers typically came out of engineering or physics
backgrounds. They were often amateur-radio hobbyists. They wore
white socks and polyester shirts and ties and thick glasses and coded
in machine language and assembler and FORTRAN and half a dozen ancient
languages now forgotten.
From the end of World War Two to the early 1970s, in the great days of
batch processing and the ``big iron'' mainframes, the Real Programmers
were the dominant technical culture in computing. A few pieces of
revered hacker folklore date from this era, including various lists of
Murphy's Laws and the mock-German ``Blinkenlights'' poster that still
graces many computer rooms.
Some people who grew up in the `Real Programmer' culture remained
active into the 1990s. Seymour Cray, designer of the Cray line of
supercomputers, was among the greatest. He is said once to have
toggled an entire operating system of his own design into a computer
of his own design through its front-panel switches. In octal.
Without an error. And it worked. Real Programmer macho supremo.
The `Real Programmer' culture, though, was heavily associated with
batch (and especially batch scientific) computing. It was eventually
eclipsed by the rise of interactive computing, the universities, and
the networks. These gave birth to another engineering tradition that,
eventually, would evolve into today's open-source hacker culture.
3. The Early Hackers
The beginnings of the hacker culture as we know it today can be
conveniently dated to 1961, the year MIT acquired the first PDP-1.
The Signals and Power committee of MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club
adopted the machine as their favorite tech-toy and invented
programming tools, slang, and an entire surrounding culture that is
still recognizably with us today. These early years have been
examined in the first part of Steven Levy's book Hackers ``''.
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MIT's computer culture seems to have been the first to adopt the term
`hacker'. The Tech Model Railroad Club's hackers became the nucleus
of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the world's leading
center of AI research into the early 1980s. Their influence was
spread far wider after 1969, the first year of the ARPANET.
The ARPANET was the first transcontinental, high-speed computer
network. It was built by the Defense Department as an experiment in
digital communications, but grew to link together hundreds of
universities and defense contractors and research laboratories. It
enabled researchers everywhere to exchange information with
unprecedented speed and flexibility, giving a huge boost to
collaborative work and tremendously increasing both the pace and
intensity of technological advance.
But the ARPANET did something else as well. Its electronic highways
brought together hackers all over the U.S. in a critical mass; instead
of remaining in isolated small groups each developing their own
ephemeral local cultures, they discovered (or re-invented) themselves
as a networked tribe.
The first intentional artifacts of the hacker culture --- the first
slang lists, the first satires, the first self-conscious discussions
of the hacker ethic --- all propagated on the ARPANET in its early
years. In particular, the first version of the Jargon File
http://www.tuxedo.org/jargon developed as a cross-net collaboration
during 1973-1975. This slang dictionary became one of the culture's
defining documents. It was eventually published as "The Hacker's
Dictionary" in 1983; that first version is out of print, but a revised
and expanded version is New Hacker's Dictionary ``''.
Hackerdom flowered at the universities connected to the net,
especially (though not exclusively) in their computer science
departments. MIT's AI Lab was first among equals from the late 1960s.
But Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL)
and Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) became nearly as important. All
were thriving centers of computer science and AI research. All
attracted bright people who contributed great things to the hacker
culture, on both the technical and folkloric levels.
To understand what came later, though, we need to take another look at
the computers themselves; because the Lab's rise and its eventual fall
were both driven by waves of change in computing technology.
Since the days of the PDP-1, hackerdom's fortunes had been woven
together with Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP series of
minicomputers. DEC pioneered commercial interactive computing and
time-sharing operating systems. Because their machines were flexible,
powerful, and relatively cheap for the era, lots of universities
Cheap timesharing was the medium the hacker culture grew in, and for
most of its lifespan the ARPANET was primarily a network of DEC
machines. The most important of these was the PDP-10, first released
in 1967. The 10 remained hackerdom's favorite machine for almost
fifteen years; TOPS-10 (DEC's operating system for the machine) and
MACRO-10 (its assembler) are still remembered with nostalgic fondness
in a great deal of slang and folklore.
MIT, though it used the same PDP-10s as everyone else, took a slightly
different path; they rejected DEC's software for the PDP-10 entirely
and built their own operating system, the fabled ITS.
ITS stood for `Incompatible Timesharing System' which gives one a
pretty good fix on the MIT hackers' attitude. They wanted it their
way. Fortunately for all, MIT's people had the intelligence to match
their arrogance. ITS, quirky and eccentric and occasionally buggy
though it always was, hosted a brilliant series of technical
innovations and still arguably holds the record for time-sharing
system in longest continuous use.
ITS itself was written in assembler, but many ITS projects were
written in the AI language LISP. LISP was far more powerful and
flexible than any other language of its day; in fact, it is still a
better design than most languages of today, twenty-five years later.
LISP freed ITS's hackers to think in unusual and creative ways. It
was a major factor in their successes, and remains one of hackerdom's
Many of the ITS culture's technical creations are still alive today;
the EMACS program editor is perhaps the best-known. And much of ITS's
folklore is still `live' to hackers, as one can see in the Jargon File
SAIL and CMU weren't asleep, either. Many of the cadre of hackers
that grew up around SAIL's PDP-10 later became key figures in the
development of the personal computer and today's window/icon/mouse
software interfaces. Meanwhile hackers at CMU were doing the work
that would lead to the first practical large-scale applications of
expert systems and industrial robotics.
Another important node of the culture was XEROX PARC, the famed Palo
Alto Research Center. For more than a decade, from the early 1970s
into the mid-1980s, PARC yielded an astonishing volume of
groundbreaking hardware and software innovations. The modern mice,
windows, and icons style of software interface was invented there. So
was the laser printer, and the local-area network; and PARC's series
of D machines anticipated the powerful personal computers of the 1980s
by a decade. Sadly, these prophets were without honor in their own
company; so much so that it became a standard joke to describe PARC as
a place characterized by developing brilliant ideas for everyone else.
Their influence on hackerdom was pervasive.
The ARPANET and the PDP-10 cultures grew in strength and variety
throughout the 1970s. The facilities for electronic mailing lists
that had been used to foster cooperation among continent-wide special-
interest groups were increasingly also used for more social and
recreational purposes. DARPA deliberately turned a blind eye to all
the technically `unauthorized' activity; it understood that the extra
overhead was a small price to pay for attracting an entire generation
of bright young people into the computing field.
Perhaps the best-known of the `social' ARPANET mailing lists was the
SF-LOVERS list for science-fiction fans; it is still very much alive
today, in fact, on the larger `Internet' that ARPANET evolved into.
But there were many others, pioneering a style of communication that
would later be commercialized by for-profit time-sharing services like
CompuServe, GEnie and Prodigy (and later still dominated by AOL).
Your historian first became involved with the hacker culture in 1977
through the early ARPANET and science-fiction fandom. From then
onward, I personally witnessed and participated in many of the changes
4. The Rise of Unix
Far from the bright lights of the ARPANET, off in the wilds of New
Jersey, something else had been going on since 1969 that would
eventually overshadow the PDP-10 tradition. The year of ARPANET's
birth was also the year that a Bell Labs hacker named Ken Thompson
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Thompson had been involved with the development work on a time-sharing
OS called Multics, which shared common ancestry with ITS. Multics was
a test-bed for some important ideas about how the complexity of an
operating system could be hidden inside it, invisible to the user, and
even to most programmers. The idea was to make using Multics from the
outside (and programming for it!) much simpler, so that more real work
could get done.
Bell Labs pulled out of the project when Multics displayed signs of
bloating into an unusable white elephant (the system was later
marketed commercially by Honeywell but never became a success). Ken
Thompson missed the Multics environment, and began to play at
implementing a mixture of its ideas and some of his own on a scavenged
Another hacker named Dennis Ritchie invented a new language called `C'
for use under Thompson's embryonic Unix. Like Unix, C was designed to
be pleasant, unconstraining, and flexible. Interest in these tools
spread at Bell Labs, and they got a boost in 1971 when Thompson &
Ritchie won a bid to produce what we'd now call an office-automation
system for internal use there. But Thompson & Ritchie had their eye
on a bigger prize.
Traditionally, operating systems had been written in tight assembler
to extract the absolute highest efficiency possible out of their host
machines. Thompson and Ritchie were among the first to realize that
hardware and compiler technology had become good enough that an entire
operating system could be written in C, and by 1978 the whole
environment had been successfully ported to several machines of
This had never been done before, and the implications were enormous.
If Unix could present the same face, the same capabilities, on
machines of many different types, it could serve as a common software
environment for all of them. No longer would users have to pay for
complete new designs of software every time a machine went obsolete.
Hackers could carry around software toolkits between different
machines, rather than having to re-invent the equivalents of fire and
the wheel every time.
Besides portability, Unix and C had some other important strengths.
Both were constructed from a ``Keep It Simple, Stupid'' philosophy. A
programmer could easily hold the entire logical structure of C in his
head (unlike most other languages before or since) rather than needing
to refer constantly to manuals; and Unix was structured as a flexible
toolkit of simple programs designed to combine with each other in
The combination proved to be adaptable to a very wide range of
computing tasks, including many completely unanticipated by the
designers. It spread very rapidly within AT&T, in spite of the lack
of any formal support program for it. By 1980 it had spread to a
large number of university and research computing sites, and thousands
of hackers considered it home.
The workhorse machines of the early Unix culture were the PDP-11 and
its descendant, the VAX. But because of Unix's portability, it ran
essentially unaltered on a wider range of machines than one could find
on the entire ARPANET. And nobody used assembler; C programs were
readily portable among all these machines.
Unix even had its own networking, of sorts -- UUCP: low-speed and
unreliable, but cheap. Any two Unix machines could exchange point-to-
point electronic mail over ordinary phone lines; this capability was
built into the system, not an optional extra. In 1980 the first
USENET sites began exchanging broadcast news, forming a gigantic
distributed bulletin board that would quickly grow bigger than
ARPANET. Unix sites began to form a network nation of their own
A few Unix sites were on the ARPANET themselves. The PDP-10 and
Unix/USENET cultures began to meet and mingle at the edges, but they
didn't mix very well at first. The PDP-10 hackers tended to consider
the Unix crowd a bunch of upstarts, using tools that looked
ridiculously primitive when set against the baroque, lovely
complexities of LISP and ITS. ``Stone knives and bearskins!'' they
And there was yet a third current flowing. The first personal
computer had been marketed in 1975; Apple was founded in 1977, and
advances came with almost unbelievable rapidity in the years that
followed. The potential of microcomputers was clear, and attracted
yet another generation of bright young hackers. Their language was
BASIC, so primitive that PDP-10 partisans and Unix aficionados both
considered it beneath contempt.
5. The End of Elder Days
So matters stood in 1980; three cultures, overlapping at the edges but
clustered around very different technologies. The ARPANET/PDP-10
culture, wedded to LISP and MACRO and TOPS-10 and ITS and SAIL. The
Unix and C crowd with their PDP-11s and VAXen and pokey telephone
connections. And an anarchic horde of early microcomputer enthusiasts
bent on taking computer power to the people.
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Among these, the ITS culture could still claim pride of place. But
stormclouds were gathering over the Lab. The PDP-10 technology ITS
depended on was aging, and the Lab itself was split into factions by
the first attempts to commercialize artificial intelligence. Some of
the Lab's (and SAIL's and CMU's) best were lured away to high-paying
jobs at startup companies.
The death blow came in 1983, when DEC cancelled its `Jupiter' followon
to the PDP-10 in order to concentrate on the PDP-11 and VAX lines.
ITS no longer had a future. Because it wasn't portable, it was more
effort than anyone could afford to move ITS to new hardware. The
Berkeley variant of Unix running on a VAX became the hacking system
par excellence, and anyone with an eye on the future could see that
microcomputers were growing in power so rapidly that they were likely
to sweep all before them.
It's around this time that Levy wrote Hackers. One of his prime
informants was Richard M. Stallman (inventor of EMACS), a leading
figure at the Lab and its most fanatical holdout against the
commercialization of Lab technology.
Stallman (who is usually known by his initials and login name, RMS)
went on to form the Free Software Foundation and dedicate himself to
producing high-quality free software. Levy eulogized him as ``the
last true hacker'', a description which happily proved incorrect.
Stallman's grandest scheme neatly epitomized the transition hackerdom
underwent in the early eighties --- in 1982 he began the construction
of an entire clone of Unix, written in C and available for free. His
project was known as the GNU (Gnu's Not Unix) operating system, in a
kind of recursive acronym. GNU quickly became a major focus for
hacker activity. Thus, the spirit and tradition of ITS was preserved
as an important part of the newer, Unix and VAX-centered hacker
Indeed, for more than a decade after its founding RMS's Free Software
Foundation would largely define the public ideology of the hacker
culture, and Stallman himself would be the only credible claimant to
leadership of the tribe.
It was also around 1982-83 that microchip and local-area network
technology began to have a serious impact on hackerdom. Ethernet and
the Motorola 68000 microchip made a potentially potent combination,
and several different startups had been formed to build the first
generation of what we now call workstations.
In 1982, a group of Unix hackers from Stanford and Berkeley founded
Sun Microsystems on the belief that Unix running on relatively
inexpensive 68000-based hardware would prove a winning combination for
a wide variety of applications. They were right, and their vision set
the pattern for an entire industry. While still priced out of reach
of most individuals, workstations were cheap for corporations and
universities; networks of them (one to a user) rapidly replaced the
older VAXes and other timesharing systems.
6. The Proprietary-Unix Era
By 1984, when Ma Bell divested and Unix became a supported AT&T
product for the first time, the most important fault line in hackerdom
was between a relatively cohesive ``network nation'' centered around
the Internet and USENET (and mostly using minicomputer- or
workstation-class machines running Unix), and a vast disconnected
hinterland of microcomputer enthusiasts.
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It was also around this time that serious cracking episodes were first
covered in the mainstream press -- and journalists began to misapply
the term ``hacker'' to refer to computer vandals, an abuse which sadly
continues to this day.
The workstation-class machines built by Sun and others opened up new
worlds for hackers. They were built to do high-performance graphics
and pass around shared data over a network. During the 1980s
hackerdom was preoccupied by the software and tool-building challenges
of getting the most use out of these features. Berkeley Unix
developed built-in support for the ARPANET protocols, which offered a
solution to the networking problems associated with UUCP's slow point-
to-point links and encouraged further growth of the Internet.
There were several attempts to tame workstation graphics. The one
that prevailed was the X window system, developed at MIT with
contributions from hundreds of individuals at dozens of companies. A
critical factor in its success was that the X developers were willing
to give the sources away for free in accordance with the hacker ethic,
and able to distribute them over the Internet. X's victory over
proprietary graphics systems (including one offered by Sun itself) was
an important harbinger of changes which, a few years later, would
profoundly affect Unix itself.
There was a bit of factional spleen still vented occasionally in the
ITS/Unix rivalry (mostly from the ex-ITSers' side). But the last ITS
machine shut down for good in 1990; the zealots no longer had a place
to stand and mostly assimilated to the Unix culture with various
degrees of grumbling.
Within networked hackerdom itself, the big rivalry of the 1980s was
between fans of Berkeley Unix and the AT&T versions. Occasionally you
can still find copies of a poster from that period, showing a cartoony
X-wing fighter out of the ``Star Wars'' movies streaking away from an
exploding Death Star patterned on the AT&T logo. Berkeley hackers
liked to see themselves as rebels against soulless corporate empires.
AT&T Unix never caught up with BSD/Sun in the marketplace, but it won
the standards wars. By 1990 AT&T and BSD versions were becoming
harder to tell apart, having adopted many of each others' innovations.
As the 1990s opened, the workstation technology of the previous decade
was beginning to look distinctly threatened by newer, low-cost and
high-performance personal computers based on the Intel 386 chip and
its descendants. For the first time, individual hackers could afford
to have home machines comparable in power and storage capacity to the
minicomputers of ten years earlier -- Unix engines capable of
supporting a full development environment and talking to the Internet.
The MS-DOS world remained blissfully ignorant of all this. Though
those early microcomputer enthusiasts quickly expanded to a population
of DOS and Mac hackers orders of magnitude greater than that of the
``network nation'' culture, they never become a self-aware culture
themselves. The pace of change was so fast that fifty different
technical cultures grew and died as rapidly as mayflies, never
achieving quite the stability necessary to develop a common tradition
of jargon, folklore and mythic history. The absence of a really
pervasive network comparable to UUCP or Internet prevented them from
becoming a network nation themselves.
Widespread access to commercial on-line services like CompuServe and
GEnie was beginning to take hold, but the fact that non-Unix operating
systems don't come bundled with development tools meant that very
little source was passed over them. Thus, no tradition of
collaborative hacking developed.
The mainstream of hackerdom, (dis)organized around the Internet and by
now largely identified with the Unix technical culture, didn't care
about the commercial services. They wanted better tools and more
Internet, and cheap 32-bit PCs promised to put both in everyone's
But where was the software? Commercial Unixes remained expensive, in
the multiple-kilobuck range. In the early 1990s several companies
made a go at selling AT&T or BSD Unix ports for PC-class machines.
Success was elusive, prices didn't come down much, and (worst of all)
you didn't get modifiable and redistributable sources with your
operating system. The traditional software-business model wasn't
giving hackers what they wanted.
Neither was the Free Software Foundation. The development of HURD,
RMS's long-promised free Unix kernel for hackers, got stalled for
years and failed to produce anything like a usable kernel until 1996
(though by 1990 FSF supplied almost all the other difficult parts of a
Unix-like operating system).
Worse, by the early 1990s it was becoming clear that ten years of
effort to commercialize proprietary Unix was ending in failure.
Unix's promise of cross-platform portability got lost in bickering
among half a dozen proprietary Unix versions. The proprietary-Unix
players proved so ponderous, so blind, and so inept at marketing that
Microsoft was able to grab away a large part of their market with the
shockingly inferior technology of its Windows operating system.
In early 1993, a hostile observer might have had grounds for thinking
that the Unix story was almost played out, and with it the fortunes of
the hacker tribe. And there was no shortage of hostile observers in
the computer trade press, many of whom hads been ritually predicting
the imminent death of Unix at six-month intervals ever since the late
In those days it was conventional wisdom that the era of individual
techno-heroism was over, that the software industry and the nascent
Internet would increasingly be dominated by colossi like Microsoft.
The first generation of Unix hackers seemed to be getting old and
tired (Berkeley's Computer Science Research group ran out of steam and
would lose its funding in 1994). It was a depressing time.
Fortunately, there had been things going on out of sight of the trade
press, and out of sight even of most hackers, that would produce
startlingly positive developments in later 1993 and 1994. Eventually,
these would take the culture in a whole new direction and to
7. The Early Free Unixes
Into the gap left by the Free Software Foundation's uncompleted HURD
had stepped a Helsinki University student named Linus Torvalds. In
1991 he began developing a free Unix kernel for 386 machines using the
Free Software Foundation's toolkit. His initial, rapid success
attracted many Internet hackers to help him develop Linux, a full-
featured Unix with entirely free and re-distributable sources.
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Linux was not without competitors. In 1991, contemporaneously with
Linus Torvalds's early experiments, William and Lynne Jolitz were
experimentally porting the BSD Unix sources to the 386. Most
observers comparing BSD technology with Linus's crude early efforts
expected that BSD ports would become the most important free Unixes on
The most important feature of Linux, however, was not technical but
sociological. Until the Linux development, everyone believed that any
software as complex as an operating system had to be developed in a
carefully coordinated way by a relatively small, tightly-knit group of
people. This model was and still is typical of both commercial
software and the great freeware cathedrals built by the Free Software
Foundation in the 1980s; also of the freeBSD/netBSD/OpenBSD projects
that spun off from the Jolitzes' original 386BSD port.
Linux evolved in a completely different way. From nearly the
beginning, it was rather casually hacked on by huge numbers of
volunteers coordinating only through the Internet. Quality was
maintained not by rigid standards or autocracy but by the naively
simple strategy of releasing every week and getting feedback from
hundreds of users within days, creating a sort of rapid Darwinian
selection on the mutations introduced by developers. To the amazement
of almost everyone, this worked quite well.
By late 1993 Linux could compete on stability and reliability with
many commercial Unixes, and hosted vastly more software. It was even
beginning to attract ports of commercial applications software. One
indirect effect of this development was to kill off most of the
smaller proprietary Unix vendors -- without developers and hackers to
sell to, they folded. One of the few survivors, BSDI (Berkeley
Systems Design, Incorporated), flourished by offering full sources
with its BSD-based Unix and cultivating close ties with the hacker
These developments were not much remarked on at the time even within
the hacker culture, and not at all outside it. The hacker culture,
defying repeated predictions of its demise, was just beginning to
remake the commercial-software world in its own image. It would be
five more years, however, before this trend became obvious.
8. The Great Web Explosion
The early growth of Linux synergized with another phenomenon: the
public discovery of the Internet. The early 1990s also saw the
beginnings of a flourishing Internet-provider industry, selling
connectivity to the public for a few dollars a month. Following the
invention of the World-Wide Web, the Internet's already-rapid growth
accelerated to a breakneck pace.
By 1994, the year Berkeley's Unix development group formally shut
down, several different free Unix versions (Linux and the descendants
of 386BSD) served as the major focal points of hacking activity.
Linux was being distributed commercially on CD-ROM and selling like
hotcakes. By the end of 1995, major computer companies were beginning
to take out glossy advertisements celebrating the Internet-
friendliness of their software and hardware!
In the late 1990s the central activities of hackerdom became Linux
development and the mainstreaming of the Internet. The World Wide Web
has at last made the Internet into a mass medium, and many of the
hackers of the 1980s and early 1990s launched Internet Service
Providers selling or giving access to the masses.
The mainstreaming of the Internet even brought the hacker culture the
beginnings of respectability and political clout. In 1994 and 1995
hacker activism scuppered the Clipper proposal which would have put
strong encryption under government control. In 1996 hackers mobilized
a broad coalition to defeat the misnamed ``Communications Decency
Act'' and prevent censorship of the Internet.
With the CDA victory, we pass out of history into current events. We
also pass into a period in which your historian (rather to his own
surprise) became an actor rather than just an observer. This
narrative will continue in Revenge of the Hackers.
# [Levy] Levy, Steven, Hackers, Anchor/Doubleday 1984, ISBN
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# [Raymond] Raymond, Eric S., The New Hacker's Dictionary, MIT Press,
3rd edition 1996. ISBN ISBN 0-262-68092-0.
# David E. Lundstrom gave us an anecdotal history of the "Real
Programmer" era in A Few Good Men From UNIVAC, 1987,