Historical Record

Doghouse – Old Farts

Article from Issue 270/2023

A new effort to record the history of open source is underway.

Recently a friend of mine posted about a new initiative to engage "Open Source Pioneers" to record their "legacies" with digital recordings about open source history. It seems to be a well-conceived (and even well-funded) effort to capture these stories, and timely, because (as my friend pointed out) many of the people who were in their 30s when the Linux kernel was started (1991) are now (GASP!) in their 60s and are obviously headed toward senility or death.

The creators of this project, called the Free and Open Source Stories Digital Archive Foundation (FOSSDA) [1], did manage to link in Richard M. Stallman and his efforts to start the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation, so the whole "FOSS Era" managed to be moved back a few more years to 1983, which happened to be the year that I joined Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) to start work on their proprietary Unix systems … and yes, I acknowledge that Ultrix was closed source and proprietary to DEC.

Open source, for me, started in 1960 when I was 10 years old. My father subscribed to a number of magazines named "Popular <Something>." Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and Popular Electronics were some of them, with Popular Mechanics and Popular Electronics being my two favorite. These magazines would talk about the technologies of the day and often would include blueprints and circuit diagrams for building things described in the articles – sometimes printed in parts over several months of the magazine.

As I got older, Popular Electronics [2] was the magazine I leaned towards. Electronic parts were very expensive in those days, and often I had to take apart old radios and TVs to get most of the parts I needed (resistors, capacitors, tubes, etc.) to build the things I wanted to build. A single transistor cost $1.50, and that was when you could fill up the tank of your car for $3.50.

This interest was increased when I started taking electronics classes in the last three years of high school. I was determined to study electrical engineering when I went to college.

Computers were not really in my view then, as computers were talked about in the magazines, but they were not in most high schools or even in many universities because they were so expensive.

However, when I went to university in 1968, my path to electrical engineering was diverted to software by the discovery that I could "build" things with software and digital computer logic easier than I could with the analog hardware of the day, and locating two small DEC PDP-8 minicomputers allowed me to learn interactive assembly language programming. I was hooked.

There were few "commercial" programs available to me at the time. Computing was still in its infancy and computer models were still measured in hundreds or thousands of units, not the millions and billions of today. Generating and distributing your programs in binary format was typically not worth the time and effort, and the software cost so much on a per-unit basis that often the software was delivered to the end user with the developer "attached" to the magnetic tape, and they would spend a couple of days getting their source code compiled and working on your computer. Software IP was protected by "trade secret" and contract law, not by copyright. Buying software was expensive.

However there were system vendor user groups, such as the Digital Equipment Corporation User's Society (DECUS) and IBM's SHARE, who had libraries of software contributed by their users and available to other users for the cost of duplicating (often to paper tape) and distribution. As a student I ordered a lot of the software and learned how to program in assembly language from studying it.

In the mid 1970s, as home computers like the Altair and other simple computers (some in kit form) were produced, there were "bulletin board" servers accessed by users through dial-up modems, and magazines like Kilobaud Microcomputing [3], BYTE [4], and Dr. Dobb's Journal [5] [6] would publish source code for programs, and readers would painstakingly type these into their home computers. As operating systems like CP/M emerged, some of these programs were in binary-only form, but many were delivered in source code, written in BASIC, assembly, or other languages.

And these magazines, including Popular Electronics, started publishing circuit diagrams that you would build if you were good with a soldering iron or a "perf board" and wire-wrapping tool.

So you see, "open source" did not start with coining the term, or GNU. There was a long and proud history of people sharing their skill and knowledge before that. From my viewpoint, open source started way before the GNU project; it is just that we did not call what we were doing "open source."

We just called it "code."

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