This operating system is Unix, an OS born half a century ago from a failure of an ambitious project which involved the giants in the tech industry, such as Bell Labs, General Electric (GE), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Unix is the brainchild of a few programmers in Bell Labs, and its story starts from a meeting on the top floor of a not-so-interesting annex of the Bell Labs complex in Murray Hill, New Jersey.
It was a bright, cold Monday, the last day of March 1969, and the computer sciences department was hosting distinguished guests: Bill Baker, a Bell Labs vice president, and Ed David, the director of research. Baker was about to pull the plug on Multics (a condensed form of MULTiplexed Information and Computing Service), a software project that the computer sciences department had been working on for four years. Multics was two years overdue, way over budget, and functional only in the loosest possible understanding of the term.
Trying to put the best spin possible on what was clearly an abject failure, Baker gave a speech in which he claimed that Bell Labs had accomplished everything it was trying to accomplish in Multics and that they no longer needed to work on the project. As Berk Tague, a staffer present at the meeting, later told Princeton University, “Like Vietnam, he declared victory and got out of Multics.”
Within the department, this announcement was hardly unexpected. The programmers were acutely aware of the various issues with both the scope of the project and the computer they had been asked to build it for.
Still, it was something to work on, and as long as Bell Labs was working on Multics, they would also have a $7 million mainframe computer to play around with in their spare time. Dennis Ritchie, one of the programmers working on Multics, later said they all felt some stake in the success of the project, even though they knew the odds of that success were exceedingly remote.
The cancellation of Multics, however, meant two things for the programmers at the computer science department. It meant that the only project they were working on will end, and the only computer in the department will also be pulled out. And just like that, and poof! What’s left for the department were a few office supplies and a few terminals.
However, out of this massive software project failure came one of the most influential operating systems all over the world. Those who did not give up did not have much of their own resources. What they have inside them, however, is more than enough to compensate: passion, perseverance, and creativity.
See the history of Unix over at Ars Technica.
(Image Credit: Bell Labs/ Ars Technica)