Brief History Of Linux (Part 2)

Feature written by James Baughn on Monday, February 7, 2000

from the "microsoft-works"-is-the-real-oxymoron dept.

After we published Part 1 of this series, both of our regular readers sent flames complaining that this "Brief History of Linux" was neither brief, nor a history of Linux. Whatever. It's now time to present Part 2 of this series in which we describe the invention of computers, Unix, and Al Gore's Internet.

Let's all holler for Hollerith

The US Constitution mandates that a census be held every ten years. In 1890 the US Congress extended the census to collect exhaustive demographic information on each citizen that could be resold to marketing companies to help pay for the newly installed gold-plated toilets in Capitol Hill bathrooms. With the sheer amount of data to be collected, some people estimated that the 1890 Census wouldn't be completed until 1900. It was hoped that an electronic tabulating machine using punchcards designed by Herman Hollerith would speed up the process.

It didn't quite work out that way. First, an infestation of termites ate their way through the wooden base of Hollerith's machines, and then a wave of insects devoured several stacks of punchcards.

Second, some Hollerith models had the propensity to crash at the drop of a hat... literally. In one recorded instance, the operator dropped his hat while standing nearby, and when he reached down to pick it up, he bumped the machine, causing it to flip over and crash. (Incidentally, the hat in question was a blue hat, not a Red Hat as a certain Microsoft-owned encyclopedia has claimed.)

These flaws meant that the census was delayed for several years. However, the system was, in the words of one newspaper reporter, "good enough for government work", a guiding principle that lives on to this very day and explains the government's insistence on using Windows-based PCs.

The company that Hollerith later founded merged with two others to form C-T-R (Calculating-Tabulating-Recording, one of the most hideously named companies of the time, only to be surpassed years later by Bill Gates' "Traf-O-Data"). C-T-R was later renamed to IBM in 1924.

Edison's most important invention

One of Thomas Edison's most profound inventions was that of patent litigation. Edison used his many patents on motion pictures to monopolize the motion picture industry. One could argue that Edison was an early pioneer for the business tactics employed by Microsoft and the MPAA/DVD-CCA.

Indeed, Edison's company, the Motion Picture Patent Company (MPPC), formed in 1908, bears a striking resemblance to the modern-day Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Similar intitials, different people, same evil. The MPCC, with the help of hired thugs, ensured that all motion picture producers paid tribute to Edison and played by his rules. The MPAA, with the help of hired lawyers, ensures that all motion picture producers pay tribute and play by their rules.

Ironically, filmmakers that found themselves facing Edison patent litigation (or worse) fled to Texas, California, and Mexico. Those same filmmakers outlasted Edison's monopoly (broken up in 1917 by the courts) -- and eventually banded together to form the MPAA! History has a tendency to repeat itself; so it seems likely that today's DVD lawsuit victims may well come to power in the future -- and soon become the evil establishment, thus completing another cycle.

The AnyQuack Computer

The days of Hollerith's mechnical tabulating machines were soon replaced by electronic machines. One such device, Colossus, was used by the British in World War II to decode Nazi transmissions. The code-breakers were quite successful in their mission, except for the tiny detail that nobody at Bletchly Park knew how to read German. They had decoded unreadable messages into... unreadable messages.

Two years later in 1945, a group of professors and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania were discussing computing theory. An argument quickly ensued, in which one professor yelled, "Any quack can build an electronic computer! The real challenge is building one that doesn't crash every five minutes."

One graduate student, J. Presper Eckert, Jr., responded, "I'm any quack! I'll take you up on that challenge. I'll build a device that can calculate 1,000 digits of pi in one hour... without crashing!" Several professors laughed; "Such high-speed calculations are beyond our level of technology. Surely you jest," one responded.

Eckert, with the help of others, did build such a device. As a joke, he called the machine "AnyQuack", which eventually became ENIAC -- ENIAC's Not Intended As Crashware, the first known example of a self-referential acronym.

Birth of Gates and the Anti-Gates

October 28, 1955 saw the birth of William H. Gates, who would rise above his humble beginnings as the son of Seattle's most powerful millionaire lawyer and become the World's Richest Man(tm). A classic American rags-to-riches story (with "rags" referring to the dollar bills that the Gates family used for toilet paper), Bill Gates is now regarded as the world's most respected businessman by millions of clueless people that have obviously never touched a Windows machine.

Nature is all about balance. The birth of Gates in 1955 tipped the cosmic scales toward evil, but the birth of Linus Torvalds in 1969 finally balanced them out. Linus' destiny as the savior of Unix and the slayer of money-breathing Redmond dragons was sealed when, just mere hours after his birth, the Unix epoch began January 1st, 1970. While the baseline for Unix timekeeping might be arbitrary, we here at Humorix like to thank the its proximity of Linus' birth is no coincidence.

Bill Gates hasn't changed a bit

The early Gates childhood is best summed up in this excerpt from a note his second grade teacher wrote to his parents:

Billy has been having some trouble behaving in class lately... Last Monday he horded all of the crayons and refused to share, saying that he needed all 160 colors to maximize his 'innovation'. He then proceeded to sell little pieces of paper ("End-User License Agreement for Crayons" he called them) granting his classmates the 'non-transferable right' to use the crayons on a limited time basis in exchange for their lunch money...

When I tried to stop Billy, he kept harping about his right to innovate and how my interference violated basic notions of free-market capitalism. "Holding a monopoly is not illegal," he rebutted. I chastised him for talking back, and then I took away the box of crayons so others could share them... angrily, he then pointed to a drawing of his hanging on the wall and yelled, "That's my picture! You don't have the right to present my copyrighted material in a public exhibition without my permission! You're pirating my intellectual property. Pirate! Pirate! Pirate!"

I developed a headache that day that even the maximum allowed dosage of Aspirin wasn't able to handle. And what I've described happened only on Monday. On Tuesday, it was worse... he conned several students out of their milk money by convincing them to play a rigged game of three-card Monty...

Wanted: Eunuchs programmers

Everything you know about the creation of the Unix operating system is wrong. Research by our Vast Spy Network(tm) has uncovered the truth: Unix was a conspiracy hatched by Ritchie and Thompson to thwart the AT&T monopoly that they worked for. The original system -- code-named EUNUCHS (Electronic UNtrustworthy User-Condemning Horrible System), a play on Multics, was horribly conceived, just as the co-conspiractors had planned.

The system, quickly renamed to a more respectable "Unix" to downplay rumors about the author's private lives, was adopted first by Ma Bell's Patent Department and then by the rest of the monopoly. AT&T saw an inexpensive, multi-user, portable operating system that it had all rights to; the authors, however, saw a horrible, multi-crashing system that the company would become hopelessly dependent on. AT&T would go bankrupt trying to maintain the system, and the Evil Empire of Ma Bell would collapse just as the authors had hoped.

That, as we all know, didn't happen. Ritchie and Thompson were too talented to create a crappy operating system; no matter how hard they tried the system was better than they wanted. Their last ditch effort to sabotage the system by recoding it C (a newly developed language so obfuscated and complex that only Kernighan and Ritchie could read it) was unsuccessful. Before long Unix spread outside of Bell Labs and their conspiracy collapsed.

Military Intelligence: Not an oxymoron in 1969

The network that eventually became the Internet was formed in 1969. It was the Department Of Defense that commissioned the ARPANET, a rare example of the US military breaking away from its official motto, "The Leading Edge Of Yesterday's Technology(tm)".

In the years leading up to 1969, packet switching technology had evolved enough to make the ARPANET possible. Bolt Beranek and Newman, Inc. received the ARPA contract in 1968 for packet switching "Interface Message Processors". US Senator Edward Kennedy, always on the ball, sent a telegram to BBN praising them for their non-denominational "Interfaith" Message Processors, an act unsurpassed by elected representatives until Al Gore invented the Internet years later.

While ARPANET started with only four nodes in 1969, it evolved rapidly. Email was first used in 1971; by 1975 the first mailing list, MsgGroup, was created by Steve Walker when he sent a message containing the text "First post!" to it. In 1979 all productive use of ARPANET ceased when USENET and the first MUD were created. In 1983, when the network surpassed 1,000 hosts, a study showed that 90.4% of all traffic was devoted to email and USENET flame wars. Some things never change.

Too many hyphens: Traf-O-Data and Micro-soft

Bill Gates and his classmate Paul Allen attended an exclusive private school in Seattle. In 1968, after raising $3,000 from a yard sale, they gained access to a timeshare computer and immediately became addicted. After depleting their money learning BASIC and playing Solitaire, they convinced a company to give them free computer time in exchange for reporting bugs -- ironically, an early form of Open Source development! It should be noted that this company, Computer Center Corp., went bankrupt in 1970, primarily because Gates & Allen kept crashing their central computer while trying to program a Minesweeper game in BASIC.

The two then founded a small company called Traf-O-Data that collected and analyzed traffic counts for municipalities using a crude device based on the Intel "Pretanium" 8008 CPU. They had some success at first, but ran into problems when they were unable to deliver their much hyped second-generation device called "TrafficX". A civil engineer in Spokane, Washington is quoted as saying that "Traf-O-Data is the regional leader in vaporware", the first documented usage of the term that has come to be synonymous with Bill Gates.

Soon thereafter, the two developed their own BASIC interpreter, and sold it to MITS for their new Altair computer. April 4, 1975 is the fateful day that Micro-soft was officially founded in Albuquerque, NM as a language vendor. (Remember that date if you do happen to stumble on a time-machine during your life.)

Closed source, opened wallets

In 1976 Bill Gates wrote the famous letter to Altair hobbyists accusing them of "stealing software" and "preventing good software from being written". We must assume Bill's statement was true, because no good software was being written at Micro-soft.

Bill Gates did not innovate the concept of charging megabucks for software, but he was the first to make megabucks from peddling commercial software.

If only Gary had been sober

When Micro-soft moved to Seattle in 1979 (leaving behind the hyphen), most of its revenue came from sales of BASIC, a horrible language so dependant on GOTOs that spaghetti looked more orderly than its code did. (BASIC has ruined more promising programmers than anything else, prompting its original inventor Dartmouth University to issue a public apology in 1986.)

However, by 1981 BASIC hit the backburner to what is now considered the luckiest break in the history of computing: MS-DOS. (We use the term "break" because, well, MS-DOS was -- and always will be -- broken.) IBM was developing a 16-bit "personal computer" and desperately needed an operating system to drive it.

Their first choice was Gary Kildall's CP/M, but IBM never struck a deal with him. Historians to this day still argue why Kildall got the shaft, although, after extensive research, we've discovered the true reason: Kildall was drunk at the time the IBM representatives went to talk with him. A sober man would not have insulted the reps, calling their employer an "Incredibly Bad Monopoly" and referring to their new IBM-PC as an "Idealistically Backwards Microcomputer for People without Clues". Needless to say, Gary "I Lost The Deal Of The Century" Kildall was not sober.

We all know what terrible calamity happened next: IBM chose Microsoft's Quick & Dirty Operating System. QDOS (along with the abomination known as EDLIN) had been acquired from a Seattle man, Tim Paterson, for the paltry sum of $50,000. "Quick" and "Dirty" were truly an accurate description of this system, because IBM's quality assurance department discovered 300 bugs in QDOS's 8,000 lines of assember code (that's about 1 bug per 27 lines -- which, at the time, was appalling, but compared with Windows 98 today, it really wasn't that shabby).

Thanks in part to IBM's new marketing slogan, "Nobody Ever Got Fired For Choosing IBM(tm)", and the release of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program that everybody and their brother wanted, IBM PCs running DOS flew off the shelves and, unfortunately, secured Microsoft's runaway success. Bill Gates was now on his way to the Billionaire's Club; his days as a mediocre programmer were long gone: he was now a Suit. The only lines of code he would ever see would be the passcodes to his Swiss bank accounts.

But, as we shall see in next installment, Bill Gates was not without his enemies. Richard M. Stallman set in motion the GNU Project -- a snowball rapidly rolling down the mountain and poised to bury Microsoft. Linus Torvalds, of course, comes on the scene in 1991 when he sets in motion the Linux kernel -- a boulder rapidly rolling down the mountain and poised to bury Microsoft as well.

Check back soon for Part 3 which chronicles the rise and rise of the Microsoft Empire -- and the beginnings of the Open Source and Linux revolution.

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