Maybe its pervasiveness has long obscured its roots. But Unix, the OS which proves to be legendary and, in one derivative or another, powers nearly all smartphones sold worldwide, came 50 years ago from the failure of an ambitious project involving titans like GE, Bell Labs, and MIT.
In an attempt to put the best spin possible on what was an abject failure, Bill Baker, a Vice President at Bell Labs, 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 required to work on the project. As Berk Tague, a staffer present at the meeting, later told Princeton University, “Like Vietnam, he announced victory and got out of Multics.”
Within the department, this declaration 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 victory of the project, even though they knew the odds of that success were exceedingly remote.
Cancellation of Multics meant the end of the only project that the programmers in the Computer science department had to work on—and it also meant the loss of the only computer in the Computer science department. After the GE 645 mainframe was taken apart and hauled off, the computer science department’s resources were reduced to little more than office supplies and a few terminals.
As Ken Thompson, another programmer working on the project, wryly noticed for the Unix Oral History project, “Our way of life was going to go much more spartan.”
Luckily for computer enthusiasts, a constraint can at times lead to immense creativity. And so, the most influential OS ever written was not funded by venture capitalists, and the people who wrote it didn’t become billionaires because of it. Unix came about because Bell Labs hired smart people and gave them the freedom to amuse themselves, trusting that their projects would be useful more often than not. Before Unix, researchers at Bell Labs had already invented the transistor and the laser, as well as any number of innovations in computer graphics, speech synthesis, and speech recognition.