Retrotechtacular: Bell Labs Introduces A Thing Called ‘UNIX’


Modern operating systems may seem baroque in their complexity, but nearly every one of them  – except for Windows, natch – are based on the idea of simplicity and modularity. This is the lesson that UNIX taught us, explained perfectly in a little film from Bell Labs in 1982 starring giants of computation, [Dennis Ritchie], [Ken Thompson], [Brian Kernighan], and others.

At the time this film was made, UNIX had been around for about 10 years. In that time, it had moved far from an OS cloistered in giant mainframes attached to teletypes to slightly smaller minicomputers wired up to video terminals. Yes, smallish computers like the Apple II and the VIC-20 were around by this time, but they were toys compared to the hulking racks inside Bell Labs.

The film explains the core concept of UNIX by demonstrating modularity with a great example by [Brian Kernighan]. He took a short passage from a paper he wrote and found spelling errors by piping his paper though different commands from the shell. First the words in the paper were separated line by line, made lowercase, and sorted alphabetically. All the unique words were extracted from this list, and compared to a dictionary. A spell checker in one line of code, brought to you by the power of UNIX.

49 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Bell Labs Introduces A Thing Called ‘UNIX’

      1. Thanks a lot. I’m a big dude. Like other big dudes I often have to put up with drunks that think they are 10 feet tall. SOB; now we big dudes have to be on the look out for geeks wanting to cut off our nuts to get a computer OS.

      1. “A spell checker in one line of code, brought to you by the power of UNIX.”

        No, a spellchecker in one rather complex COMMAND LINE that calls multiple programs and produces a nearly useless output.

        1. Maybe it is because I have used UNIX for the past 17 years but that is not complex. Simple and elegant always come to mind when using UNIX. In my mind nothing is truly complex, just many many small simple things strung together, normally in a confusing fashion.

        2. It’s not bad for one line! And don’t think of them as programs, call them libraries of the shell.

          Shell scripting is one of the most powerful and most fun parts of using Unix. Proper command-line Unix that is. Perl’s recently taken over it’s job, it’s just the same thing done a bit better, and that powers half of the Internet.

      1. Dennis Ritchie, of “Thompson and Ritchie”, used to post on alt.folkore.computers. RIP Dennis if not a.f.c. It was like reading tablets sent down from literal God.

  1. I used to use Unix years ago – a Intel Unix computer was the heart of our in-circuit testers. I remember Unix very well & although it’s nice to look back and wish, I lived it & I know better. Today’s machines are so much more powerful and today’s OS’s are so much more capable that I would never willingly go back to something like Unix.

    1. ??? – I don’t quite follow your comment. Are you saying that you won’t use BSD, Linux or Mac OS vs old Unix ™ or that you wouldn’t use any of them?

      Most of us who use BSD or Linux just consider it unix (no tm). The ideas are still the same.

    2. Umm most advanced operating systems today such as BSD,OSX,QNX,and LINUX are still UNIX based or are UNIX like OSes.
      The command line just is usually hidden behind a GUI.

      1. I meant QNX also will include VXWorks which are all over the place in embedded systems but are POSIX compliant or UNIX like underneath.
        These OSes are used when you absolutely need something to work and a BSOD could cause massive loss of profit,inconvenienced customers or even death.

  2. I guess none of you remember real OS’s such as Univac’s Exec 8? A decidely non-trivial OS, it could handily manage multiple CPUs, multiple IO Controllers and tons of peripherals. An scheduling that worked, unlike in *nix. There is a big grown up world outside of *nix.

    1. Give it time. Linux is growing in marketshare and folks are starting to have the security/user problems they had with windows. In five years a crafty scandinavian will come up with a playful acronym for it, rearrange some code and give it away as his own and the world will laud its secure obscurity ;) I keed i keed.

          1. Yes. Some of us are still gainfully employed and need something more powerful than a webpage full of link scrapers aka apps. :) Phones and tablets are for grandmas and 4 year olds lol.

  3. OMG, am I the only person who things that looks like Adam Savage? I thought it was something he did in college or something at first, then noticed it was Dennis Ritchie.

  4. Is it weird that I kind of want one of those old monitors now? And I was born in ’82. Just remembering my childhood, learning BASIC on a monochrome screen. My dad was too thrifty for a color monitor at first. Oh how the amber glow illuminated the night when I was supposed to be sleeping. I really have to take a stab at the retro edition. I think there’s still a coleco adam and timex sinclair at my dad’s house somewhere

    1. I’m right there with ya. Also born in 82 and looking back fondly on my early days of writing text games, in qbasic, on a monochrome 286, late into the night. This was before I had ever even heard of Linux, but could explain why I have to wear glasses…

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