When you think of the Unix and C revolution that grew out of Bell Labs, there are a few famous names. Dennis Ritchie, Ken Thompson, and Brian Kernighan come to mind. After all, the K in both K&R C and in AWK stand for Kernighan. While Kernighan is no stranger to book authorship — he’s written several classics including “the white book” for C and Unix — he has a new book out that is part historical record and part memoir about the birth of Unix.
Usually, when a famous person writes a retrospective like this, it is full of salacious details, but we don’t expect much of that here. The book talks about Bell Labs and Multics, of course. There’s serious coverage of the first, sixth, and seventh editions with biographies of people integral to those releases.
The final part of the book deals with the explosive growth and commercialization of the operating system along with its many descendants. Yes, Linux is in there, of course, as is BSD and others. In broad strokes, this probably doesn’t add a lot to what we all know about the history of Unix, but the personal details and just hearing it from a primary source is worth the price of admission.
The books doesn’t sugar coat anything. Imagining someone who has had such an impact on the industry as a “below average intern” struggling with the infamous McCracken FORTRAN book to write a program is difficult, but you can also imagine how he felt and what that young Kernighan would have thought if he could see how his work is considered today. In his words: “I didn’t really know how to program.”
There were some technical surprises. We always thought AWK was influenced by Snobol, but according to the book, it borrowed from RPG. We don’t see it, but who are we to argue with the K in AWK?
We do wonder how many other Kindle Direct paperback books were typeset using groff. We are betting not many. We were a bit surprised there isn’t an electronic version, and at $18, the book isn’t an impulse buy. But for the insights into historical computing, it is priceless.