A Brief History of UNIX and C

A Brief History of UNIX and C

The first UNIX implementation was developed in 1969 (the same year that Linus Torvalds was born) by Ken Thompson at Bell Laboratories, a division of the tele- phone corporation, AT&T. It was written in assembler for a Digital PDP-7 mini- computer. The name UNIX was a pun on MULTICS (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service), the name of an earlier operating system project in which AT&T collaborated with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and General Electric. (AT&T had by this time withdrawn from the project in frustration at its initial
failure to develop an economically useful system.) Thompson drew several ideas for his new operating system from MULTICS, including a tree-structured file system, a separate program for interpreting commands (the shell), and the notion of files as unstructured streams of bytes.

In 1970, UNIX was rewritten in assembly language for a newly acquired Digital PDP-11 minicomputer, then a new and powerful machine. Vestiges of this PDP-11 heritage can be found in various names still used on most UNIX implementations, including Linux.

A short time later, Dennis Ritchie, one of Thompson’s colleagues at Bell Labo- ratories and an early collaborator on UNIX, designed and implemented the C programming language. This was an evolutionary process; C followed an earlier interpreted language, B. B was initially implemented by Thompson and drew many of its ideas from a still earlier programming language named BCPL. By 1973, C had matured to a point where the UNIX kernel could be almost entirely rewritten in the new language. UNIX thus became one of the earliest operating systems to be written in a high-level language, a fact that made subsequent porting to other hard- ware architectures possible.

The genesis of C explains why it, and its descendant C++, have come to be used so widely as system programming languages today. Previous widely used languages were designed with other purposes in mind: FORTRAN for mathematical tasks performed by engineers and scientists; COBOL for commercial systems processing streams of record-oriented data. C filled a hitherto empty niche, and unlike FOR- TRAN and COBOL (which were designed by large committees), the design of C arose from the ideas and needs of a few individuals working toward a single goal: developing a high-level language for implementing the UNIX kernel and associated software. Like the UNIX operating system itself, C was designed by professional programmers for their own use. The resulting language was small, efficient, powerful, terse, modular, pragmatic, and coherent in its design.

UNIX First through Sixth editions

Between 1969 and 1979, UNIX went through a number of releases, known as editions. Essentially, these releases were snapshots of the evolving development version at AT&T. [Salus, 1994] notes the following dates for the first six editions of UNIX:

  • First Edition, November 1971: By this time, UNIX was running on the PDP-11 and already had a FORTRAN compiler and versions of many programs still used today, including ar, cat, chmod, chown, cp, dc, ed, find, ln, ls, mail, mkdir, mv, rm, sh, su, and who.
  • Second Edition, June 1972: By this time, UNIX was installed on ten machines within AT&T.
  • Third Edition, February 1973: This edition included a C compiler and the first implementation of pipes. Fourth Edition, November 1973: This was the first version to be almost totally
  • written in C.
  • Fifth Edition, June 1974: By this time, UNIX was installed on more than 50 systems.
  • Sixth Edition, May 1975: This was the first edition to be widely used outside AT&T.

Over the period of these releases, the use and reputation of UNIX began to spread, first within AT&T, and then beyond. An important contribution to this growing awareness was the publication of a paper on UNIX in the widely read journal Communications of the ACM ([Ritchie & Thompson, 1974]).

At this time, AT&T held a government-sanctioned monopoly on the US telephone system. The terms of AT&T’s agreement with the US government prevented it from selling software, which meant that it could not sell UNIX as a product. Instead, beginning in 1974 with Fifth Edition, and especially with Sixth Edition, AT&T licensed UNIX for use in universities for a nominal distribution fee. The university distributions included documentation and the kernel source code (about 10,000 lines at the time).

AT&T’s release of UNIX into universities greatly contributed to the popularity and use of the operating system, and by 1977, UNIX was running at some 500 sites, including 125 universities in the United States and several other countries. UNIX offered universities an interactive multiuser operating system that was cheap yet powerful, at a time when commercial operating systems were very expensive. It also gave university computer science departments the source code of a real operating system, which they could modify and offer to their students to learn from and experiment with. Some of these students, armed with UNIX knowledge, became UNIX evangelists. Others went on to found or join the multitude of startup companies selling inexpensive computer workstations running the easily ported UNIX operating system.

The birth of BSD and System V

January 1979 saw the release of Seventh Edition UNIX, which improved the reliability of the system and provided an enhanced file system. This release also contained a number of new tools, including awk, make, sed, tar, uucp, the Bourne shell, and a FORTRAN 77 compiler. The release of Seventh Edition is also significant because, from this point, UNIX diverged into two important variants: BSD and System V, whose origins we now briefly describe.

Thompson spent the 1975/1976 academic year as a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley, the university from which he had graduated. There, he worked with several graduate students, adding many new features to UNIX. (One of these students, Bill Joy, subsequently went on to cofound Sun Microsystems, an early entry in the UNIX workstation market.) Over time, many new tools and features were developed at Berkeley, including the C shell, the vi editor, an improved file system (the Berkeley Fast File System), sendmail, a Pascal compiler, and virtual memory management on the new Digital VAX architecture. Under the name Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD), this version of UNIX, including its source code, came to be widely distributed. The first full distribution was 3BSD in December 1979. (Earlier releases from Berkeley—BSD and 2BSD— were distributions of new tools produced at Berkeley, rather than complete UNIX distributions.)

In 1983, the Computer Systems Research Group at the University of California at Berkeley released 4.2BSD. This release was significant because it contained a complete TCP/IP implementation, including the sockets application programming interface (API) and a variety of networking tools. 4.2BSD and its predecessor 4.1BSD became widely distributed within universities around the world. They also formed the basis for SunOS (first released in 1983), the UNIX variant sold by Sun. Other significant BSD releases were 4.3BSD, in 1986, and the final release, 4.4BSD, in 1993.

In the meantime, US antitrust legislation forced the breakup of AT&T (legal maneuvers began in the mid-1970s, and the breakup became effective in 1982), with the consequence that, since it no longer held a monopoly on the telephone system, the company was permitted to market UNIX. This resulted in the release of System III (three) in 1981. System III was produced by AT&T’s UNIX Support Group (USG), which employed many hundreds of developers to enhance UNIX and develop UNIX applications (notably, document preparation packages and software development tools). The first release of System V (five) followed in 1983, and  a series of releases led to the definitive System V Release 4 (SVR4) in 1989, by which time System V had incorporated many features from BSD, including networking facilities. System V was licensed to a variety of commercial vendors, who used it as the basis of their UNIX implementations.

Thus, in addition to the various BSD distributions spreading through academia, by the late 1980s, UNIX was available in a range of commercial implementations on various hardware. These implementations included Sun’s SunOS and later Solaris, Digital’s Ultrix and OSF/1 (nowadays, after a series of renamings andacquisitions, HP Tru64 UNIX), IBM’s AIX, Hewlett-Packard’s (HP’s) HP-UX, NeXT’s NeXTStep, A/UX for the Apple Macintosh, and Microsoft and SCO’s XENIX for the Intel x86-32 architecture. This situation was in sharp contrast to the typical proprietary hardware/operating system scenarios of the time, where each vendor produced one, or at most a few, proprietary computer chip architectures, on which they sold their own proprietary operating system(s). The proprietary nature of most vendor systems meant that purchasers were locked into one vendor. Switching to another proprietary operating system and hardware platform could become very expensive because of the need to port existing applications and retrain staff. This factor, coupled with the appearance of cheap single user UNIX workstations from a variety of vendors, made the portable UNIX system increasingly attractive from a commercial perspective.


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