A Hacker: The Story of Falling Sideways
As I got older and started studying Computer Science, the concept of hackers would morph into that team from Michigan who won first prize for full body motion suit. These hackers somehow seemed even more fantastic, more talented, more abstract and even more distant than any before. How could I be like them, get to where they were. I wanted to be a wizard too. Why could I not be a hacker like them?
Entering college, I had expected to study economics for the rest of my life. The laws of supply and demand made sense and I honestly believed I wanted to spend a life time studying how people made decisions. During my first couple weeks however, I chanced upon an Information Systems presentation and was intrigued. It was a discipline about information and how one should map and store information. Getting at least a minor in that subject seemed like a worthwhile pursuit while I was working toward the economics degree. In order to get that degree in Information Systems however, I had to first take a computer science class. Having to take a computer course made me nervous, but I felt confident enough to give it a shot. That first class I took was one in Matlab, a language that I have never touched since, and yet that class changed the course of my life.
There was one specific assignment I remember doing, where we were asked to figure out the path that rain would fall given a 2d array of different landscape heights. During that assignment I remember thinking how hard it was but I remember the moment I solved it I was exhilarated. I wished I could solve it again. I loved that it was hard and all I wanted to do was keep solving problems and having fun. I flew through that course in a state of bliss and I promised myself that as long as I could keep passing courses and keep going, I would. At the beginning of my junior year I however, I found a room tucked into the middle of the building next to the storage room and came face to face with modern hacker culture.
In my college we had a hacker-space; It was a place where people interested in computers could come together to program and to learn. There was a whole culture of people who also loved computers and loved talking about them like I did. The people around me were brilliant and they liked to spend all their time teaching others and doing as much with computing as they could. Honestly if you were like me and fell into computer science from left field, the brilliance around you could feel off-putting.
Hacker culture can breed a sense of inadequacy. You can feel like you’re a fake despite all the time and effort devoted to doing what you love. It’s a feeling that diminishes as your understanding increases but never truly disappears. You were meant to do the humanities and you are unneeded in the field you love.
If you’ll permit I me, I would like to tell you a story.
First I must describe a computing culture that Is not hacking because without it the depth of what a hacker is can not be understood. When computers were first being made, they were designed for the military, the scientists and the businessmen of America. These were all people that needed to do large tedious calculations. Their concerns were rocket trajectories, Avagadro’s Number, and pay-roll. Their goals were the advancement and betterment of both themselves and others and they succeeded.
Part of this story Involves amazing people like mathematics professor and eventual rear guard admiral Grace Hopper. She worked on the UNIVAC when Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation was first developing it and was one of the main compiler pioneers whose work directly lead to the language structure of COBOL. She worked during the mainframe era of computers and without mainframe computers, hacking culture would not exist.
So why then is Grace Hopper not considered a hacker? Any story of hackers always leaves out pioneers like Hopper without explaining why. She was an amazing woman, a mathematician from the Navy who was asked to assist with The UNIVAC I and spawned a successful computer market. She later was part of the Commission that helped define COBOL, whose existence paved the way for the very concept of computer languages. At this point however, she went back into Navy service. Her time programing allowed her to remain a highly influential computer advocate but her time guiding the field had come to an end.
Grace Hopper did a service for the world but I don’t believe the computer ever seemed like a gift or a surprise to her. There was never a moment where she stumbled into a computer and had an epiphany moment because she had been the one to help build them. Over the decades, minds like John MaCarthy, Donald Knuth and Fred Brooks would continue to shape how people programed and wrote software. These people were never considered hackers however and were much more aligned to the IBMs and the NASAs of the world. These companies famously built organizations built on mainfames, defended by lawyers and buttressed by waves of engineers to support their machines.
I want to be clear that these companies are not the enemies. NASA was a pioneering spirit that trained a group of engineers to one day take one giant leap for mankind. IBM made and sold the the flexowritter, a device who’s interactive potential allowed hackers to sit at the computer for hours debugging, rewriting and bumming their code. Simultaneously, batch processing was an expensive and timely endeavor that encouraged strict organization and protocols for computer interactions. Without such an organized culture touting procedure like dogma, hackers could not have rebelled; hackers could not have existed without them because hackers were the counter revolution.
If you go back in time to the one of the first generations of Hackers, you’ll find yourself on the 9th Floor of MIT’s tech square with a bunch of social recluses whose sole love was to program the TX-0 and PDP-1. Back in the days of tapes, the hackers from the Tech Model Railroad Club maintained a side drawer full of tapes, each containing a shared computer program. Every user of the TX-0 would use the tape programs and maintain them like they were their own. All the hackers wanted was to curate a collection of perfect programs for the machines they loved to play with. Tools to make tools. If there was a feature desired in one of the tape programs the hackers would go ahead and add the feature. Impromptu bumming competitions would occur randomly, each hacker attempting to write sub routines with less instructions then before. They would build and improve these programs together because they wanted to improve this computer world they’d fallen in love with.
These Hackers did also have exclusionary habits however. Their language was one of winners and losers. If you were an exceptional programmer, then you were a winner because you could improve the the world of their shared PDP-1. Otherwise you would be a loser and once you were a loser, it was hard to become a winner.
The MIT hacker culture was contained to that building in Cambridge however. Isolation and containment was never a feature Homebrew Computer club and in fact was it’s antithesis. One of the main goals of this club was to spread the love of computers to any hobbyist who would listen. They were dismissive of the MIT hackers in their ivory tower, programing software and placing their tapes in their personal drawer beside the PDP-1. The Homebrew hardware hackers wanted to take advantage of the micro-processors developed by places like Intel and Motorola and make their own personal computers.
Steve Wozniak actually got his ideas and inspirations for The Apple and the Apple 2 from the members of the Homebrew Computer Club. He met some of the first apple employees there including Chris Espinosa and Randy Wigginton. Wigginton would often hitch rides from Wozniak to Homebrew Computer Club since the 14-year-old Wigginton was too young to drive. Around the same time Bill Gates would famously write an open letter to the Homebrew Hardware hackers about illegally copying His and Paul Allen’s Altair Basic software.
In the as the 1980’s began, Roberta Williams found the computer game called adventure and was so enthralled she convinced her husband Ken Williams to program her idea for a game that eventually was known as Mystery House. This game convinced the couple to start a computer game company called On-Line systems, which later came to be known as Sierra Entertainment. Sierra Entertainment became a haven for third generation hackers like John Harris, creator of Frogger. Harris would eventually get in trouble with Atari for his game Jawbreaker, A Pac-man clone whose legal issues would help define plagiarism and freedom of expression relating to computer software.
Why am I talking about any of this though? Why does it mater what all happened all those decades ago. Why am I telling you about the PDP-1 hackers, The hardware hackers of the Homebrew Computer club, or the legal scuffles of On-Line Systems?
I am painting you this picture because I need to tell your history. I must illustrate where you come from like I wish someone had done for me.
Your linage starts with Greenblatt, Gosper, and Nelson hacking The TX-0 and PDP-1 when The graduate students weren’t using the machines in the middle of the night. These late night sessions would generate programs like adventure, which later inspired Roberta Williams to write Mystery House. Your ancestors were the members of the The Homebrew Computer club, sending checks to the little known MITS Computer company with the hopes that the hardware hackers would have the chance to build their own Altair computer. Members like Robert Melon would build components like the Cromemco Dazzler for that Altair, so they could see programs like Gosper’s Life simulation on their homebrew computers. These hardware Influences spawned the Apple 2 computer, the very machine Roberta and Ken Williams used to build their Seria Entertainment Company.
A lot of these people were as brilliant as the Hoppers or McCarthy’s of the world but these people are your Sherpas because these are the people that fell in love with computers. They weren’t expecting what they got and when they found the computer they got lost in it. When Peter Sampson Entered MIT, he didn’t expect the nest of wires under the model railroad set and he certainly did not expect the TX-0 to be in a random closet on the 9th floor. Chis Espinoza did not expect to find an employer at Homebrew nor help develop the most famous personal computer of all time. When Ken showed Roberta Adventure, he did not expect to drop his work porting FORTRAN to the Apple 2 and together found one of the most famous game companies of tall time.
While fantastic developers and passionate people The hackers were also flawed human beings. Your ancestors were imperfect creatures and there are a lot of quirks to criticize. Greenblatt could be an elitist slob whose failure to shower inspired clever ways to get him under the chemical showers of tech square. Steve Dompier was given Bill Gate’s Altair Basic and proceeded to encourage copying the tape without paying gates for the work. John Harris did in fact copy Pac-man and was even encouraged by Ken Williams to do so until Ken thought better of it. None of these people acted maliciously however; All were simply striving after the hacker dream, creating computers whose magic could freely enrapture all who came in contact with it.
Just as Python is a programming language generations removed from the underlying hardware, we are hackers generations removed from the work that still fascinates us today. These hackers lead to you, you with your love of the complex and fascinating world of computation. You share that wonder and cooperative spirit. You share that ever present joy of being part of a family so driven and brilliant that occasionally losing yourself in a computer seems like a privilege. If you’re like me, what you needed all along was to hear this story. You want your Bayeux tapestry; You wanted a truth that you can point to and say this is where the love of computers started and this is where I am in that story.
The hacker story, more than anything else, is a story of falling sideways. You don’t expect computers, but when computers find you, it doesn’t mater where you were before. If you love programming like I do, then you and I are now part of this tapestry together. Let’s make tools for making tools. Let’s talk about Machine Learning and the Internet of Things, and exactly how to optimize mobile operating systems. Let’s submit PRs and ask the dumb questions on the message boards. Will you join me?
Please friend, I’ll bum your tape if you bum mine.