[TUHS] In Memoriam: J. F. Ossanna

Doug McIlroy doug at cs.dartmouth.edu
Fri Nov 30 03:07:33 AEST 2018

> Joe sold the (not really existent) UNIX system to the patent department of AT&T,
> which in turn bought the urgently needed PDP11. Without that there would be no
> UNIX. Without Joe there would be no UNIX.

That one's an urban legend. The PDP-11 was indeed a gift from another department,
thanks to a year-end budget surplus. Unix was up and running on that machine when
Joe corralled the patent department.

Nevertheless the story is consistent with Joe's talent for playing (or skirting)
the system to get things done. After Joe, the talent resurfaced in the
person of Fred Grampp. Lots of tales await Grampp's popping up from Dave
Horsford's calendar.

> Runoff was moved to Multics fairly early: here's its entry from the Multics
> glossary: "A Multics BCPL version of runoff was written by Doug McIlroy
> and Bob  Morris."

Morris did one port and called it roff. I did the BCPL one, adding registers,
but not macros. Molly Wagner contributed a hyphenation algorithm. Ken
and/or Dennis redid roff in PDP-11 assembler. Joe started afresh for the
grander nroff, including macros. Then Joe bought a phototypesetter ...

> Sun was sort of the Bell Labs of the time ... I wanted to go there and had
> to work at it a bit but I got there. Was Bell Labs in the 60's like that?

Yes, in desirability. But Bell Labs had far more diverse interests. Telephones,
theoretical physics, submarine cables, music, speech, fiber optics, Apollo.
Wahtever you wanted to know or work on, you were likely to find kindred
types and willing management.

> was that voice synthesizer a votrax or some other thing?

Yes. Credit Joe again. He had a penchant for hooking up novel equipment.
When the Votrax arrived, its output was made accessible by phone and also
by loudspeaker in the Unix lab. You had to feed it a stream of ASCII-
encoded phonemes. Lee McMahon promptly became adept at writing them
down. After a couple of days' play in the lab, Lee was working in his
office with the Votrax on speakerphone in the background. Giving no
notice, he typed the phonemes for "It sounds better over the telephone".
Everyone in the lab heard it clearly--our own "Watson, come here" moment.

But phonemes are tedious. Believing that it could ease the
task of phonetic transcription, I wrote a phonics program, "speak",
through which you could feed English text for conversion to
phonemes. At speak's inaugural run, Bob Morris typed one word,
"oarlock", and pronounced the program a success. Luckily he didn't
try "coworker", which the program would have rendered as "cow orker".
Max Matthews from acoustics research called it a breakthrough.
The acoustics folks could synthesize much better speech, but it
took minutes of computing to synthesize seconds of sounds. So
the Unix lab heard more synthetic speech in a few days than the
experts had created over all time.

One thing we learned is that people quickly get used
to poor synthetic speech just like they get used to
foreign accents. In fact, non-native speakers opined
that the Votrax was easier to understand than real people,
probably due to the bit of silence that the speak program
inserted between words to help with mental segmentation.
One evening someone in the Unix room playing with the
synthesizer noticed a night janitor listening in from
the corridor. In a questionable abuse of a non-exempt
employee, the Unix person typed, "Stop hanging around
around and get back to work." The poor janitor fled.

AT&T installed speak for the public to play with at Epcot.
Worried that folks would enter bad words that everybody
standing around could hear, they asked if I could filter them
out. Sure, I said, just provide me with a list of what to
delete. Duly, I received on letterhead from the VP for
public relations a list of perhaps twenty bad words. (I have
always wondered about the politics of asking a secretary to
type that letter.) It was reported that girls would try the
machine on people's names, while boys would discover that
the machine "didn't know" bad words (though it would happily
pronounce phonetic misspellings). Alas, I mistakenly discarded
the infamous letter in cleaning house to leave Bell Labs.


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