[TUHS] What was your "Aha, Unix!" moment?

Dan Cross crossd at gmail.com
Sun Oct 13 11:37:49 AEST 2019

On Thu, Oct 10, 2019 at 4:56 PM Warren Toomey <wkt at tuhs.org> wrote:

> All, we had another dozen TUHS suscribers to the list overnight. Welcome.
> A reminder that we're here to discuss Unix Heritage, so I'll nudge you
> if the conversation goes a bit off-topic.
> So I'll kick off another thread. What was your "ahah" moment when you
> first saw that Unix was special, especially compared to the systems you'd
> previously used?
> Mine was: Oh, I can:
>   + write a simple script
>   + to edit a file on the fly
>   + with no temporary files (a la pipes)
>   + AND I can change the file suffix and the system won't stop me!
> I was using TOPS-20 beforehand.

I'm afraid I have a rather pedestrian story. Like many folks in the 80s, we
had a home computer, and in early high school I got kind of hooked on this
idea of using a modem to call other computers. I remember one of the kids
at school telling me, "don't use DOS unless you're afraid of speed." At the
time, I had no real conception of what that meant, nor how fundamentally
wrong it was, but hey, ok. Our home machine was actually a Mac, but I
managed to convince the family that a PC clone running DOS would be a
better machine.

Dad relented, a suitable machine was acquired and while it is likely the
thing would have become another object gather dust, an unfortunate
encounter with a solid object at a high rate of speed basically ended my
changes of becoming a professional skateboarder and the (new) computer
filled the void. As I was recuperating from that broken collar bone, I got
into the idea of learning C.

My dad, an engineer, mentioned to me that the folks at his company were
using Sun machines and the word "Unix" hung in the air. It was mysterious
and cool. Eventually, I saved up enough money to order a copy of Coherent,
which while interesting, was abstruse and opaque: let's face it, DOS was
written to drive what amounted to souped up microcontrollers; things were
pretty understandable in that world once you achieved a basic level of
competence. But this Unix thing sounded intriguing and I wanted to learn
more. Getting access was a challenge. Coherent didn't really seem like the

About a year of DOS and some Coherent later, I fell in with a crowd of
undergrads at the local university who were mostly CS/EE/Math majors and
that cemented things: it pains me somewhat to admit it, but I got into Unix
because that's what the cool kids were doing. I ditched DOS and Coherent
and installed NetBSD. Interestingly, I found a Linux distribution
somewhere, and we had that running in a lab for a while, but it didn't
stick; I still thought BSD was better and at the time, that was probably
(technically) true. Besides, we were mostly running RISC machines running
various commercial Unix variants; the BSD/Linux stuff was just for messing
around and/or for home use.

The one unique quirk in this anecdote is that, at some point, I did two
weird things: 1) I saw an ad locally for a guy selling a DECstation running
Ultrix and I bought it. I could never get X to work on my 486, but it sure
worked on the DECstation, so I had a graphical environment at home. 2) I
bought a VAX off USENET. Not a "real" VAX in the 10th edition sense, but a
desktop VAXstation. I ran VMS on that. Both of those machines are probably
still down in my basement somewhere.... Anyway, while the kids were running
Linux at home, most people I knew really wanted a RISC workstation and I
had one as well as a personal VAX. That definitely gave me some street cred
for a while.

At some point I had learned enough technically to realize that Unix really
was better than the alternatives I had access to; I liked VMS, but it was
specific to a limited set of hardware and seemed more complex than Unix for
little benefit. Some people claimed it was simpler, though; I'm not sure in
what sense they meant, even today. Some of the college folks I was spending
time with used the local mainframe (VM/ESA) a fair bit and RSCS was a big
deal locally. I played around with it, but never found it all that
interesting; it seemed to me that Unix did everything the mainframe could
do, but, well, better.

So yeah, that's it: it's kind of sad, but I ran Unix because people told me
Unix was better. And while on the one hand it was obviously better than
DOS, I had limited exposure to other systems from which to form a real
opinion about its relative merits with respect to similarly ambitious
designs. I see now the superiority of the design relative to other common
systems of the day, but that's a perspective developed after the fact, as
opposed to something that I saw or felt at the time.

One more aside here: Doug lambasted the Macintosh earlier, but in
retrospect I'm really glad that our first computer was a Mac. It was never
a machine that was designed for command-line use; hence why something was
simple as "Hello, World!" would be so complex. But it did have a regularity
of interface and was simple enough that for years I never realized a
computer could be any different. I didn't appreciate the value of those
early lessons and how they shaped how I thought about how a system should
work until much, much  later.

        - Dan C.
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