[TUHS] Early BSD license thread
robpike at gmail.com
Thu Sep 22 10:32:15 AEST 2022
Around 1977 I was working/volunteering/studying at the Dynamic Graphics Lab
at the University of Toronto, where Unix ran on an 11/45 and we had a bunch
of graphics hardware. Doing graphics on a PDP-11 was a challenge, but we
managed. (For reference: later Dave Tennenhouse made a 256x256x8bit frame
buffer, and that was the size of entire PDP-11 data address space.)
Everyone was jealous of the C/A/T phototypesetter that Bell Labs Research
used to print their documentation. One Friday evening I had the idea to use
our stinky but effective Versatec plotter as an output device for nroff. In
just a few hours - our libraries were already pretty good - I had something
tolerable running. Tom Duff dropped by and helped make it faster by coding
what we would now call the character blitter in assembler. Then Bill Reeves
joined in, and Mike Tilson, and by the end of the weekend we had pretty
good efficient output. (Still nroff; troff came later, mostly due to Bill I
think, who did a lot of work on the character set.) It was grey and blotchy
and smelly, but after a Xerox copy it looked pretty good for the time.
Ron Baecker, who ran the lab and was the graduate advisor for everyone else
- I was just an undergraduate physics student having fun - stopped by on
Monday morning and was furious to see us all hammering on the code.
Everyone was supposed to be working on their thesis and we had spent the
weekend hacking. I was about to be in serious trouble for distracting the
graduate students. But then he saw the output and completely changed his
tune: "Can I use this to print out my new grant proposal?"
For context, consider this: I used the system for my 4th year optics
project report. The professor was furious with me for copying someone's
work. He did not believe it possible to create output like that (and to be
fair, it wasn't possible almost anywhere else). I had to take him to the
lab and show him how I did it before he would let me pass the course. Until
then, no one had seen a student capable of making text look good.
The software went on the Toronto tape, with a top-of-file comment crediting
me, Bill, Tom, and Mike. It emerged again from Berkeley with that comment
replaced by the Regents' rankling rewrite.
When I interviewed at Bell Labs, Dennis Ritchie saw on my resume that I
claimed to have worked on the Versatec text output system. He asked why I
had bothered, when Berkeley had already done it. "Because we wrote it
first, and Berkeley took the credit," I said. Berkeley did tweak it, but
honestly it was mostly our work.
I didn't care so much about losing credit for the code, but the idea was
100% mine, and for a young punk the loss of credit was upsetting. Later
Henry Spencer, another Toronto graduate, explained the story on Usenet. I
don't know if he was believed, and through the 1980s it remained the
"Berkeley typesetting software."
It was all long ago, but seeing that "Regents" comment is, as we say today,
But to be fair to Dennis, he believed me, and maybe that helped me get
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