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The Strange Birth and Long Life of Unix

The classic operating system turns 40, and its progeny abound

12 min read
Photo: Alcatel-Lucent
Key Figures: Ken Thompson (seated) types as Dennis Ritchie looks on in 1972, shortly after they and their Bell Labs colleagues invented Unix.
Photo: Alcatel-Lucent

They say that when one door closes on you, another opens. People generally offer this bit of wisdom just to lend some solace after a misfortune. But sometimes it's actually true. It certainly was for Ken Thompson and the late Dennis Ritchie, two of the greats of 20th-century information technology, when they created the Unix operating system, now considered one of the most inspiring and influential pieces of software ever written.

A door had slammed shut for Thompson and Ritchie in March of 1969, when their employer, the American Telephone & Telegraph Co., withdrew from a collaborative project with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and General Electric to create an interactive time-sharing system called Multics, which stood for “Multiplexed Information and Computing Service." Time-sharing, a technique that lets multiple people use a single computer simultaneously, had been invented only a decade earlier. Multics was to combine time-sharing with other technological advances of the era, allowing users to phone a computer from remote terminals and then read e-mail, edit documents, run calculations, and so forth. It was to be a great leap forward from the way computers were mostly being used, with people tediously preparing and submitting batch jobs on punch cards to be run one by one.

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iStock

This article is part of our exclusive IEEE Journal Watch series in partnership with IEEE Xplore.

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