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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Superlattices Could Make Bulky Capacitors Obsolete

Researchers hope artificial antiferroelectric capacitors could help miniaturize electronics further

3 min read
A grid of arrows pointing in different directions

In artificial antiferroelectric structures, electric dipoles are normally arranged in ways that lead to zero electric polarization.

Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology/Science Advances

One roadblock to shrinking present-day electronics is the relatively large size of their capacitors. Now scientists have developed new “superlattices” that might help build capacitors as small as one-hundredth the size of conventional ones.

Whereas batteries store energy in chemical form, capacitors store energy in an electric field. Batteries typically possess greater energy densities than capacitors—they can store more energy for their weight. However, capacitors usually have greater power densities than batteries—they charge and discharge more quickly. This makes capacitors useful for applications involving pulses of power.

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3 min read
Animated gif of a device with a coil on one end dissolving between days 1 and 60.

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Northwestern University

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