I watched a nice video today of a lecture by Rob Pike on the history of UNIX from his personal perspective. It's fun to watch stuff like this, it's different than reading about UNIX in a book or online.

I once had the opportunity to watch Linus Pauling give a keynote on the history of the chemical bond from his personal perspective. When he went to school the prevailing model was electrons were point charges on the surface of a solid nucleus (the billiard ball model of an atom). He went on to develop the theory of hybrid orbitals, and just a decade or so after his talk we saw some of the first "pictures" of atomic bonds taken with atomic force microscopy.

Rob Pike's talk is sort of the same. He was involved in a lot of the early history of UNIX, developing on PDP-11's, VAXen, and early workstations both at the University of Toronto and Bell Labs. I really enjoyed the talk, as I experienced computing on a lot of the same systems. I punched cards in Rio Piedras, worked on a teletype with an IBM mainframe in the Medical Sciences Campus, and got to play Spacewar! on a PDP-12 at the Institute of Neurobiology. Mom's PDP-12 had tape drives and a teletype, and a vector display. I don't really know if it was running UNIX or OS/12, I just used it to play games, but mom had code to measure voltages and currents from her electrophysiology rig on it that Anthony Auerbach developed.

Later in the talk Pike describes the XEROX Alto, and how that led to graphical terminals at Bell Labs they used to interface to PDP-11's and Crays. I didn't get to experience any of this until I was at the University of Cincinnati around 1990, and there mostly saw Sun workstations and a little Silicon Graphics. Seeing some of the research that went into developing GUIs was interesting.

In the late 1980's and early 1990's I was mostly working on IBM-PC's and clones, learning DOS, Windows 3.11, and DESQview for multitasking. I had an old PDP-11 with Coherent on a big disk pack, but I mostly used that to heat up the lab when it got cold in winter. I could plug a DEC VT220 terminal to the PDP-11 and use it as a text terminal and plot graphs to it using Tektronics plotter commands. The rest of the time we used the VT220 to connect over serial lines (19,000 baud) to the university's VAX, and then the Internet.

Around that time I first tried linux, and even though it had some really rough edges, the experience was much better than DOS/Windows on the PC.