[TUHS] How Unix made it to the top

Doug McIlroy doug at cs.dartmouth.edu
Sat Dec 17 12:09:16 AEST 2016

It has often been told how the Bell Labs law department became the
first non-research department to use Unix, displacing a newly acquired
stand-alone word-processing system that fell short of the department's
hopes because it couldn't number the lines on patent applications,
as USPTO required. When Joe Ossanna heard of this, he told them about
roff and promised to give it line-numbering capability the next day.
They tried it and were hooked. Patent secretaries became remote
members of the fellowship of the Unix lab. In due time the law
department got its own machine.

Less well known is how Unix made it into the head office of AT&T. It
seems that the CEO, Charlie Brown, did not like to be seen wearing
glasses when he read speeches. Somehow his PR assistant learned of
the CAT phototypesetter in the Unix lab and asked whether it might be
possible to use it to produce scripts in large type. Of course it was.
As connections to the top never hurt, the CEO's office was welcomed
as another ouside user. The cost--occasionally having to develop film
for the final copy of a speech--was not onerous.

Having teethed on speeches, the head office realized that Unix could
also be useful for things that didn't need phototypesetting. Other
documents began to accumulate in their directory. By the time we became
aware of it, the hoard came to include minutes of AT&T board meetings.
It didn't seem like a very good idea for us to be keeping records from
the inner sanctum of the corporation on a computer where most everybody
had super-user privileges. A call to the PR guy convinced him of the
wisdom of keeping such things on their own premises. And so the CEO's
office bought a Unix system.

Just as one hears of cars chosen for their cupholders, so were these
users converted to Unix for trivial reasons: line numbers and vanity.


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