[TUHS] The (un)importance of roff

Doug McIlroy doug at cs.dartmouth.edu
Tue Dec 4 02:30:48 AEST 2018

Thhis is a cross-posting from the groff mailing list, where
it was speculated that without roff there might be no Unix.
Old hands will be familiar with the story.

> Without roff, Unix might well have disappeared.

The patent department and the AT&T president's office are the
only in-house examples I know where Unix was adopted because
of *roff.

The important adoptions, which led Berk Tague to found
a separate Unix Support Group, were mainstream telephone
applications and PWB, a Unix-based IDE.

The first telephone application happened in the field. An
engineer in Charlotte, NC, heard of this cheap easily programmed
system and proposed to use it to automate the scheduling and
dispatch of maintenance on the floor of a wire center. Ken
visited to help get them started.

The first Bell Labs telephone application was automating
the analysis of central-office trouble reports. These had
been voluminous stacks of punched cards that reported every
anomaly detected in huge electromechanical switches. The Unix
application captured the data on line and identfied systematic
failures in real time.

The patent adoption was a direct result of Joe Ossanna's
salesmaship. Other early adopters were self-motivated,
but the generous support lent by Ken, Joe, and others was
certainly a tipping force that helped turn isolated events
into a self-sustaining movement.


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