[TUHS] A New History of Modern Computing - my thoughts

Rob Pike robpike at gmail.com
Mon Nov 29 07:07:57 AEST 2021

Is there a symbiosis between C and the PDP-11 instruction set? The
machine was vital to C and Unix's success, but primarily due to the
availability of a department-sized machine. Was the instruction set a
significant component? Most Unix programmers wrote little to no
assembly, although perhaps more read what came out of the compiler.
But did it matter? Auto-increment and -decrement are often cited in
this story, but they are not that important, really, and were around
well before the PDP-11 made its appearance.

I'm curious to hear arguments on either side.


On Mon, Nov 29, 2021 at 7:29 AM Jon Steinhart <jon at fourwinds.com> wrote:
> Eugene Miya visited by last week and accidentally left his copy of the
> book here so I decided to read it before he came back to pick it up.
> My overall impression is that while it contained a lot of information,
> it wasn't presented in a manner that I found interesting.  I don't know
> the intended target audience, but it's not me.
> A good part of it is that my interest is in the evolution of technology.
> I think that a more accurate title for the book would be "A New History
> of the Business of Modern Computing".  The book was thorough in covering
> the number of each type of machine sold and how much money was made, but
> that's only of passing interest to me.  Were it me I would have just
> summarized all that in a table and used the space to tell some engaging
> anecdotes.
> There were a number of things that I felt the book glossed over or missed
> completely.
> One is that I didn't think that they gave sufficient credit to the symbiosis
> between C and the PDP-11 instruction set and the degree to which the PDP-11
> was enormously influential.
> Another is that I felt that the book didn't give computer graphics adequate
> treatment.  I realize that it was primarily in the workstation market segment
> which was not as large as some of the other segments, but in my opinion the
> development of the technology was hugely important as it eventually became
> commodified and highly profitable.
> Probably due to my personal involvement I felt that the book missed some
> important steps along the path toward open source.  In particular, it used
> the IPO of Red Hat as the seminal moment while not even mentioning the role
> of Cygnus.  My opinion is that Cygnus was a huge icebreaker in the adoption
> of open source by the business world, and that the Red Hat IPO was just the
> culmination.
> I also didn't feel that there was any message or takeaways for readers.  I
> didn't get any "based on all this I should go and do that" sort of feeling.
> If the purpose of the book was to present a dry history then it pretty much
> did it's job.  Obviously the authors had to pick and choose what to write
> about and I would have made some different choices.  But, not my book.
> Jon

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