[TUHS] The Gnome and Its "Secret Place"

segaloco via TUHS tuhs at tuhs.org
Thu May 4 13:51:26 AEST 2023

In the midst of my documentation research, I've done a little analysis on the life and times of this whimsical little phrase which first appeared in the "HOW TO GET STARTED" or basinf section of the Third Edition manual (a derivative of the original login(VII) page):

    "When you type to UNIX, a gnome deep in the system is gathering your characters and saving them in a secret place."

Aside from the wonderful imagery of the terminal interrupt driver as a little gnome, I've found that this line has some implications regarding UNIX documentation lineages.  This exact verbiage survives in the research line through the Sixth Edition, and is slightly edited prior to the Seventh:

    "When you type characters, a gnome deep in the system gathers your characters and saves them in a secret place."

The latter of the two changes holds with a trend over time of using progressive rather than continuous language.  That aside, simple change of "to UNIX" to "characters".  Seems simple enough, reduce redundancy and make it more clear what is happening.  In this same breath, basinf was merged into intro.  Checking the Tenth Edition manpage sources on the source tree, this version then seems to persist for the rest of the research lifetime.  Peering across into BSD-land, I had to pull a paper copy for this one because I can't find the intro document in the tree, but it likewise has the same exact text, so this version also persisted through the remainder of the UCB development period.

When you start to look into other Bell lineages, things get a little more interesting.  Let's start with MERT Release 0.  This manual was produced in October, 1977, and has a "gnome" message identical to that in the Sixth Edition manual, so presumably by this time, the old text could very well have still been up in research.  Unfortunately we only have scans of this manual, so I can't say whether the merge from intro and basinf to just intro has happened yet.  Additionally, this may not reflect the case with USG Program Generic 3 (or any of those) as the intro is one of the sections marked as modified from the USG manual.

Next let's check the situation with PWB 1.0.  To start, the intro and basinf documents have been merged into a document titled "introduction", which may very well indicate that this manual page at least was produced after the merge in the research line, and given this was July 1977, that's a case for the MERT 0 page likewise probably being a merged page.  However, the text reads:

    "When you type to UNIX, a gnome deep in the system is gathering your characters and saving them."

So a different modification of the Sixth Edition text, we still have "to UNIX" and the continuous "is gathering...and saving".  What does change is we no longer know where the gnome is saving those characters.  We've now lost the secret place, research and BSD carry on knowing the real story, and MERT 0 kept this intact as well.  Taking a look further afield, in the System III manuals, originally produced in 1980, we see the same as PWB, a merged intro document (now just named intro again), and the same text, the Sixth Edition text minus the secret place commentary.  So whatever merges of documentation took place between PWB 1.0 and 3.0, it seems the updated text from the Seventh Edition was never picked up, and the modified line persisted through to this point.  Checking forward, this text persists into the release of PWB 5.0.  The first release of System V only changes "UNIX" to "the UNIX System", consistent with nomenclature changes throughout documentation in the PWB 5.0->System V transition.

Taking a little peek aside into yet another lineage, the CB-UNIX 2.3 manuals circa 1981 likewise carry this same text, with the "secret place" removed.  Unfortunately we don't have any other versions of CB-UNIX manuals to compare with, but the specific page in question actually lists CB-UNIX 2.1 in the footer with a date of November 1979, so the PWB-ish text in that lineage dates to at least that point.

There are a few different variations circa SVR2, with the 1983 BTL version and 1984 DEC processors versions of the manual changing the first bit to "When you type to UNIX system", whereas the 1986 HRW tradebook manuals state "When you type to the UNIX system."  So the "the" is dropped, "system" is lower-cased, but then the "the" is added back between 1984 and 1986.

Finally, there is one more variation on this line, the saddest one of all, that appears circa System V Release 3 material in 1987:

    "When you type to the UNIX system, your individual characters are being gathered and temporarily saved."

"Pay no attention to the gnome behind the curtain," says AT&T, removing all whimsy from the equation.  This persists into SVR4.  Can't say what happens in SVR4.2, I don't have one of those user's manuals, but in any case, it's probably save to assume Novell didn't resurrect the gnome.  So just to review the strange and wonderful journey our little gnome has been on:

    - Introduced in Third Edition
    - intro and basinf documents merged between Sixth and Seventh Edition
    - MERT 0 takes the old text
    - PWB line takes the old text and drops the reference to a "secret place"
    - Seventh Edition adjusts the text to drop UNIX redundancy and use progressive language
    - PWB line keeps rolling with their modified text, CB-UNIX takes it up (or vice versa? can't conclude anything there)
    - PWB to System V process converts most references of "UNIX" to "the UNIX System"
    - Along the way, the "System" is ultimately lowercased, the "the" gets lost for a while and comes back
    - AT&T finally removes the gnome reference in SVR3/1987
    - Research and BSD keep the Seventh Edition text to the end

Granted, this is a very trivial detail, but one that does demonstrate some flow of documentation revisions and what sorts of changes different groups were making to their documents, what with research making changes to the grammatical style while the PWB-then-commercial line grew more sterile in this presentation over time.  This then shows at least one instance of a lack of merging of aspects of the Seventh Edition documentation back into the PWB line after the split of 1.0.  Eventually I hope to illuminate many more such areas through the diffing and historical analysis I'm performing.

By the way, I believe a few list members had indicated at some point or another being in possession of some USG Program Generic manuals.  If you happen to catch this, and have the time, I'd be ever so curious which of the above, if any, variations on the text they contain.  This particular line is immediately following the "How to communicate through your terminal" heading the "HOW TO GET STARTED" section.

Anywho, I hope this was an entertaining diversion.  While most of the analysis I'm performing concerns software details and version differences, it's also nice to take a closer look at some of the other sorts of changes that have happened in the lifetime of the system's growth and diversification.

- Matt G.

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