This article by Andrew Leonard talks about how the BSD operating system came about to be a dominant player in the open source world. Hear about the story of Bill Joy, Marshall Kirk McKusick, and other big influences and the origins at the University of California, Berkeley.
How Berkeley hackers built the Net’s most fabled free operating system on the ashes of the ’60s — and then lost the lead to Linux.
By the time Bill Joy arrived in Berkeley, Calif., in 1975 to attend graduate school, the fabled capital of leftist radicalism was a bit ragged around the edges. If the 21-year-old programming wunderkind had glanced at the headlines blasting out of the local alternative weeklies, he might have wondered just what kind of insane mess he had gotten himself into. In San Francisco, Patty Hearst was on trial for a bank robbery committed while the newspaper heiress was toting machine guns for the Symbionese Liberation Army. In Oakland, the Weather Underground botched a bombing of a Defense Department building. Even the reliable bugaboo of CIA recruitment on the University of California’s Berkeley campus failed to generate more than a token protest.
Berkeley was burned out, its radical energy wasting away in infantile terrorism, conspiracy theorizing and drug overdoses. The Free Speech Movement that had galvanized the university in the ’60s belonged to another geological age. Ken Thompson, co-creator of the Unix operating system, graduated from Berkeley in 1966 with a degree in electrical engineering. He returned to the university from Bell Labs for a sabbatical in 1975. But the campus on which he had once walked to class through clouds of tear gas had changed. That year, says Thompson, Berkeley “had turned into the most politically apathetic place I’d seen.”
But it was the right place for Joy. “He never looked at those [alternative] papers,” says John Gage, a close friend of Joy’s during the Berkeley years and later at Sun Microsystems, a company co-founded by Joy. Today, Joy calls himself a “staunch Democrat” and has recently carved out a new niche as a techno-skeptical doomsayer, but in the ’70s he was, by his own description, “not an activist.” Joy chose to attend UC-Berkeley instead of Stanford or MIT not because he was attracted by its politics or countercultural reputation but because the computer science department’s hardware was so obsolete that he figured he’d have no choice but to confine his research efforts to studying computing theory — which was exactly what he wanted to do.