05/12/2021

069 – Alternate thinking – 1983

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Control over the use of one’s ideas really constitutes control over other people’s lives;
and it is usually used to make their lives more difficult.  Richard Stallman

While at high school Richard Stallman worked for a summer with IBM on FORTRAN and APL, and after high school used PL/1 and an IBM System/360.  By the early 1970s he was a programmer at the MIT AI Lab.

The lab ran a PDP-6 and PDP-10; its OS was the hacker-produced’ Incompatible Timesharing System.  In 1963 the lab produced a text editing system called TECO, tape editor and corrector.

Stallman visited Stanford AI Lab and saw an E editor built on WYSIWYG principles.  He set about updating TECO.  By 1981 he had added random editing and the facility to work with macros.  He included some pre-existing hacks, such as Control-R to automatically refresh the screen after editing keystrokes. 

He called this EMACS, editor macros, and it remains popular to date with the more technical programmer.  Stallman believed that users had the right to copy, alter and to redistribute software,

‘EMACS was distributed on a basis of communal sharing, which means all improvements must be given back to me to be incorporated and distributed.’

1981 – James Gosling wrote the first UNIX EMACS editor known as Gosling EMACS.  Written in C and with Lisp-like add-ons it was released as proprietary software.  As a hacker Stallman was disturbed by this and he decided to produce a free version.

In September 1983 Stallman commented,

‘Starting this Thanksgiving I am going to write a complete Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for GNU’s Not UNIX), and give it away free to everyone who can use it. Contributions of time, money, programs and equipment are greatly needed…’

In 1984 he resigned his position at MIT so his work could not be claimed as copyright by MIT or its sponsor DARPA.  The software was co-written by volunteers in their spare time; some unkind individuals suggest that GNU has yet to release a stable version.

They rewrote the Gosling EMACS with a true Lisp interpreter and produced the GNU C Compiler; GNU EMACS was released by the GNU Project in 1985.

That year Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation as a non-profit charity avoiding tax.  Funding came from sales of CD-ROMs of the ‘free’ software that it developed.

GNU software was distributed licencefree via the GNU General Public Licence; Stallman framed the term ‘copyleft’.  The licence permitted anyone to upgrade and modify it provided the new code was made public.  It is today the most widely used free software licence.

Describing himself as a software freedom activist, Stallman’s definition of free software was freedom of availability and not zero-priced software.  GNU was taken up by a number of commercial organisations who would provide free software but charge for commercial and technical support.

For example Cygnus Solutions supported the GNU development using the promotional slogan ‘making free software affordable’.  Cygnus developed the binary file descriptor which allowed fifty different file formats to be used with twenty-five different processor platforms.  Cygnus was later merged into Red Hat.

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