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Tales In Tech History: Unix

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Unix was one of the most popular server operating systems, but its life has been marred by bitter legal battles

Unix may not be a familiar name to some of the younger generation, but back in the day the operating system dominated the server market, and was the defacto OS choice for many businesses.

Its rivalry with the Pick operating system continued for many years, and there is an argument to be made that the Unix operating system was one of the most influential pieces of software ever written.

The OS however had a convoluted birth until it eventually appeared in the summer of 1969, the same year that Linux creator Linus Torvalds was born.

dennis-ritchie-wikipedia-topEarly Years

In 1969, two IT legends namely Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie had started working on what would become the Unix operating system.

Bell Labs, MIT and General Electric had in the 1960s been developing Multics (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service), an interactive time-sharing system for mainframe computers. This ‘time sharing’ was a technique that allowed multiple people use a single computer simultaneously, and it had been invented back in the 1950s.

But in April 1969 AT&T (the owner of Bell Labs) decided to pull the plug on Multics, which meant that Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie and a third Bell Labs colleague, Rudd Canaday, began working on the “little-used PDP-7 in a corner” at Bell Labs. They developed what turned out to be Unix.

The project name for their scheme was Unics (UNiplexed Information and Computing Service), which was intended as a pun on Multics (Multiplexed Information and Computer Services). The new operating system was an emasculated Multics, the developers felt.

The main driver for the new OS was actually a computer game called Space Travel, which simulated all the major bodies in the solar system along with a spaceship that could fly around them.

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