Happy 35th Birthday GNU!

The GNU project was officially announced on 27 September 1983 by Richard Stallman. Thirty-five years of a project that has now become the fundamental building block of everything we use and see in technology in 2018. I would not be wrong to say that there isn’t a single proprietary piece of software that anyone is still using from 35 years ago – please post comments if there is something still being used.

There is only one reason for this longevity: the GNU project was built upon the premise that the code is available to anyone, anywhere with the only restriction that whatever is done to the code, it shall always be available to anyone, forever. Richard Stallman’s genius in crafting the copyleft license is the GNU General Public License is probably the best hack of the 20th century software industry.

What was I doing in 1983? I was working at the Computer Systems Advisors (no longer around, after being bought up by CSC). I was working on a system from DEC – the PDP-11/44 running RSX-11. We were creating software using Digital’s DIBOL – a variant of COBOL. DIBOL was, IMHO, the sink-hole of GOTO statements. I truly did not like that language. I can’t pinpoint why, but it just did not appeal to me. I had learned FORTRAN and BASIC before and they were so much more expressive. Editing the code in the PDP-11 was using some editing tool (perhaps teco or something) on a VT-100 terminal that was attached to the RSX-11 system. I think I was working on some insurance company’s bespoke code – but, frankly, those are all wishy-washy to me now.

The IBM PC was becoming an interesting offering and CSA’s sister organization, Automated Systems, got the distributorship of the Corona Data Systems PC. I got asked to take on the Corona PC as a main product person, I began my involvement with the PC-DOS/MS-DOS/CP/M world. I was learning a lot about this world with the ISA cards, Interrupts, RAM cards, RS-232 terminal connectivity, writing Interrupt Service Routines, terminate-and-stay-routines, and later 3Com‘s network cards – 3C501, 3C509 etc) with coaxial cables (yes, you better terminate the end of the bus with a terminator plug or else the network freezes). I recall that there was some networking software to share files (perhaps 3+Share or the like).

In parallel, the reason for the PC (including the Apple ][) getting traction in the early 1980s, was the famous spreadsheet product called VisiCalc created by VisiCorp. Their success encouraged VisiCorp to create something else called Visi On. This was an interesting product that provided a GUI for the IBM PC.

Automated Systems managed to get the distributorship of Visi On and I was then tasked with understanding the product and helping to get the training/sales going. There were many things I liked about it, but there was a lot more I could not understand because of the lack of documentation – or rather, insufficient documentation – on how to program in it etc. I recall a training session for a customer who specifically asked about creating macros for Visi On like one could with VisiCalc. To whoever that asked me then, I still don’t know.

I am sad to note that none of those closed, proprietary products are around. The loss of all of the good work done by the developers of those products is disappointing. If they had the foresight of Richard Stallman and made the code available, we might be on a different trajectory with technology than where we are now.



  1. While I agree with your general sentiment, Oracle and AutoCAD both leapt out at me as software that is older; I am sure there are others if I thought about it for a few minutes.

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