Use this forum to discuss past Good Words.
Junior Lexiterian
Posts: 18
Joined: Thu May 30, 2013 2:26 am

Re: Hacker

Postby DavidLJ » Mon Aug 04, 2014 5:53 pm

I learned the word hacker in its computer sense when I was on staff of the MIT AI Lab in 1971, which was probably pretty close to the start. The "Web," i.e. ARPAnet, the ancestor of today's Internet, at the time had just seven nodes, and I was user #300.

The meaning of the word was pretty clear: it meant a highly skilled computer user, and its etymology was directly from sports, mostly golf. The fact that a golf hacker is assumed clumsy while a computer hacker was assumed, accurately, to be highly skilled is an example of the sense of humour found among experts of many kinds: gentle understatement with self-deprecation.

The assignment of malevolence to hackers came a couple of years later, about the time the word moved from its homes, at MIT, Carnegie-Mellon, Stanford (the junior university: Leland P. Stanford Junior University), etc. and out into the wider world.

Hackers' protests that the invention of the main stream press are really crackers, not hackers, is appreciated by only a few, and is a pretty good litmus for elementary press and computer literacy.

While we're at it, this is a pretty good place to start clearing up the history of the Internet.

The Internet is a collection of networks which share the technology packet switching. Under packet switching a message is chopped up into small chunks, and each chunk it given an address to go to. The chunks are all then dumped into the local network, which then dumps them into all the networks it is connected to. Every node on the network examines every packet and does with it whatever it think appropriate, usually forwarding it in the direction it thinks most likely to be useful. After a while, a few microseconds, old packets die. When some of them get to their intended destination, they reassemble themselves into the intended message.

Witty fault correction is built in. The whole thing worked originally because the telephone system was built to handle a grossly inefficient form of communication, the human voice, so there was huge overcapacity for anything even faintly rational.

Now to the myths. Did this start with the military? No. It didn't.

The first packet switched networks were on the campus of University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada, and simultaneously at a dorm at MIT, in the mid-1960's. The plan for them was inspired by an article Vannevar Bush wrote in Atlantic magazine in 1945, and was planned in a bunch of thick binders put out by the Carnegie Corporation in about 1960.

(I read Bush's article, the Carnegie documents, and an MIT book based on them in 1963~65 and then met Bush at his home near Boston in 1966. I lived in a tekkie commune in Toronto for part of that time. Typically, when Richard L. Meier bought his first airplane, he used it to fly up to see us, because we had the first architectural/building-building computer program around. Etc.)

After the Waterloo and MIT naissance, the first serious net was the one created by Digital Equipment Corporation for itself and all its customers. It was called Usenet, but one must be careful to distinguish this from the later use of the same name by a popular and useful e-mail program, service and network.

After Usenet was running nicely, Johnny Foster, JFK's technology guru at the Pentagon and a veteran of Lawrence Livermore, pointed it out to Joe Lickleider, who was in charge of the then ARPA, the Pentagon's blue sky research arm. Lickleider got in touch with Dick Bolt, one of the partners of Bolt, Beranek and Newman, today's BBN, or perhaps vice-versa. The upshot was that Bolt then sold the same software it had already written for DEC to the Pentagon. Glorious: write once, get paid twice!

The rest is history. The excellent Vint Cerf, a prototypical hacker, grossly improved the efficiency of the whole thing by heading up the development of the IP/TCP protocol stack which handles the interfacing of networks, switches, and nodes today. Later he became a Vice President of the energetic MCI corporation, and their public relations people tried, with a dismaying amount of success, but I'm sure to his embarrassment, into the "father of the Internet." He is certainly one of the ten or twenty people most responsible for the foundations of today's Net.

MCI's PR people have impressed themselves on my mind forever. When I worked for the US Congress the guy they sent to lobby me for my support of their Chicago-St. Louis microwave line (a good and pioneering thing, by the way) wore a green suit. The only other white man I have seen wearing a suit like it was one of President Nixon's Secret Service detail I bumped into outside the Senate dining room one day. The bean soup is as good as all the books say.

At the time I got my Net account I was number 300, of a net with seven nodes, five in the US, one in England, one Scotland, the latter two linked by a voice-grade satellite circuit lent by the Pentagon. I logged on, when I was not in Cambridge, with an Execuport, an audio coupler which you plugged a telephone handset into. It cost $4,000 and had a speed of either 300 or 56 baud. (56 baud is the historic speed of the lines through Indian territory which competed with the Pony Express, and of the wireless technology Winston Churchill used to communicate with the Fleet when he was First Lord of the Admiralty. I forget which speed my Execuport had.)

At that same time the parallel commercial Usenet claimed 400 nodes and 10,000 users. I find the 400 nodes faintly credible: it probably means Digital Equipment had 400 users hooked up or hoped for when I talked to them I 1971. The 10,000 users strikes me as a little airy, and is probably some salesman's guess that the average notional customer had 25 people capable of getting to a terminal -- but green screens leased for $300 a month in those days, so that's a pretty flaky number.

Still it's pretty clear that it wasn't until well into 1972 before the public Arpanet outgrew its commercial parent.


David Myer
Posts: 115
Joined: Wed Nov 11, 2009 3:21 am
Location: Melbourne

Re: Hacker

Postby David Myer » Mon Aug 04, 2014 8:47 pm

Excellent stuff, David. Can't profess to understand quite all of your communication, but it gives me a warm glow to know I'm in a club with number 300 on the internet. Good on you!

Perry Lassiter
Grand Panjandrum
Posts: 2987
Joined: Wed Jan 03, 2007 12:41 pm
Location: RUSTON, LA

Re: Hacker

Postby Perry Lassiter » Mon Aug 04, 2014 10:06 pm

The Cal Tech "hack" reminds me of one year at Baylor when we arrived in the stadium for the game and found our opponents had branded the field with its name in light gree rye grasse: TCU, I think, tho perhaps Rice.

User avatar
Posts: 430
Joined: Fri Nov 20, 2009 7:42 am
Location: Southampton

Re: Hacker

Postby call_copse » Mon Aug 11, 2014 11:54 am

Nice post DavidLJ, I enjoyed your reminiscences and background perspective - I worked at DEC (for a short period) when the www was just beginning, early 90's before they became defunct. Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, and later Berners-Lee, have done much for us all or cursed us with a monster, depending on your outlook. It's a monster without which we would not be here at any rate.

Return to “Good Word Discussion”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 4 guests