Chapter 4
Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software

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Table of Contents



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Project Gutenburg

Although their relationship was fraught with tension,
Richard Stallman would inherit one noteworthy trait
from his mother: a passion for progressive politics.

It was an inherited trait that would take several
decades to emerge, however. For the first few years of
his life, Stallman lived in what he now admits was a
"political vacuum."See Michael Gross, "Richard Stallman: High School
Misfit, Symbol of Free Software, MacArthur-certified
Genius" (1999).
 Like most Americans during the Eisenhower age, the
Stallman family spent the 50s trying to recapture the
normalcy lost during the wartime years of the 1940s.

"Richard's father and I were Democrats but happy enough
to leave it at that," says Lippman, recalling the
family's years in Queens. "We didn't get involved much
in local or national politics."

That all began to change, however, in the late 1950s
when Alice divorced Daniel Stallman. The move back to
Manhattan represented more than a change of address; it
represented a new, independent identity and a jarring
loss of tranquility.

"I think my first taste of political activism came when
I went to the Queens public library and discovered
there was only a single book on divorce in the whole
library," recalls Lippman. "It was very controlled by
the Catholic church, at least in Elmhurst, where we
lived. I think that was the first inkling I had of the
forces that quietly control our lives."

Returning to her childhood neighborhood, Manhattan's
Upper West Side, Lippman was shocked by the changes
that had taken place since her departure to Hunter
College a decade and a half before. The skyrocketing
demand for postwar housing had turned the neighborhood
into a political battleground. On one side stood the
pro-development city-hall politicians and businessmen
hoping to rebuild many of the neighborhood's blocks to
accommodate the growing number of white-collar workers
moving into the city. On the other side stood the poor
Irish and Puerto Rican tenants who had found an
affordable haven in the neighborhood.

At first, Lippman didn't know which side to choose. As
a new resident, she felt the need for new housing. As a
single mother with minimal income, however, she shared
the poorer tenants' concern over the growing number of
development projects catering mainly to wealthy
residents. Indignant, Lippman began looking for ways to
combat the political machine that was attempting to
turn her neighborhood into a clone of the Upper East Side.

Lippman says her first visit to the local Democratic
party headquarters came in 1958. Looking for a day-care
center to take care of her son while she worked, she
had been appalled by the conditions encountered at one
of the city-owned centers that catered to low-income
residents. "All I remember is the stench of rotten
milk, the dark hallways, the paucity of supplies. I had
been a teacher in private nursery schools. The contrast
was so great. We took one look at that room and left.
That stirred me up."

The visit to the party headquarters proved
disappointing, however. Describing it as "the
proverbial smoke-filled room," Lippman says she became
aware for the first time that corruption within the
party might actually be the reason behind the city's
thinly disguised hostility toward poor residents.
Instead of going back to the headquarters, Lippman
decided to join up with one of the many clubs aimed at
reforming the Democratic party and ousting the last
vestiges of the Tammany Hall machine. Dubbed the
Woodrow Wilson/FDR Reform Democratic Club, Lippman and
her club began showing up at planning and city-council
meetings, demanding a greater say.

"Our primary goal was to fight Tammany Hall, Carmine
DeSapio and his henchman,"Carmine DeSapio holds the dubious distinction of
the first Italian-American boss of Tammany Hall, the
New York City political machine. For more information
on DeSapio and the politics of post-war New York, see
John Davenport, "Skinning the Tiger: Carmine DeSapio
and the End of the Tammany Era," New York Affairs
(1975): 3:1.
 says Lippman. "I was the representative to the city
council and was very much involved in creating a viable
urban-renewal plan that went beyond simply adding more
luxury housing to the neighborhood."

Such involvement would blossom into greater political
activity during the 1960s. By 1965, Lippman had become
an "outspoken" supporter for political candidates like
William Fitts Ryan, a Democratic elected to Congress
with the help of reform clubs and one of the first U.S.
representatives to speak out against the Vietnam War.

It wasn't long before Lippman, too, was an outspoken
opponent of U.S. involvement in Indochina. "I was
against the Vietnam war from the time Kennedy sent
troops," she says. "I had read the stories by reporters
and journalists sent to cover the early stages of the
conflict. I really believed their forecast that it
would become a quagmire."

Such opposition permeated the Stallman-Lippman
household. In 1967, Lippman remarried. Her new husband,
Maurice Lippman, a major in the Air National Guard,
resigned his commission to demonstrate his opposition
to the war. Lippman's stepson, Andrew Lippman, was at
MIT and temporarily eligible for a student deferment.
Still, the threat of induction should that deferment
disappear, as it eventually did, made the risk of U.S.
escalation all the more immediate. Finally, there was
Richard who, though younger, faced the prospect of
choosing between Vietnam or Canada when the war lasted
into the 1970s.

"Vietnam was a major issue in our household," says
Lippman. "We talked about it constantly: what would we
do if the war continued, what steps Richard or his
stepbrother would take if they got drafted. We were all
opposed to the war and the draft. We really thought it
was immoral."

For Stallman, the Vietnam War elicited a complex
mixture of emotions: confusion, horror, and,
ultimately, a profound sense of political impotence. As
a kid who could barely cope in the mild authoritarian
universe of private school, Stallman experienced a
shiver whenever the thought of Army boot camp presented itself.

"I was devastated by the fear, but I couldn't imagine
what to do and didn't have the guts to go demonstrate,"
recalls Stallman, whose March 18th birthday earned him
a dreaded low number in the draft lottery when the
federal government finally eliminated college
deferments in 1971. "I couldn't envision moving to
Canada or Sweden. The idea of getting up by myself and
moving somewhere. How could I do that? I didn't know
how to live by myself. I wasn't the kind of person who
felt confident in approaching things like that."

Stallman says he was both impressed and shamed by the
family members who did speak out. Recalling a bumper
sticker on his father's car likening the My Lai
massacre to similar Nazi atrocities in World War II, he
says he was "excited" by his father's gesture of
outrage. "I admired him for doing it," Stallman says.
"But I didn't imagine that I could do anything. I was
afraid that the juggernaut of the draft was going to
destroy me."

Although descriptions of his own unwillingness to speak
out carry a tinge of nostalgic regret, Stallman says he
was ultimately turned off by the tone and direction of
the anti-war movement. Like other members of the
Science Honors Program, he saw the weekend
demonstrations at Columbia as little more than a
distracting spectacle.Chess, another Columbia Science Honors Program alum,
describes the protests as "background noise." "We were
all political," he says, "but the SHP was imporant. We
would never have skipped it for a demonstration."
 Ultimately, Stallman says, the irrational forces
driving the anti-war movement became indistinguishable
from the irrational forces driving the rest of youth
culture. Instead of worshiping the Beatles, girls in
Stallman's age group were suddenly worshiping
firebrands like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. To a kid
already struggling to comprehend his teenage peers,
escapist slogans like "make love not war" had a
taunting quality. Not only was it a reminder that
Stallman, the short-haired outsider who hated rock 'n'
roll, detested drugs, and didn't participate in campus
demonstrations, wasn't getting it politically; he
wasn't "getting it" sexually either.

"I didn't like the counter culture much," Stallman
admits. "I didn't like the music. I didn't like the
drugs. I was scared of the drugs. I especially didn't
like the anti-intellectualism, and I didn't like the
prejudice against technology. After all, I loved a
computer. And I didn't like the mindless
anti-Americanism that I often encountered. There were
people whose thinking was so simplistic that if they
disapproved of the conduct of the U.S. in the Vietnam
War, they had to support the North Vietnamese. They
couldn't imagine a more complicated position, I guess."

Such comments alleviate feelings of timidity. They also
underline a trait that would become the key to
Stallman's own political maturation. For Stallman,
political confidence was directly proportionate to
personal confidence. By 1970, Stallman had become
confident in few things outside the realm of math and
science. Nevertheless, confidence in math gave him
enough of a foundation to examine the anti-war movement
in purely logical terms. In the process of doing so,
Stallman had found the logic wanting. Although opposed
to the war in Vietnam, Stallman saw no reason to
disavow war as a means for defending liberty or
correcting injustice. Rather than widen the breach
between himself and his peers, however, Stallman
elected to keep the analysis to himself.

In 1970, Stallman left behind the nightly dinnertime
conversations about politics and the Vietnam War as he
departed for Harvard. Looking back, Stallman describes
the transition from his mother's Manhattan apartment to
life in a Cambridge dorm as an "escape." Peers who
watched Stallman make the transition, however, saw
little to suggest a liberating experience.

"He seemed pretty miserable for the first while at
Harvard," recalls Dan Chess, a classmate in the Science
Honors Program who also matriculated at Harvard. "You
could tell that human interaction was really difficult
for him, and there was no way of avoiding it at
Harvard. Harvard was an intensely social kind of place."

To ease the transition, Stallman fell back on his
strengths: math and science. Like most members of the
Science Honors Program, Stallman breezed through the
qualifying exam for Math 55, the legendary "boot camp"
class for freshman mathematics "concentrators" at
Harvard. Within the class, members of the Science
Honors Program formed a durable unit. "We were the math
mafia," says Chess with a laugh. "Harvard was nothing,
at least compared with the SHP."

To earn the right to boast, however, Stallman, Chess,
and the other SHP alumni had to get through Math 55.
Promising four years worth of math in two semesters,
the course favored only the truly devout. "It was an
amazing class," says David Harbater, a former "math
mafia" member and now a professor of mathematics at the
University of Pennsylvania. "It's probably safe to say
there has never been a class for beginning college
students that was that intense and that advanced. The
phrase I say to people just to get it across is that,
among other things, by the second semester we were
discussing the differential geometry of Banach
manifolds. That's usually when their eyes bug out,
because most people don't start talking about Banach
manifolds until their second year of graduate school."

Starting with 75 students, the class quickly melted
down to 20 by the end of the second semester. Of that
20, says Harbater, "only 10 really knew what they were
doing." Of that 10, 8 would go on to become future
mathematics professors, 1 would go on to teach physics.

"The other one," emphasizes Harbater, "was Richard Stallman."

Seth Breidbart, a fellow Math 55 classmate, remembers
Stallman distinguishing himself from his peers even then.

"He was a stickler in some very strange ways," says
Breidbart. There is a standard technique in math which
everybody does wrong. It's an abuse of notation where
you have to define a function for something and what
you do is you define a function and then you prove that
it's well defined. Except the first time he did and
presented it, he defined a relation and proved that
it's a function. It's the exact same proof, but he used
the correct terminology, which no one else did. That's
just the way he was."

It was in Math 55 that Richard Stallman began to
cultivate a reputation for brilliance. Breidbart
agrees, but Chess, whose competitive streak refused to
yield, says the realization that Stallman might be the
best mathematician in the class didn't set in until the
next year. "It was during a class on Real Analysis,
which I took with Richard the next year," says Chess,
now a math professor at Hunter College. "I actually
remember in a proof about complex valued measures that
Richard came up with an idea that was basically a
metaphor from the calculus of variations. It was the
first time I ever saw somebody solve a problem in a
brilliantly original way."

Chess makes no bones about it: watching Stallman's
solution unfold on the chalkboard was a devastating
blow. As a kid who'd always taken pride in being the
smartest mathematician the room, it was like catching a
glimpse of his own mortality. Years later, as Chess
slowly came to accept the professional rank of a
good-but-not-great mathematician, he had Stallman's
sophomore-year proof to look back on as a taunting
early indicator.

"That's the thing about mathematics," says Chess. "You
don't have to be a first-rank mathematician to
recognize first-rate mathematical talent. I could tell
I was up there, but I could also tell I wasn't at the
first rank. If Richard had chosen to be a
mathematician, he would have been a first-rank mathematician."

For Stallman, success in the classroom was balanced by
the same lack of success in the social arena. Even as
other members of the math mafia gathered to take on the
Math 55 problem sets, Stallman preferred to work alone.
The same went for living arrangements. On the housing
application for Harvard, Stallman clearly spelled out
his preferences. "I said I preferred an invisible,
inaudible, intangible roommate," he says. In a rare
stroke of bureaucratic foresight, Harvard's housing
office accepted the request, giving Stallman a one-room
single for his freshman year.

Breidbart, the only math-mafia member to share a dorm
with Stallman that freshman year, says Stallman slowly
but surely learned how to interact with other students.
He recalls how other dorm mates, impressed by
Stallman's logical acumen, began welcoming his input
whenever an intellectual debate broke out in the dining
club or dorm commons.

"We had the usual bull sessions about solving the
world's problems or what would be the result of
something," recalls Breidbart. "Say somebody discovers
an immortality serum. What do you do? What are the
political results? If you give it to everybody, the
world gets overcrowded and everybody dies. If you limit
it, if you say everyone who's alive now can have it but
their children can't, then you end up with an
underclass of people without it. Richard was just
better able than most to see the unforeseen
circumstances of any decision."

Stallman remembers the discussions vividly. "I was
always in favor of immortality," he says. "I was
shocked that most people regarded immortality as a bad
thing. How else would we be able to see what the world
is like 200 years from now?"

Although a first-rank mathematician and first-rate
debater, Stallman shied away from clear-cut competitive
events that might have sealed his brilliant reputation.
Near the end of freshman year at Harvard, Breidbart
recalls how Stallman conspicuously ducked the Putnam
exam, a prestigious test open to math students
throughout the U.S. and Canada. In addition to giving
students a chance to measure their knowledge in
relation to their peers, the Putnam served as a chief
recruiting tool for academic math departments.
According to campus legend, the top scorer
automatically qualified for a graduate fellowship at
any school of his choice, including Harvard.

Like Math 55, the Putnam was a brutal test of merit. A
six-hour exam in two parts, it seemed explicitly
designed to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Breidbart, a veteran of both the Science Honors Program
and Math 55, describes it as easily the most difficult
test he ever took. "Just to give you an idea of how
difficult it was," says Breidbart, "the top score was a
120, and my score the first year was in the 30s. That
score was still good enough to place me 101st in the country."

Surprised that Stallman, the best student in the class,
had passed on the test, Breidbart says he and a fellow
classmate cornered him in the dining common and
demanded an explanation. "He said he was afraid of not
doing well," Breidbart recalls.

Breidbart and the friend quickly wrote down a few
problems from memory and gave them to Stallman. "He
solved all of them," Breidbart says, "leading me to
conclude that by not doing well, he either meant coming
in second or getting something wrong."

Stallman remembers the episode a bit differently. "I
remember that they did bring me the questions and it's
possible that I solved one of them, but I'm pretty sure
I didn't solve them all," he says. Nevertheless,
Stallman agrees with Breidbart's recollection that fear
was the primary reason for not taking the test. Despite
a demonstrated willingness to point out the
intellectual weaknesses of his peers and professors in
the classroom, Stallman hated the notion of
head-to-head competition.

"It's the same reason I never liked chess," says
Stallman. "Whenever I'd play, I would become so
consumed by the fear of making a single mistake that I
would start making stupid mistakes very early in the
game. The fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Whether such fears ultimately prompted Stallman to shy
away from a mathematical career is a moot issue. By the
end of his freshman year at Harvard, Stallman had other
interests pulling him away from the field. Computer
programming, a latent fascination throughout Stallman's
high-school years, was becoming a full-fledged passion.
Where other math students sought occasional refuge in
art and history classes, Stallman sought it in the
computer-science laboratory.

For Stallman, the first taste of real computer
programming at the IBM New York Scientific Center had
triggered a desire to learn more. "Toward the end of my
first year at Harvard school, I started to have enough
courage to go visit computer labs and see what they
had. I'd ask them if they had extra copies of any
manuals that I could read."

Taking the manuals home, Stallman would examine machine
specifications, compare them with other machines he
already knew, and concoct a trial program, which he
would then bring back to the lab along with the
borrowed manual. Although some labs balked at the
notion of a strange kid coming off the street and
working on the lab machinery, most recognized
competence when they saw it and let Stallman run the
programs he had created.

One day, near the end of freshman year, Stallman heard
about a special laboratory near MIT. The laboratory was
located on the ninth floor an off-campus building in
Tech Square, the newly built facility dedicated to
advanced research. According to the rumors, the lab
itself was dedicated to the cutting-edge science of
artificial intelligence and boasted the cutting-edge
machines and software programs to match.

Intrigued, Stallman decided to pay a visit.

The trip was short, about 2 miles on foot, 10 minutes
by train, but as Stallman would soon find out, MIT and
Harvard can feel like opposite poles of the same
planet. With its maze-like tangle of interconnected
office buildings, the Institute's campus offered an
aesthetic yin to Harvard's spacious colonial-village
yang. The same could be said for the student body, a
geeky collection of ex-high school misfits known more
for its predilection for pranks than its politically
powerful alumni.

The yin-yang relationship extended to the AI Lab as
well. Unlike Harvard computer labs, there was no
grad-student gatekeeper, no clipboard waiting list for
terminal access, no explicit atmosphere of "look but
don't touch." Instead, Stallman found only a collection
of open terminals and robotic arms, presumably the
artifacts of some A.I. experiment.

Although the rumors said anybody could sit down at the
terminals, Stallman decided to stick with the original
plan. When he encountered a lab employee, he asked if
the lab had any spare manuals it could loan to an
inquisitive student. "They had some, but a lot of
things weren't documented," Stallman recalls. "They
were hackers after all."

Stallman left with something even better than a manual:
a job. Although he doesn't remember what the first
project was, he does remember coming back to the AI Lab
the next week, grabbing an open terminal and writing
software code.

Looking back, Stallman sees nothing unusual in the AI
Lab's willingness to accept an unproven outsider at
first glance. "That's the way it was back then," he
says. "That's the way it still is now. I'll hire
somebody when I meet him if I see he's good. Why wait?
Stuffy people who insist on putting bureaucracy into
everything really miss the point. If a person is good,
he shouldn't have to go through a long, detailed hiring
process; he should be sitting at a computer writing code."

To get a taste of "bureaucratic and stuffy," Stallman
need only visit the computer labs at Harvard. There,
access to the terminals was doled out according to
academic rank. As an undergrad, Stallman usually had to
sign up or wait until midnight, about the time most
professors and grad students finished their daily work
assignments. The waiting wasn't difficult, but it was
frustrating. Waiting for a public terminal, knowing all
the while that a half dozen equally usable machines
were sitting idle inside professors' locked offices,
seemed the height of illogic. Although Stallman paid
the occasional visit to the Harvard computer labs, he
preferred the more egalitarian policies of the AI Lab.
"It was a breath of fresh air," he says. "At the AI
Lab, people seemed more concerned about work than status."

Stallman quickly learned that the AI Lab's first-come,
first-served policy owed much to the efforts of a
vigilant few. Many were holdovers from the days of
Project MAC, the Department of Defense-funded research
program that had given birth to the first time-share
operating systems. A few were already legends in the
computing world. There was Richard Greenblatt, the
lab's in-house Lisp expert and author of MacHack, the
computer chess program that had once humbled A.I.
critic Hubert Dreyfus. There was Gerald Sussman,
original author of the robotic block-stacking program
HACKER. And there was Bill Gosper, the in-house math
whiz already in the midst of an 18-month hacking bender
triggered by the philosophical implications of the
computer game LIFE.See Steven Levy, Hackers (Penguin USA [paperback],
1984): 144. Levy devotes about five pages to describing
Gosper's fascination with LIFE, a math-based software
game first created by British mathematician John
Conway. I heartily recommend this book as a supplement,
perhaps even a prerequisite, to this one.

Members of the tight-knit group called themselves "
hackers." Over time, they extended the "hacker"
description to Stallman as well. In the process of
doing so, they inculcated Stallman in the ethical
traditions of the "hacker ethic ." To be a hacker meant
more than just writing programs, Stallman learned. It
meant writing the best possible programs. It meant
sitting at a terminal for 36 hours straight if that's
what it took to write the best possible programs. Most
importantly, it meant having access to the best
possible machines and the most useful information at
all times. Hackers spoke openly about changing the
world through software, and Stallman learned the
instinctual hacker disdain for any obstacle that
prevented a hacker from fulfilling this noble cause.
Chief among these obstacles were poor software,
academic bureaucracy, and selfish behavior.

Stallman also learned the lore, stories of how hackers,
when presented with an obstacle, had circumvented it in
creative ways. Stallman learned about " lock hacking,"
the art of breaking into professors' offices to
"liberate" sequestered terminals. Unlike their pampered
Harvard counterparts, MIT faculty members knew better
than to treat the AI Lab's terminal as private
property. If a faculty member made the mistake of
locking away a terminal for the night, hackers were
quick to correct the error. Hackers were equally quick
to send a message if the mistake repeated itself. "I
was actually shown a cart with a heavy cylinder of
metal on it that had been used to break down the door
of one professor's office,"Gerald Sussman, an MIT faculty member and hacker
work at the AI Lab predates Stallman's, disputes this
memory. According to Sussman, the hackers never broke
any doors to retrieve terminals.
 Stallman says.

Such methods, while lacking in subtlety, served a
purpose. Although professors and administrators
outnumbered hackers two-to-one inside the AI Lab, the
hacker ethic prevailed. Indeed, by the time of
Stallman's arrival at the AI Lab, hackers and the AI
Lab administration had coevolved into something of a
symbiotic relationship. In exchange for fixing the
machines and keeping the software up and running,
hackers earned the right to work on favorite pet
projects. Often, the pet projects revolved around
improving the machines and software programs even
further. Like teenage hot-rodders, most hackers viewed
tinkering with machines as its own form of entertainment.

Nowhere was this tinkering impulse better reflected
than in the operating system that powered the lab's
central PDP-6 mini-computer. Dubbed ITS, short for the
Incompatible Time Sharing system, the operating system
incorporated the hacking ethic into its very design.
Hackers had built it as a protest to Project MAC's
original operating system, the Compatible Time Sharing
System, CTSS, and named it accordingly. At the time,
hackers felt the CTSS design too restrictive, limiting
programmers' power to modify and improve the program's
own internal architecture if needed. According to one
legend passed down by hackers, the decision to build
ITS had political overtones as well. Unlike CTSS, which
had been designed for the IBM 7094, ITS was built
specifically for the PDP-6. In letting hackers write
the systems themselves, AI Lab administrators
guaranteed that only hackers would feel comfortable
using the PDP-6. In the feudal world of academic
research, the gambit worked. Although the PDP-6 was
co-owned in conjunction with other departments, A.I.
researchers soon had it to themselves.

ITS boasted features most commercial operating systems
wouldn't offer for years, features such as
multitasking, debugging, and full-screen editing
capability. Using it and the PDP-6 as a foundation, the
Lab had been able to declare independence from Project
MAC shortly before Stallman's arrival.I apologize for the whirlwind summary of
ITS' genesis,
an operating system many hackers still regard as the
epitome of the hacker ethos. For more information on
the program's political significance, see Simson
Garfinkel, Architects of the Information Society:
Thirty-Five Years of the Laboratory for Computer
Science at MIT (MIT Press, 1999).

As an apprentice hacker, Stallman quickly became
enamored with ITS. Although forbidding to most
newcomers, the program contained many built-in features
that provided a lesson in software development to
hacker apprentices such as himself.

"ITS had a very elegant internal mechanism for one
program to examine another," says Stallman, recalling
the program. "You could examine all sorts of status
about another program in a very clean, well-specified way."

Using this feature, Stallman was able to watch how
programs written by hackers processed instructions as
they ran. Another favorite feature would allow the
monitoring program to freeze the monitored program's
job between instructions. In other operating systems,
such a command would have resulted in half-computed
gibberish or an automatic systems crash. In ITS, it
provided yet another way to monitor the step-by-step performance.

"If you said, `Stop the job,' it would always be
stopped in user mode. It would be stopped between two
user-mode instructions, and everything about the job
would be consistent for that point," Stallman says. "If
you said, `Resume the job,' it would continue properly.
Not only that, but if you were to change the status of
the job and then change it back, everything would be
consistent. There was no hidden status anywhere."

By the end of 1970, hacking at the AI Lab had become a
regular part of Stallman's weekly schedule. From Monday
to Thursday, Stallman devoted his waking hours to his
Harvard classes. As soon as Friday afternoon arrived,
however, he was on the T, heading down to MIT for the
weekend. Stallman usually timed his arrival to coincide
with the ritual food run. Joining five or six other
hackers in their nightly quest for Chinese food, he
would jump inside a beat-up car and head across the
Harvard Bridge into nearby Boston. For the next two
hours, he and his hacker colleagues would discuss
everything from ITS to the internal logic of the
Chinese language and pictograph system. Following
dinner, the group would return to MIT and hack code
until dawn.

For the geeky outcast who rarely associated with his
high-school peers, it was a heady experience, suddenly
hanging out with people who shared the same
predilection for computers, science fiction, and
Chinese food. "I remember many sunrises seen from a car
coming back from Chinatown," Stallman would recall
nostalgically, 15 years after the fact in a speech at
the Swedish Royal Technical Institute. "It was actually
a very beautiful thing to see a sunrise, 'cause that's
such a calm time of day. It's a wonderful time of day
to get ready to go to bed. It's so nice to walk home
with the light just brightening and the birds starting
to chirp; you can get a real feeling of gentle
satisfaction, of tranquility about the work that you
have done that night."See Richard Stallman, "RMS lecture at KTH (Sweden),"
(October 30, 1986).

The more Stallman hung out with the hackers, the more
he adopted the hacker worldview. Already committed to
the notion of personal liberty, Stallman began to
infuse his actions with a sense of communal
responsibility. When others violated the communal code,
Stallman was quick to speak out. Within a year of his
first visit, Stallman was the one breaking into locked
offices, trying to recover the sequestered terminals
that belonged to the lab community as a whole. In true
hacker fashion, Stallman also sought to make his own
personal contribution to the art of lock hacking. One
of the most artful door-opening tricks, commonly
attributed to Greenblatt, involved bending a stiff wire
into a cane and attaching a loop of tape to the long
end. Sliding the wire under the door, a hacker could
twist and rotate the wire so that the long end touched
the door knob. Provided the adhesive on the tape held,
a hacker could open the doorknob with a few sharp twists.

When Stallman tried the trick, he found it good but
wanting in a few places. Getting the tape to stick
wasn't always easy, and twisting the wire in a way that
turned the doorknob was similarly difficult. Stallman
remembered that the hallway ceiling possessed tiles
that could be slid away. Some hackers, in fact, had
used the false ceiling as a way to get around locked
doors, an approach that generally covered the
perpetrator in fiberglass but got the job done.

Stallman considered an alternative approach. What if,
instead of slipping a wire under the door, a hacker
slid away one of the panels and stood over the door jamb?

Stallman took it upon himself to try it out. Instead of
using a wire, Stallman draped out a long U-shaped loop
of magnetic tape, fastening a loop of adhesive tape at
the base of the U. Standing over the door jamb, he
dangled the tape until it looped under the doorknob.
Lifting the tape until the adhesive fastened, he then
pulled on the left end of the tape, twisting the
doorknob counter-clockwise. Sure enough, the door
opened. Stallman had added a new twist to the art of
lock hacking.

"Sometimes you had to kick the door after you turned
the door knob," says Stallman, recalling the lingering
bugginess of the new method. "It took a little bit of
balance to pull it off."

Such activities reflected a growing willingness on
Stallman's part to speak and act out in defense of
political beliefs. The AI Lab's spirit of direct action
had proved inspirational enough for Stallman to break
out of the timid impotence of his teenage years.
Breaking into an office to free a terminal wasn't the
same as taking part in a protest march, but it was
effective in ways that most protests weren't. It solved
the problem at hand.

By the time of his last years at Harvard, Stallman was
beginning to apply the whimsical and irreverent lessons
of the AI Lab back at school.

"Did he tell you about the snake?" his mother asks at
one point during an interview. "He and his dorm mates
put a snake up for student election. Apparently it got
a considerable number of votes."

Stallman verifies the snake candidacy with a few
caveats. The snake was a candidate for election within
Currier House, Stallman's dorm, not the campus-wide
student council. Stallman does remember the snake
attracting a fairly significant number of votes, thanks
in large part to the fact that both the snake and its
owner both shared the same last name. "People may have
voted for it, because they thought they were voting for
the owner," Stallman says. "Campaign posters said that
the snake was `slithering for' the office. We also said
it was an `at large' candidate, since it had climbed
into the wall through the ventilating unit a few weeks
before and nobody knew where it was."

Running a snake for dorm council was just one of
several election-related pranks. In a later election,
Stallman and his dorm mates nominated the house
master's son. "His platform was mandatory retirement at
age seven," Stallman recalls. Such pranks paled in
comparison to the fake-candidate pranks on the MIT
campus, however. One of the most successful
fake-candidate pranks was a cat named Woodstock, which
actually managed to outdraw most of the human
candidates in a campus-wide election. "They never
announced how many votes Woodstock got, and they
treated those votes as spoiled ballots," Stallman
recalls. "But the large number of spoiled ballots in
that election suggested that Woodstock had actually
won. A couple of years later, Woodstock was
suspiciously run over by a car. Nobody knows if the
driver was working for the MIT administration."
Stallman says he had nothing to do with Woodstock's
candidacy, "but I admired it."In an email shortly after this book went into its
edit cycle, Stallman says he drew political inspiration
from the Harvard campus as well. "In my first year of
Harvard, in a Chinese History class, I read the story
of the first revolt against the Chin dynasty," he says.
"The story is not reliable history, but it was very

At the AI Lab, Stallman's political activities had a
sharper-edged tone. During the 1970s, hackers faced the
constant challenge of faculty members and
administrators pulling an end-run around ITS and its
hacker-friendly design. One of the first attempts came
in the mid-1970s, as more and more faculty members
began calling for a file security system to protect
research data. Most other computer labs had installed
such systems during late 1960s, but the AI Lab, through
the insistence of Stallman and other hackers, remained
a security-free zone.

For Stallman, the opposition to security was both
ethical and practical. On the ethical side, Stallman
pointed out that the entire art of hacking relied on
intellectual openness and trust. On the practical side,
he pointed to the internal structure of ITS being built
to foster this spirit of openness, and any attempt to
reverse that design required a major overhaul.

"The hackers who wrote the Incompatible Timesharing
System decided that file protection was usually used by
a self-styled system manager to get power over everyone
else," Stallman would later explain. "They didn't want
anyone to be able to get power over them that way, so
they didn't implement that kind of a feature. The
result was, that whenever something in the system was
broken, you could always fix it."See Richard Stallman (1986).

Through such vigilance, hackers managed to keep the AI
Lab's machines security-free. Over at the nearby MIT
Laboratory for Computer Sciences, however,
security-minded faculty members won the day. The LCS
installed its first password-based system in 1977. Once
again, Stallman took it upon himself to correct what he
saw as ethical laxity. Gaining access to the software
code that controlled the password system, Stallman
implanted a software command that sent out a message to
any LCS user who attempted to choose a unique password.
If a user entered "starfish," for example, the message
came back something like: I see you chose the password
"starfish." I suggest that you switch to the password
"carriage return." It's much easier to type, and also
it stands up to the principle that there should be no passwords.See Steven
Levy, Hackers (Penguin USA [paperback],
1984): 417. I have modified this quote, which Levy also
uses as an excerpt, to illustrate more directly how the
program might reveal the false security of the system.
Levy uses the placeholder "[such and such]."
 Users who did enter "carriage return"-that is, users
who simply pressed the Enter or Return button, entering
a blank string instead of a unique password-left their
accounts accessible to the world at large. As scary as
that might have been for some users, it reinforced the
hacker notion that Institute computers, and even
Institute computer files, belonged to the public, not
private individuals. Stallman, speaking in an interview
for the 1984 book Hackers, proudly noted that one-fifth
of the LCS staff accepted this argument and employed
the blank-string password.See Steven Levy, Hackers (Penguin USA [paperback],
1984): 417.

Stallman's null-string crusade would prove ultimately
futile. By the early 1980s, even the AI Lab's machines
were sporting password-based security systems. Even so,
it represents a major milestone in terms of Stallman's
personal and political maturation. To the objective
observer familiar with Stallman's later career, it
offers a convenient inflection point between the timid
teenager afraid to speak out even on issues of
life-threatening importance and the adult activist who
would soon turn needling and cajoling into a full-time

In voicing his opposition to computer security,
Stallman drew on many of the forces that had shaped his
early life: hunger for knowledge, distaste for
authority, and frustration over hidden procedures and
rules that rendered some people clueless outcasts. He
would also draw on the ethical concepts that would
shape his adult life: communal responsibility, trust,
and the hacker spirit of direct action. Expressed in
software-computing terms, the null string represents
the 1.0 version of the Richard Stallman political
worldview-incomplete in a few places but, for the most
part, fully mature.

Looking back, Stallman hesitates to impart too much
significance to an event so early in his hacking
career. "In that early stage there were a lot of people
who shared my feelings," he says. "The large number of
people who adopted the null string as their password
was a sign that many people agreed that it was the
proper thing to do. I was simply inclined to be an
activist about it."

Stallman does credit the AI Lab for awakening that
activist spirit, however. As a teenager, Stallman had
observed political events with little idea as to how a
single individual could do or say anything of
importance. As a young adult, Stallman was speaking out
on matters in which he felt supremely confident,
matters such as software design, communal
responsibility, and individual freedom. "I joined this
community which had a way of life which involved
respecting each other's freedom," he says. "It didn't
take me long to figure out that that was a good thing.
It took me longer to come to the conclusion that this
was a moral issue."

Hacking at the AI Lab wasn't the only activity helping
to boost Stallman's esteem. During the middle of his
sophomore year at Harvard, Stallman had joined up with
a dance troupe that specialized in folk dances . What
began as a simple attempt to meet women and expand his
social horizons soon expanded into yet another passion
alongside hacking. Dancing in front of audiences
dressed in the native garb of a Balkan peasant,
Stallman no longer felt like the awkward, uncoordinated
10-year-old whose attempts to play football had ended
in frustration. He felt confident, agile, and alive.
For a brief moment, he even felt a hint of emotional
connection. He soon found being in front of an audience
fun, and it wasn't long thereafter that he began
craving the performance side of dancing almost as much
as the social side.

Although the dancing and hacking did little to improve
Stallman's social standing, they helped him overcome
the feelings of weirdness that had clouded his
pre-Harvard life. Instead of lamenting his weird
nature, Stallman found ways to celebrate it. In 1977,
while attending a science-fiction convention, he came
across a woman selling custom-made buttons. Excited,
Stallman ordered a button with the words "Impeach God"
emblazoned on it.

For Stallman, the "Impeach God" message worked on many
levels. An atheist since early childhood, Stallman
first saw it as an attempt to set a "second front" in
the ongoing debate on religion. "Back then everybody
was arguing about God being dead or alive," Stallman
recalls. "`Impeach God' approached the subject of God
from a completely different viewpoint. If God was so
powerful as to create the world and yet do nothing to
correct the problems in it, why would we ever want to
worship such a God? Wouldn't it be better to put him on trial?"

At the same time, "Impeach God" was a satirical take on
America and the American political system. The
Watergate scandal of the 1970s affected Stallman
deeply. As a child, Stallman had grown up mistrusting
authority. Now, as an adult, his mistrust had been
solidified by the culture of the AI Lab hacker
community. To the hackers, Watergate was merely a
Shakespearean rendition of the daily power struggles
that made life such a hassle for those without
privilege. It was an outsized parable for what happened
when people traded liberty and openness for security
and convenience.

Buoyed by growing confidence, Stallman wore the button
proudly. People curious enough to ask him about it
received the same well-prepared spiel. "My name is
Jehovah," Stallman would say. "I have a special plan to
save the universe, but because of heavenly security
reasons I can't tell you what that plan is. You're just
going to have to put your faith in me, because I see
the picture and you don't. You know I'm good because I
told you so. If you don't believe me, I'll throw you on
my enemies list and throw you in a pit where Infernal
Revenue Service will audit your taxes for eternity."

Those who interpreted the spiel as a word-for-word
parody of the Watergate hearings only got half the
message. For Stallman, the other half of the message
was something only his fellow hackers seemed to be
hearing. One hundred years after Lord Acton warned
about absolute power corrupting absolutely, Americans
seemed to have forgotten the first part of Acton's
truism: power, itself, corrupts. Rather than point out
the numerous examples of petty corruption, Stallman
felt content voicing his outrage toward an entire
system that trusted power in the first place.

"I figured why stop with the small fry," says Stallman,
recalling the button and its message. "If we went after
Nixon, why not going after Mr. Big. The way I see it,
any being that has power and abuses it deserves to have
that power taken away."