Chapter 6
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

The AI Lab of the 1970s was by all accounts a special
place. Cutting-edge projects and top-flight researchers
gave it an esteemed position in the world of computer
science. The internal hacker culture and its anarchic
policies lent a rebellious mystique as well. Only
later, when many of the lab's scientists and software
superstars had departed, would hackers fully realize
the unique and ephemeral world they had once inhabited.

"It was a bit like the Garden of Eden," says Stallman,
summing up the lab and its software-sharing ethos in a
1998 Forbes article. "It hadn't occurred to us not to cooperate."See Josh
McHugh, "For the Love of Hacking," Forbes
(August 10, 1998).

Such mythological descriptions, while extreme,
underline an important fact. The ninth floor of 545
Tech Square was more than a workplace for many. For
hackers such as Stallman, it was home.

The word "home" is a weighted term in the Stallman
lexicon. In a pointed swipe at his parents, Stallman,
to this day, refuses to acknowledge any home before
Currier House, the dorm he lived in during his days at
Harvard. He has also been known to describe leaving
that home in tragicomic terms. Once, while describing
his years at Harvard, Stallman said his only regret was
getting kicked out. It wasn't until I asked Stallman
what precipitated his ouster, that I realized I had
walked into a classic Stallman setup line.

"At Harvard they have this policy where if you pass too
many classes they ask you to leave," Stallman says.

With no dorm and no desire to return to New York,
Stallman followed a path blazed by Greenblatt, Gosper,
Sussman, and the many other hackers before him.
Enrolling at MIT as a grad student, Stallman rented an
apartment in nearby Cambridge but soon viewed the AI
Lab itself as his de facto home. In a 1986 speech,
Stallman recalled his memories of the AI Lab during
this period: I may have done a little bit more living
at the lab than most people, because every year or two
for some reason or other I'd have no apartment and I
would spend a few months living at the lab. And I've
always found it very comfortable, as well as nice and
cool in the summer. But it was not at all uncommon to
find people falling asleep at the lab, again because of
their enthusiasm; you stay up as long as you possibly
can hacking, because you just don't want to stop. And
then when you're completely exhausted, you climb over
to the nearest soft horizontal surface. A very informal
atmosphere.See Stallman (1986). The lab's home-like atmosphere could be a
problem at times. What some saw as a dorm, others
viewed as an electronic opium den. In the 1976 book
Computer Power and Human Reason, MIT researcher Joseph
Weizenbaum offered a withering critique of the "
computer bum," Weizenbaum's term for the hackers who
populated computer rooms such as the AI Lab. "Their
rumpled clothes, their unwashed hair and unshaved
faces, and their uncombed hair all testify that they
are oblivious to their bodies and to the world in which
they move," Weizenbaum wrote. "[Computer bums] exist,
at least when so engaged, only through and for the computers."See Joseph
Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason:
From Judgment to Calculation (W. H. Freeman, 1976): 116.

Almost a quarter century after its publication,
Stallman still bristles when hearing Weizenbaum's
"computer bum" description, discussing it in the
present tense as if Weizenbaum himself was still in the
room. "He wants people to be just professionals, doing
it for the money and wanting to get away from it and
forget about it as soon as possible," Stallman says.
"What he sees as a normal state of affairs, I see as a tragedy."

Hacker life, however, was not without tragedy. Stallman
characterizes his transition from weekend hacker to
full-time AI Lab denizen as a series of painful
misfortunes that could only be eased through the
euphoria of hacking. As Stallman himself has said, the
first misfortune was his graduation from Harvard. Eager
to continue his studies in physics, Stallman enrolled
as a graduate student at MIT. The choice of schools was
a natural one. Not only did it give Stallman the chance
to follow the footsteps of great MIT alumni: William
Shockley ('36), Richard P. Feynman ('39), and Murray
Gell-Mann ('51), it also put him two miles closer to
the AI Lab and its new PDP-10 computer. "My attention
was going toward programming, but I still thought,
well, maybe I can do both," Stallman says.

Toiling in the fields of graduate-level science by day
and programming in the monastic confines of the AI Lab
by night, Stallman tried to achieve a perfect balance.
The fulcrum of this geek teeter-totter was his weekly
outing with the folk-dance troupe, his one social
outlet that guaranteed at least a modicum of
interaction with the opposite sex. Near the end of that
first year at MIT, however, disaster struck. A knee
injury forced Stallman to drop out of the troupe. At
first, Stallman viewed the injury as a temporary
problem, devoting the spare time he would have spent
dancing to working at the AI Lab even more. By the end
of the summer, when the knee still ached and classes
reconvened, Stallman began to worry. "My knee wasn't
getting any better," Stallman recalls, "which meant I
had to stop dancing completely. I was heartbroken."

With no dorm and no dancing, Stallman's social universe
imploded. Like an astronaut experiencing the
aftereffects of zero-gravity, Stallman found that his
ability to interact with nonhackers, especially female
nonhackers, had atrophied significantly. After 16 weeks
in the AI Lab, the self confidence he'd been quietly
accumulating during his 4 years at Harvard was
virtually gone.

"I felt basically that I'd lost all my energy,"
Stallman recalls. "I'd lost my energy to do anything
but what was most immediately tempting. The energy to
do something else was gone. I was in total despair."

Stallman retreated from the world even further,
focusing entirely on his work at the AI Lab. By
October, 1975, he dropped out of MIT, never to go back.
Software hacking, once a hobby, had become his calling.

Looking back on that period, Stallman sees the
transition from full-time student to full-time hacker
as inevitable. Sooner or later, he believes, the
siren's call of computer hacking would have overpowered
his interest in other professional pursuits. "With
physics and math, I could never figure out a way to
contribute," says Stallman, recalling his struggles
prior to the knee injury. "I would have been proud to
advance either one of those fields, but I could never
see a way to do that. I didn't know where to start.
With software, I saw right away how to write things
that would run and be useful. The pleasure of that
knowledge led me to want to do it more."

Stallman wasn't the first to equate hacking with
pleasure. Many of the hackers who staffed the AI Lab
boasted similar, incomplete academic rÈsumÈs. Most had
come in pursuing degrees in math or electrical
engineering only to surrender their academic careers
and professional ambitions to the sheer exhilaration
that came with solving problems never before addressed.
Like St. Thomas Aquinas, the scholastic known for
working so long on his theological summae that he
sometimes achieved spiritual visions, hackers reached
transcendent internal states through sheer mental focus
and physical exhaustion. Although Stallman shunned
drugs, like most hackers, he enjoyed the "high" that
came near the end of a 20-hour coding bender.

Perhaps the most enjoyable emotion, however, was the
sense of personal fulfillment. When it came to hacking,
Stallman was a natural. A childhood's worth of
late-night study sessions gave him the ability to work
long hours with little sleep. As a social outcast since
age 10, he had little difficulty working alone. And as
a mathematician with built-in gift for logic and
foresight, Stallman possessed the ability to circumvent
design barriers that left most hackers spinning their wheels.

"He was special," recalls Gerald Sussman, an MIT
faculty member and former AI Lab researcher. Describing
Stallman as a "clear thinker and a clear designer,"
Sussman employed Stallman as a research-project
assistant beginning in 1975. The project was complex,
involving the creation of an AI program that could
analyze circuit diagrams. Not only did it involve an
expert's command of Lisp, a programming language built
specifically for AI applications, but it also required
an understanding of how a human might approach the same task.

When he wasn't working on official projects such as
Sussman's automated circuit-analysis program, Stallman
devoted his time to pet projects. It was in a hacker's
best interest to improve the lab's software
infrastructure, and one of Stallman's biggest pet
projects during this period was the lab's editor
program TECO.

The story of Stallman's work on TECO during the 1970s
is inextricably linked with Stallman's later leadership
of the free software movement. It is also a significant
stage in the history of computer evolution, so much so
that a brief recapitulation of that evolution is
necessary. During the 1950s and 1960s, when computers
were first appearing at universities, computer
programming was an incredibly abstract pursuit. To
communicate with the machine, programmers created a
series of punch cards, with each card representing an
individual software command. Programmers would then
hand the cards over to a central system administrator
who would then insert them, one by one, into the
machine, waiting for the machine to spit out a new set
of punch cards, which the programmer would then
decipher as output. This process, known as " batch
processing," was cumbersome and time consuming. It was
also prone to abuses of authority. One of the
motivating factors behind hackers' inbred aversion to
centralization was the power held by early system
operators in dictating which jobs held top priority.

In 1962, computer scientists and hackers involved in
MIT's Project MAC, an early forerunner of the AI Lab,
took steps to alleviate this frustration. Time-sharing,
originally known as "time stealing," made it possible
for multiple programs to take advantage of a machine's
operational capabilities. Teletype interfaces also made
it possible to communicate with a machine not through a
series of punched holes but through actual text. A
programmer typed in commands and read the line-by-line
output generated by the machine.

During the late 1960s, interface design made additional
leaps. In a famous 1968 lecture, Doug Engelbart, a
scientist then working at the Stanford Research
Institute, unveiled a prototype of the modern graphical
interface. Rigging up a television set to the computer
and adding a pointer device which Engelbart dubbed a "
mouse," the scientist created a system even more
interactive than the time-sharing system developed a
MIT. Treating the video display like a high-speed
printer, Engelbart's system gave a user the ability to
move the cursor around the screen and see the cursor
position updated by the computer in real time. The user
suddenly had the ability to position text anywhere on
the screen.

Such innovations would take another two decades to make
their way into the commercial marketplace. Still, by
the 1970s, video screens had started to replace
teletypes as display terminals, creating the potential
for full-screen-as opposed to line-by-line-editing capabilities.

One of the first programs to take advantage of this
full-screen capability was the MIT AI Lab's TECO. Short
for Text Editor and COrrector, the program had been
upgraded by hackers from an old teletype line editor
for the lab's PDP-6 machine.ccording to the Jargon File, TECO's name originally
stood for Tape Editor and Corrector.

TECO was a substantial improvement over old editors,
but it still had its drawbacks. To create and edit a
document, a programmer had to enter a series of
software commands specifying each edit. It was an
abstract process. Unlike modern word processors, which
update text with each keystroke, TECO demanded that the
user enter an extended series of editing instructions
followed by an "end of command" sequence just to change
the text.Over time, a hacker grew proficient enough to
write entire documents in edit mode, but as Stallman
himself would later point out, the process required "a
mental skill like that of blindfold chess."See Richard Stallman, "EMACS: The
Customizable, Display Editor," AI Lab Memo (1979). An
updated HTML version of this memo, from which I am
quoting, is available at

To facilitate the process, AI Lab hackers had built a
system that displayed both the "source" and "display"
modes on a split screen. Despite this innovative hack,
switching from mode to mode was still a nuisance.

TECO wasn't the only full-screen editor floating around
the computer world at this time. During a visit to the
Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1976, Stallman
encountered an edit program named E. The program
contained an internal feature, which allowed a user to
update display text after each command keystroke. In
the language of 1970s programming, E was one of the
first rudimentary WYSIWYG editors. Short for "what you
see is what you get," WYSIWYG meant that a user could
manipulate the file by moving through the displayed
text, as opposed to working through a back-end editor program."See Richard
Stallman, "Emacs the Full Screen Editor"

Impressed by the hack, Stallman looked for ways to
expand TECO's functionality in similar fashion upon his
return to MIT. He found a TECO feature called
Control-R, written by Carl Mikkelson and named after
the two-key combination that triggered it. Mikkelson's
hack switched TECO from its usual abstract
command-execution mode to a more intuitive
keystroke-by-keystroke mode. Stallman revised the
feature in a subtle but significant way. He made it
possible to trigger other TECO command strings, or "
macros," using other, two-key combinations. Where users
had once entered command strings and discarded them
after entering then, Stallman's hack made it possible
to save macro tricks on file and call them up at will.
Mikkelson's hack had raised TECO to the level of a
WYSIWYG editor. Stallman's hack had raised it to the
level of a user-programmable WYSIWYG editor. "That was
the real breakthrough," says Guy Steele, a fellow AI
Lab hacker at the time.

By Stallman's own recollection, the macro hack touched
off an explosion of further innovation. "Everybody and
his brother was writing his own collection of redefined
screen-editor commands, a command for everything he
typically liked to do," Stallman would later recall.
"People would pass them around and improve them, making
them more powerful and more general. The collections of
redefinitions gradually became system programs in their
own right."

So many people found the macro innovations useful and
had incorporated it into their own TECO programs that
the TECO editor had become secondary to the macro mania
it inspired. "We started to categorize it mentally as a
programming language rather than as an editor,"
Stallman says. Users were experiencing their own
pleasure tweaking the software and trading new ideas.

Two years after the explosion, the rate of innovation
began to exhibit dangerous side effects. The explosive
growth had provided an exciting validation of the
collaborative hacker approach, but it had also led to
over-complexity. "We had a Tower of Babel effect," says
Guy Steele.

The effect threatened to kill the spirit that had
created it, Steele says. Hackers had designed ITS to
facilitate programmers' ability to share knowledge and
improve each other's work. That meant being able to sit
down at another programmer's desk, open up a
programmer's work and make comments and modifications
directly within the software. "Sometimes the easiest
way to show somebody how to program or debug something
was simply to sit down at the terminal and do it for
them," explains Steele.

The macro feature, after its second year, began to foil
this capability. In their eagerness to embrace the new
full-screen capabilities, hackers had customized their
versions of TECO to the point where a hacker sitting
down at another hacker's terminal usually had to spend
the first hour just figuring out what macro commands
did what.

Frustrated, Steele took it upon himself to the solve
the problem. He gathered together the four different
macro packages and began assembling a chart documenting
the most useful macro commands. In the course of
implementing the design specified by the chart, Steele
says he attracted Stallman's attention.

"He started looking over my shoulder, asking me what I
was doing," recalls Steele.

For Steele, a soft-spoken hacker who interacted with
Stallman infrequently, the memory still sticks out.
Looking over another hacker's shoulder while he worked
was a common activity at the AI Lab. Stallman, the TECO
maintainer at the lab, deemed Steele's work
"interesting" and quickly set off to complete it.

"As I like to say, I did the first 0.001 percent of the
implementation, and Stallman did the rest," says Steele
with a laugh.

The project's new name, Emacs, came courtesy of
Stallman. Short for "editing macros," it signified the
evolutionary transcendence that had taken place during
the macros explosion two years before. It also took
advantage of a gap in the software programming lexicon.
Noting a lack of programs on ITS starting with the
letter "E," Stallman chose Emacs, making it possible to
reference the program with a single letter. Once again,
the hacker lust for efficiency had left its mark.

In the course of developing a standard system of macro
commands, Stallman and Steele had to traverse a
political tightrope. In creating a standard program,
Stallman was in clear violation of the fundamental
hacker tenet-"promote decentralization." He was also
threatening to hobble the very flexibility that had
fueled TECO's explosive innovation in the first place.

"On the one hand, we were trying to make a uniform
command set again; on the other hand, we wanted to keep
it open ended, because the programmability was
important," recalls Steele.

To solve the problem, Stallman, Steele, and fellow
hackers David Moon and Dan Weinreib limited their
standardization effort to the WYSIWYG commands that
controlled how text appeared on-screen. The rest of the
Emacs effort would be devoted to retaining the
program's Tinker Toy-style extensibility.

Stallman now faced another conundrum: if users made
changes but didn't communicate those changes back to
the rest of the community, the Tower of Babel effect
would simply emerge in other places. Falling back on
the hacker doctrine of sharing innovation, Stallman
embedded a statement within the source code that set
the terms of use. Users were free to modify and
redistribute the code on the condition that they gave
back all the extensions they made. Stallman dubbed it
the " Emacs Commune." Just as TECO had become more than
a simple editor, Emacs had become more than a simple
software program. To Stallman, it was a social
contract. In an early memo documenting the project,
Stallman spelled out the contract terms. "EMACS," he
wrote, "was distributed on a basis of communal sharing,
which means that all improvements must be given back to
me to be incorporated and distributed."See Stallman (1979): #SEC34.

Not everybody accepted the contract. The explosive
innovation continued throughout the decade, resulting
in a host of Emacs-like programs with varying degrees
of cross-compatibility. A few cited their relation to
Stallman's original Emacs with humorously recursive
names: Sine (Sine is not Emacs), Eine (Eine is not
Emacs), and Zwei (Zwei was Eine initially). As a
devoted exponent of the hacker ethic, Stallman saw no
reason to halt this innovation through legal
harassment. Still, the fact that some people would so
eagerly take software from the community chest, alter
it, and slap a new name on the resulting software
displayed a stunning lack of courtesy.

Such rude behavior was reflected against other,
unsettling developments in the hacker community. Brian
Reid's 1979 decision to embed "time bombs" in Scribe,
making it possible for Unilogic to limit unpaid user
access to the software, was a dark omen to Stallman.
"He considered it the most Nazi thing he ever saw in
his life," recalls Reid. Despite going on to later
Internet fame as the cocreator of the Usenet alt
heirarchy, Reid says he still has yet to live down that
1979 decision, at least in Stallman's eyes. "He said
that all software should be free and the prospect of
charging money for software was a crime against humanity."In a 1996 interview
with online magazine MEME ,
Stallman cited Scribe's sale as irksome, but hesitated
to mention Reid by name. "The problem was nobody
censured or punished this student for what he did,"
Stallman said. "The result was other people got tempted
to follow his example." See MEME 2.04.

Although Stallman had been powerless to head off Reid's
sale, he did possess the ability to curtail other forms
of behavior deemed contrary to the hacker ethos. As
central source-code maintainer for the Emacs "commune,"
Stallman began to wield his power for political effect.
During his final stages of conflict with the
administrators at the Laboratory for Computer Science
over password systems, Stallman initiated a software " strike,"See Steven Levy,
Hackers (Penguin USA [paperback],
1984): 419.
 refusing to send lab members the latest version of
Emacs until they rejected the security system on the
lab's computers. The move did little to improve
Stallman's growing reputation as an extremist, but it
got the point across: commune members were expected to
speak up for basic hacker values.

"A lot of people were angry with me, saying I was
trying to hold them hostage or blackmail them, which in
a sense I was," Stallman would later tell author Steven
Levy. "I was engaging in violence against them because
I thought they were engaging in violence to everyone at large."

Over time, Emacs became a sales tool for the hacker
ethic. The flexibility Stallman and built into the
software not only encouraged collaboration, it demanded
it. Users who didn't keep abreast of the latest
developments in Emacs evolution or didn't contribute
their contributions back to Stallman ran the risk of
missing out on the latest breakthroughs. And the
breakthroughs were many. Twenty years later, users had
modified Emacs for so many different uses-using it as a
spreadsheet, calculator, database, and web browser-that
later Emacs developers adopted an overflowing sink to
represent its versatile functionality. "That's the idea
that we wanted to convey," says Stallman. "The amount
of stuff it has contained within it is both wonderful
and awful at the same time."

Stallman's AI Lab contemporaries are more charitable.
Hal Abelson, an MIT grad student who worked with
Stallman during the 1970s and would later assist
Stallman as a charter boardmember of the Free Software
Foundation, describes Emacs as "an absolutely brilliant
creation." In giving programmers a way to add new
software libraries and features without messing up the
system, Abelson says, Stallman paved the way for future
large-scale collaborative software projects. "Its
structure was robust enough that you'd have people all
over the world who were loosely collaborating [and]
contributing to it," Abelson says. "I don't know if
that had been done before."In writing this chapter, I've elected to focus more
the social significance of Emacs than the software
significance. To read more about the software side, I
recommend Stallman's 1979 memo. I particularly
recommend the section titled "Research Through
Development of Installed Tools" (#SEC27). Not only is
it accessible to the nontechnical reader, it also sheds
light on how closely intertwined Stallman's political
philosophies are with his software-design philosophies.
A sample excerpt follows: EMACS could not have been
reached by a process of careful design, because such
processes arrive only at goals which are visible at the
outset, and whose desirability is established on the
bottom line at the outset. Neither I nor anyone else
visualized an extensible editor until I had made one,
nor appreciated its value until he had experienced it.
EMACS exists because I felt free to make individually
useful small improvements on a path whose end was not
in sight.

Guy Steele expresses similar admiration. Currently a
research scientist for Sun Microsystems, he remembers
Stallman primarily as a "brilliant programmer with the
ability to generate large quantities of relatively
bug-free code." Although their personalities didn't
exactly mesh, Steele and Stallman collaborated long
enough for Steele to get a glimpse of Stallman's
intense coding style. He recalls a notable episode in
the late 1970s when the two programmers banded together
to write the editor's "pretty print" feature.
Originally conceived by Steele, pretty print was
another keystroke-triggerd feature that reformatted
Emacs' source code so that it was both more readable
and took up less space, further bolstering the
program's WYSIWIG qualities. The feature was strategic
enough to attract Stallman's active interest, and it
wasn't long before Steele wrote that he and Stallman
were planning an improved version.

"We sat down one morning," recalls Steele. "I was at
the keyboard, and he was at my elbow," says Steele. "He
was perfectly willing to let me type, but he was also
telling me what to type.

The programming session lasted 10 hours. Throughout
that entire time, Steele says, neither he nor Stallman
took a break or made any small talk. By the end of the
session, they had managed to hack the pretty print
source code to just under 100 lines. "My fingers were
on the keyboard the whole time," Steele recalls, "but
it felt like both of our ideas were flowing onto the
screen. He told me what to type, and I typed it."

The length of the session revealed itself when Steele
finally left the AI Lab. Standing outside the building
at 545 Tech Square, he was surprised to find himself
surrounded by nighttime darkness. As a programmer,
Steele was used to marathon coding sessions. Still,
something about this session was different. Working
with Stallman had forced Steele to block out all
external stimuli and focus his entire mental energies
on the task at hand. Looking back, Steele says he found
the Stallman mind-meld both exhilarating and scary at
the same time. "My first thought afterward was: it was
a great experience, very intense, and that I never
wanted to do it again in my life."