Chapter 1-5 


Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution
 
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To hackers like Bob Saunders--balding, plump, and merry disciple
of the TX-0, president of TMRC's S&P group, student of systems--
it was a perfect existence.  Saunders had grown up in the suburbs
of Chicago, and for as long as he could remember the workings of
electricity and telephone circuitry had fascinated him.  Before
beginning MIT, Saunders had landed a dream summer job, working
for the phone company installing central office equipment, He
would spend eight blissful hours with soldering iron and pliers
in hand, working in the bowels of various systems, an idyll
broken by lunch hours spent in deep study of phone company
manuals.  It was the phone company equipment underneath the TMRC
layout that had convinced Saunders to become active in the Model
Railroad Club. 

Saunders, being an upperclassman, had come to the TX-0 later in
his college career than Kotok and Samson:  he had used the
breathing space to actually lay the foundation for a social life,
which included courtship of and eventual marriage to Marge
French, who had done some non-hacking computer work for a
research project.  Still, the TX-0 was the center of his college
career, and he shared the common hacker experience of seeing his
grades suffer from missed classes.  It didn't bother him much,
because he knew that his real education was occurring in Room 240
of Building 26, behind the Tixo console.  Years later he would
describe himself and the others as "an elite group.  Other people
were off studying, spending their days up on four-floor buildings
making obnoxious vapors or off in the physics lab throwing
particles at things or whatever it is they do.  And we were
simply not paying attention to what other folks were doing
because we had no interest in it.  They were studying what they
were studying and we were studying what we were studying.  And
the fact that much of it was not on the officially approved
curriculum was by and large immaterial."

The hackers came out at night.  It was the only way to take full
advantage of the crucial "off-hours" of the TX-0.  During the
day, Saunders would usually manage to make an appearance in a
class or two.  Then some time spent performing "basic
maintenance"--things like eating and going to the bathroom.  He
might see Marge for a while.  But eventually he would filter over
to Building 26.  He would go over some of the programs of the
night before, printed on the nine-and-a-half-inch-wide paper that
the Flexowriter used.  He would annotate and modify the listing
to update the code to whatever he considered the next stage of
operation.  Maybe then he would move over to the Model Railroad
Club, and he'd swap his program with someone, checking
simultaneously for good ideas and potential bugs.  Then back to
Building 26, to the Kluge Room next to the TX-0, to find an
off-line Flexowriter on which to update his code.  All the while
he'd be checking to see if someone had canceled a one-hour
session on the machine; his own session was scheduled at
something like two or three in the morning.  He'd wait in the
Kluge Room, or play some bridge back at the Railroad Club, until
the time came. 

Sitting at the console, facing the metal racks that held the
computer's transistors, each transistor representing a location
that either held or did not hold a bit of memory, Saunders would
set up the Flexowriter, which would greet him with the word
"WALRUS."  This was something Samson had hacked, in honor of
Lewis Carroll's poem with the line "The time has come, the Walrus
said . . ."  Saunders might chuckle at that as he went into the
drawer for the paper tape which held the assembler program and
fed that into the tape reader.  Now the computer would be ready
to assemble his program, so he'd take the Flexowriter tape he'd
been working on and send that into the computer.  He'd watch the
lights go on as the computer switched his code from "source" (the
symbolic assembly language) to "object" code (binary), which the
computer would punch out into another paper tape.  Since that
tape was in the object code that the TX-0 understood, he'd feed
it in, hoping that the program would run magnificently. 

There would most probably be a few fellow hackers kibitzing
behind him, laughing and joking and drinking Cokes and eating
some junk food they'd extracted from the machine downstairs.
Saunders preferred the lemon jelly wedges that the others called
"lemon gunkies."  But at four in the morning, anything tasted
good.  They would all watch as the program began to run, the
lights going on, the whine from the speaker humming in high or
low register depending on what was in Bit 14 in the accumulator,
and the first thing he'd see on the CRT display after the program
had been assembled and run was that the program had crashed.  So
he'd reach into the drawer for the tape with the FLIT debugger
and feed THAT into the computer.  The computer would then be a
debugging machine, and he'd send the program back in.  Now he
could start trying to find out where things had gone wrong, and
maybe if he was lucky he'd find out, and change things by putting
in some commands by flicking some of the switches on the console
in precise order, or hammering in some code on the Flexowriter.
Once things got running--and it was always incredibly satisfying
when something worked, when he'd made that roomful of transistors
and wires and metal and electricity all meld together to create a
precise output that he'd devised--he'd try to add the next
advance to it.  When the hour was over--someone already itching
to get on the machine after him--Saunders would be ready to spend
the next few hours figuring out what the heck had made the
program go belly-up. 

The peak hour itself was tremendously intense, but during the
hours before, and even during the hours afterward, a hacker
attained a state of pure concentration.  When you programmed a
computer, you had to be aware of where all the thousands of bits
of information were going from one instruction to the next, and
be able to predict--and exploit--the effect of all that movement.
When you had all that information glued to your cerebral being,
it was almost as if your own mind had merged into the environment
of the computer.  Sometimes it took hours to build up to the
point where your thoughts could contain that total picture, and
when you did get to that point, it was such a shame to waste it
that you tried to sustain it by marathon bursts, alternatively
working on the computer or poring over the code that you wrote on
one of the off-line Flexowriters in the Kluge Room.  You would
sustain that concentration by "wrapping around" to the next day.

Inevitably, that frame of mind spilled over to what random shards
of existence the hackers had outside of computing.  The
knife-and-paintbrush contingent at TMRC were not pleased at all
by the infiltration of Tixo-mania into the club:  they saw it as
a sort of Trojan horse for a switch in the club focus, from
railroading to computing.  And if you attended one of the club
meetings held every Tuesday at five-fifteen, you could see the
concern:  the hackers would exploit every possible thread of
parliamentary procedure to create a meeting as convoluted as the
programs they were hacking on the TX-0.  Motions were made to
make motions to make motions, and objections ruled out of order
as if they were so many computer errors.  A note in the minutes
of the meeting on November 24, 1959, suggests that "we frown on
certain members who would do the club a lot more good by doing
more S&P-ing and less reading Robert's Rules of Order."  Samson
was one of the worst offenders, and at one point, an exasperated
TMRC member made a motion "to purchase a cork for Samson's oral
diarrhea." 

Hacking parliamentary procedure was one thing, but the logical
mind-frame required for programming spilled over into more
commonplace activities.  You could ask a hacker a question and
sense his mental accumulator processing bits until he came up
with a precise answer to the question you asked.  Marge Saunders
would drive to the Safeway every Saturday morning in the
Volkswagen and upon her return ask her husband, "Would you like
to help me bring in the groceries?"  Bob Saunders would reply,
"No."  Stunned, Marge would drag in the groceries herself.  After
the same thing occurred a few times, she exploded, hurling curses
at him and demanding to know why he said no to her question.

"That's a stupid question to ask," he said.  "Of course I won't
LIKE to help you bring in the groceries.  If you ask me if I'll
help you bring them in, that's another matter." 

It was as if Marge had submitted a program into the TX-0, and the
program, as programs do when the syntax is improper, had crashed.
It was not until she debugged her question that Bob Saunders
would allow it to run successfully on his own mental computer.