Chapter 3 

Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution


Many of the hackers were also fascinated by the telephone companies and their exchange systems and would often go on tours the companies offered to learn as much about them as possible. Alan Kotok, who had acquired some prestige with his skills with the TX-0 and also worked for Western Electric (the manufacturing arm of the Bell System), would read as much as he could about the technical details of the telephone system and then explore or fingerprint the network.

In September of 1961, DEC donated to MIT's RLE lab the second PDP-1 that it had produced. The machine was a dream to hackers. Six of them, including Kotok, Samson, Saunders, and Wagner, spent a total of two hundred and fifty man-hours one weekend to rewrite the TX-0 compiler for the PDP-1 because they did not like the first choice. They were only paid five hundred dollars for their feat, but the finished product that had come of the Hacker Ethic, was its own reward. Steve “Slug” Russell was another PDP-1 hacker that came up with a 2D game called Spacewar! in which two space ships, controlled by toggle switches on the PDP-1, would fly around the screen and shoot torpedoes at each other.

His program was further improved by the other hackers. Samson, for example, changed the random dots that represented the stars to look like the real constellations and he made the screen scroll as the ships moved in space. Dan Edwards, another programmer, added a sun and the effect of gravitational pull. Kotok and Saunders even created the first computer joystick out of TMRC parts to aid with the playing. The game and the compiler were readily and freely available to anyone.

Eventually two programs were started to make computers usable by more than one person at a time, a concept that was called time-sharing. One was started by Jack Dennis for the PDP-1, and one was started by a professor named F.J. Corbató for the IBM 7090. MIT would eventually be paid three million dollars a year by ARPA to develop time-sharing through Project MAC headed by Dennis with the involvement of Minsky who would focus on Artificial Intelligence. Project MAC was housed on the ninth floor of Tech Square, and it would become a home to many hackers.