Confessions of a Happy Hacker

I was a teen-age hacker.

When I was about twelve or so, a lab secretary at MIT who knew I was ‘interested in science’ (it might be more accurate to say ’a latent nerd‘ — more on that later) arranged for one of the computer hackers there to give me an informal tour. I remember stumbling around racks full of circuit boards and wires, a screeching cabinet that printed a full page every six seconds, and rows of blinking lights; the computer room was crammed full of equipment with no obvious organization. One set of gray cabinets had some trophies and plaques sitting on it: this was the PDP-6 computer that, running a program called MacHack, won prizes playing against human players in chess tournaments. The PDP-6 also had two speakers and a stereo amplifier sitting on top of it. The hacker typed a couple of commands on a keyboard, and the PDP-6 burst into a Bach Brandenburg concerto (no. 6, as I recall).

One part of that tour stands out most clearly in my mind. I was told to sit down in front of a large, round, glass screen and was given a box that had some buttons and a stick on the top. My hacker guide typed another command on the keyboard and, suddenly, green and purple spaceships appeared on the screen! The purple one started shooting little red dots at the green one, which was soon obliterated in a multicolored shower of sparkles. The green ship was mine, and the hacker had expertly shot it down. Years later I learned that this had been a color version of Space War, one of the very first video games.

Remember that this was years before ‘Apple’ and ‘TRS-80’ had become household words. Back then computers were still rather mysterious, hidden away in giant corporations and university laboratories.

Playing Space War was fun, but I learned nothing of programming then. I had the true fascination of computers revealed to me in November, 1968, when a chum slipped me the news that our school (Boston Latin) had an IBM computer locked up in the basement. I was dubious. I had earlier narrowly avoided buying from a senior a ticket to the fourth-floor swimming pool (Boston Latin has only three stories, and no swimming pool at all), and assumed this was another scam. So of course I laughed in his face.

When he persisted, I checked it out. Sure enough, in a locked basement room was an IBM 1130 computer. If you want all the specs: 4096 words of memory, 16 bits per word, a 15-character-per-second Selectric (‘golf ball’) printer, and a card reader (model 1442) that could read 300 cards per minute. Yes, this was back in the days of punched cards. Personal computers were completely unheard of then.

Nominally the computer was for the training of juniors and seniors, but I cajoled a math teacher into lending me a computer manual and spent all of Thanksgiving vacation reading it.

I was hooked.

No doubt about it. I was born to be a hacker. Fortunately, I didn't let my studies suffer (as many young hackers do), but every spare moment I thought about the computer. It was spellbinding. I wanted to know all about it: what it could and couldn't do, how its programs worked, what its circuits looked like. During study halls, lunch, and after school, I could be found in the computer room, punching programs onto cards and running them through the computer.

I was not the only one. Very soon there was a small community of IBM 1130 hackers. We helped to maintain the computer and we tutored our less fanatical fellow students in the ways of computing. What could possibly compensate us for these chores? Free rein in the computer room.

Soon after that, I developed into one of the unauthorized but tolerated ‘random people’ hanging around the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. A random hacker is to a computer laboratory much as a groupie is to a rock band: not really doing useful work, but emotionally involved and contributing to the ambience, if nothing else. After a while, I was haunting the computer rooms at off-hours, talking to people but more often looking for chances to run programs. Sometimes ‘randoms’ such as I were quite helpful, operating the computers for no pay and giving advice to college students who were having trouble. Sometimes, however, we were quite a nuisance. Once I was ejected from the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory by none other than Richard Greenblatt, the very famous hacker who had written the MacHack program with which the PDP-6 had won its chess trophies. He threw me out because I was monopolizing the one terminal that produced letter-quality copy. (I was using the computer as a word processor to write customized form letters to various computer manufacturers, asking them to send me computer manuals.) I deserved to be tossed out and gave him no argument. But when you're hooked, you're hooked, and I was undaunted; within a week or two I was back again.

Eventually I got a part-time job as a programmer at MIT's Project MAC computer laboratory. There I became a full-fledged member of the hacker community, and ultimately an MIT graduate student.

I was never a lone hacker, but one of many. Despite stories you may have read about anti-social nerds glued permanently to display screens, totally addicted to the computer, hackers have (human) friends too. Through timesharing (where many people use one computer) and networking (where many computers are connected together), the computer makes possible a new form of human communication, better than the telephone and the postal system put together. You can send a message by electronic mail and get a reply within two minutes, or you can just link two terminals together and have a conversation. This sort of thing used to be a near-exclusive province of hackers, but is nowadays quite commonplace through commercial services such as Compuserve and GEnie.

Speaking of nerds: a hacker doesn't have to be a nerd (but it helps). More important, it is certainly not true that all nerds are hackers! Too many nerds are just nerds. But I must mention one more story from my days at MIT. When the famous National Lampoon “Are You a Nerd?” poster first came out in the mid-1970s, a secretary at MIT bought a copy to post outside her office door so everyone at the laboratory could enjoy the joke (which we did, immensely). As she was taping it up, I happened to be leaving for dinner, briefcase in hand. I glanced at the poster, then put on my glasses (heavy black frames — I still wear them), hiked up my polyester slacks an extra half-inch, and assumed The Pose (booger and all). I matched about 80% of the itemized points: button-down shirt with loose collar, six pens in my shirt pocket, same haircut — too bad I had left my slide rule at home. The poor secretary turned beet-red and protested, “N-no! I didn't mean you!” I just chuckled and told her that the poster artist had obviously done a remarkably good job. (Being a nerd isn't all bad — sometimes it can turn a girl's head. Once, when I was fifteen, I was strolling across Copley Square in downtown Boston and passed three bubblegum teenyboppers. I just barely caught one of them exclaiming to her friends, “Wow! Did you see all those pens?”)

Perhaps one reason for the nerd-hacker connection is that the truly dedicated hacker does little else but eat, sleep, and hack. Hackers often work strange hours that put them out of synch with normal humanity. Some hackers just get up at dinnertime and go to bed after breakfast, or perhaps get up at noon and sack out at 4 AM. (See the terms phase and night mode for more information on hackers' sleeping schedules.) Before computers were inexpensive enough to be ‘personal’, they had to be shared, either by taking turns or by what is called timesharing (where the computer is programmed to take turns at split-second speeds). Either way, there was heavier demand for the computer during the day than at night, because non-hacker users tended to work during the day. Hackers often therefore worked late into the evening or night, when the other computer users weren't competing for cycles. It's more fun, after all, to use the computer when it's responding at split-second speeds.

Now that personal computers and individual workstations are ubiquitous, there is less need to avoid day shifts. Many hackers, however, still find a 10PM-to-6AM or noon-to-8AM schedule more pleasant than rising at the crack of dawn. There are different theories about why this is so: my personal one is that there is some correlation between the hackish sort of creativity and ‘night person’ physiology. It has also been suggested that working at night is an adaptation to the hacker's need for long stretches of hack mode, a literally altered state of consciousness that doesn't tolerate distractions well; I find this eminently reasonable. Just as the VCR has allowed television watchers to ‘time-shift’ movies, electronic mail allows the hacker to time-shift most of his communication with others, making it much less important for everyone to have exactly the same work hours.

The earliest of the hacker cultures that directly contributed to this book was the one that grew up around the PDP-1 at MIT in the early 1960s (many of these people were also in TMRC, the Tech Model Railroad Club). Later, the PDP-1 hackers formed the nucleus of the famed MIT AI Lab. Thus, when I began hacking there I connected with a tradition that was already well established, and was to continue as one of its most important sub-communities for another decade.

But MIT had no monopoly on hackers. In the 1960s and 1970s hackers congregated around any computer center that made computer time available for play. (Some of this play turned out to be very important work, but hacking is done mostly for fun, for its own sake, for the pure joy of it.) Because universities tend to be more flexible than corporations in this regard, most hackers' dens arose in university laboratories. While some of these hackers were unauthorized ‘random people’ like me, many hackers were paid employees who chose to stay after hours and work on their own projects — or even continue their usual work — purely for pleasure.

The hacker community became larger and more closely knit after 1969, when the government funded a project to see whether it would be useful and practical to let the computers at dozens of universities and other sites ‘talk’ to each other. The project succeeded and produced the famous ARPANET, a network that now links hundreds of computers across the country. Through the ARPANET researchers could share programs, trade research results, and send electronic mail — both to individuals and to massive mailing lists. And it first allowed once-isolated hackers to talk to each other via computer. During the two decades that followed, other networks grew and connected to the ARPANET. Eventually software gave most of these a common address space; the resulting super-network, called ‘Internet’ or simply ‘the net’, links thousands and thousands of computers worldwide. The ARPANET itself no longer exists as a distinct entity.

The result is a worldwide hackers' community, now two decades old. In some ways the community serves as a geographically dispersed think tank; people use it to share ideas and software. One good recent example of this was during the great cold-fusion flap of 1988; many of the papers on both sides of the dispute were available on the net long before making print.

But the net also has a social importance non-hackers tend to miss. I have many friends that I have never met face to face or talked to on the telephone. I feel I know them quite well, though, because I've had extended conversations with them through the computer. (I had one friend through the computer who worked in the same building that I did, but I never knew he was deaf until I chanced to meet him face to face several months later!)

When you walk up to the terminal of a time-shared computer, the first thing you do is to ‘log in’, that is, tell the computer who you are. As a result everyone acquires a login name, which you need to know to communicate with another hacker via computer. A login name serves in much the same way as a CB ‘handle’. Login names are often used as nicknames, pronounced if possible and spelled if necessary. My wife and I met at MIT, and she still calls me “Gliss” because my login name was GLS “Guy” still sounds very weird to her, even after N years of marriage.

On the net, people are usually known by their logins and addresses. Thus, I have many friends whom I know only by login name; I have no idea what their real names are. Once, at a wedding, I ran into a good hacker friend who was also a guest there. I recalled his login name instantly, but was embarrassed that I couldn't immediately remember his real name in order to introduce him to a third person. It was ‘swapped out’ (see swap). A more egregious example: when Barbara and I got married, we sent out wedding invitations of the usual sort without considering the consequences. One hacker friend was completely puzzled: “Barbara Kerns ... Guy Steele ... Who are these people???” His girlfriend looked over his shoulder and said, tentatively, “Guy Steele ... isn't that Quux?” This was someone I knew quite well, but he knew me only by that handle. Some hackers actually prefer to be called by their login name and seldom use their given (‘mundane’) names (Richard Stallman, aka RMS, is a well-known example).

In these and other ways, the working and social life of the hacker revolves primarily around the computer. This is not to say that hackers have no other interests; for a look at those, see Appendix B, A Portrait of J. Random Hacker. But hackerdom is defined by the community of interest that has grown up around computers and electronic networks. Indeed, these electronic networks have grown in importance over time.

When I drafted the first version of this preface, in 1983, I expressed some concern that hackerdom might be dying — killed off, ironically, by the spread of knowledge about computers. As programming education became more formalized, as the personal computer atomized hacker communities previously knitted together by timesharing, and as the lure of big money in industry siphoned off some of the best and brightest, it seemed as though hackerdom's unique values might be lost.

Though these gloomy predictions were an accurate projection of some trends of that year, they didn't survive an editor's objections and never made it into the first edition. This is perhaps fortunate; now, in 1991, I am happy to report that hacking is most certainly not dead. Some of its traditional vehicles, licit and illicit, have disappeared: the PDP-10 is no longer manufactured, and improved technology and security have made phone phreaking much less intellectually rewarding. But the hacking spirit remains very much alive. The personal computer revolution has made hackers free to hack almost anywhere — and the net is the community glue.

This book was put together almost entirely through the net. Hundreds of contributors responded to a net-wide request for new entries and updates. Eric Raymond sifted through thousands of electronic messages, collecting old and new words and cross-checking the evidence. (By the way, I got to know Eric through the net — we worked on this project for about a year before meeting face to face.)

The New Hacker's Dictionary reflects the technological and social changes in the hacker community over the last decade or so (Eric's preface discusses some of these). At times, assisting Eric in this project has made me feel like an old fuddy-duddy; more often I have felt freshly charged with the excitement of the hacker spirit. Hackers are doing exciting new things and coining new words and phrases to describe their changing and innovative culture. If you want to get involved, interest, ability, and computer access are pretty much the only requirements; social skills help a great deal but are not mandatory. If you are just curious, this book provides a window into a strange world that may amuse or astonish you. Whichever it may be, welcome!

Happy hacking!