On September 27, 1983, computer programmers logging on to the Usenet newsgroup net.unix-wizards encountered an unusual message. Posted in the small hours of the morning, 12:30 a.m. to be exact, and signed by rms@mit-oz, the message’s subject line was terse but attention-grabbing. “New UNIX implementation,” it read. Instead of introducing a newly released version of Unix, however, the message’s opening paragraph issued a call to arms:
Starting this Thanksgiving I am going to write a complete Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for Gnu’s Not Unix), and give it away free to everyone who can use it. Contributions of time, money, programs and equipment are greatly needed.1
To an experienced Unix developer, the message was a mixture of idealism and hubris. Not only did the author pledge to rebuild the already mature Unix operating system from the ground up, he also proposed to improve it in places. The new GNU system, the author predicted, would carry all the usual components—a text editor, a shell program to run Unix-compatible applications, a compiler, “and a few other things.”1 It would also contain many enticing features that other Unix systems didn’t yet offer: a graphic user interface based on the Lisp programming language, a crash-proof file system, and networking protocols built according to MIT’s internal networking system.
“GNU will be able to run Unix programs, but will not be identical to Unix,” the author wrote. “We will make all improvements that are convenient, based on our experience with other operating systems.”
Anticipating a skeptical response on some readers’ part, the author made sure to follow up his operating-system outline with a brief biographical sketch titled, “Who am I?”:
I am Richard Stallman, inventor of the original much-imitated EMACS editor, now at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. I have worked extensively on compilers, editors, debuggers, command interpreters, the Incompatible Timesharing System and the Lisp Machine operating system. I pioneered terminal-independent display support in ITS. In addition I have implemented one crashproof file system and two window systems for Lisp machines.1
As fate would have it, Stallman’s fanciful GNU Project missed its Thanksgiving launch date. By January, 1984, however, Stallman made good on his promise and fully immersed himself in the world of Unix software development. For a software architect raised on ITS, it was like designing suburban shopping malls instead of Moorish palaces. Even so, building a Unix-like operating system had its hidden advantages. ITS had been powerful, but it also possessed an Achilles’ heel: MIT hackers had designed it to take specific advantage of the DEC-built PDP line. When AI Lab administrators elected to phase out the lab’s powerful PDP-10 machine in the early 1980s, the operating system that hackers once likened to a vibrant city became an instant ghost town. Unix, on the other hand, was designed for mobility and long-term survival. Originally developed by junior scientists at AT&T, the program had slipped out under corporate-management radar, finding a happy home in the cash-strapped world of academic computer systems. With fewer resources than their MIT brethren, Unix developers had customized the software to ride atop a motley assortment of hardware systems: everything from the 16-bit PDP-11—a machine considered fit for only small tasks by most AI Lab hackers—to 32-bit mainframes such as the VAX 11/780. By 1983, a few companies, most notably Sun Microsystems, were even going so far as to develop a new generation of microcomputers, dubbed “workstations,” to take advantage of the increasingly ubiquitous operating system.
To facilitate this process, the developers in charge of designing the dominant Unix strains made sure to keep an extra layer of abstraction between the software and the machine. Instead of tailoring the operating system to take advantage of a specific machine’s resources—as the AI Lab hackers had done with ITS and the PDP-10—Unix developers favored a more generic, off-the-rack approach. Focusing more on the interlocking standards and specifications that held the operating system’s many subcomponents together, rather than the actual components themselves, they created a system that could be quickly modified to suit the tastes of any machine. If a user quibbled with a certain portion, the standards made it possible to pull out an individual subcomponent and either fix it or replace it with something better. Simply put, what the Unix approach lacked in terms of style or aesthetics, it more than made up for in terms of flexibility and economy, hence its rapid adoption.2
Stallman’s decision to start developing the GNU system was triggered by the end of the ITS system that the AI Lab hackers had nurtured for so long. The demise of ITS had been a traumatic blow to Stallman. Coming on the heels of the Xerox laser printer episode, it offered further evidence that the AI Lab hacker culture was losing its immunity to business practices in the outside world.
Like the software code that composed it, the roots of ITS’ demise stretched way back. Defense spending, long a major font for computer-science research, had dried up during the post-Vietnam years. In a desperate quest for new funds, laboratories and universities turned to the private sector. In the case of the AI Lab, winning over private investors was an easy sell. Home to some of the most ambitious computer-science projects of the post-war era, the lab became a quick incubator of technology. Indeed, by 1980, most of the lab’s staff, including many hackers, were dividing its time between Institute and commercial projects.
What at first seemed like a win-win deal—hackers got to work on the best projects, giving the lab first look at many of the newest computer technologies coming down the pike—soon revealed itself as a Faustian bargain. The more time hackers devoted to cutting-edge commercial projects, the less time they had to devote to general maintenance on the lab’s baroque software infrastructure. Soon, companies began hiring away hackers outright in an attempt to monopolize their time and attention. With fewer hackers to mind the shop, programs and machines took longer to fix. Even worse, Stallman says, the lab began to undergo a “demographic change.” The hackers who had once formed a vocal minority within the AI Lab were losing membership while “the professors and the students who didn’t really love the [PDP-10] were just as numerous as before.”3
The breaking point came in 1982. That was the year the lab’s administration decided to upgrade its main computer, the PDP-10. Digital, the corporation that manufactured the PDP-10, had discontinued the line. Although the company still offered a high-powered mainframe, dubbed the KL-10, the new machine required a drastic rewrite or “port” of ITS if hackers wanted to continue running the same operating system. Fearful that the lab had lost its critical mass of in-house programming talent, AI Lab faculty members pressed for Twenex, a commercial operating system developed by Digital. Outnumbered, the hackers had no choice but to comply.
“Without hackers to maintain the system, [faculty members] said, ‘We’re going to have a disaster; we must have commercial software,’” Stallman would recall a few years later. “They said, ‘We can expect the company to maintain it.’ It proved that they were utterly wrong, but that’s what they did.”3
At first, hackers viewed the Twenex system as yet another authoritarian symbol begging to be subverted. The system’s name itself was a protest. Officially dubbed TOPS-20 by DEC, it was a successor to TOPS-10, a commercial operating system DEC marketed for the PDP-10. Bolt Beranek Newman had deveoped an improved version, dubbed Tenex, which TOPS-20 drew upon.4 Stallman, the hacker who coined the Twenex term, says he came up with the name as a way to avoid using the TOPS-20 name. “The system was far from tops, so there was no way I was going to call it that,” Stallman recalls. “So I decided to insert a ‘w’ in the Tenex name and call it Twenex.”
The machine that ran the Twenex/TOPS-20 system had its own derisive nickname: Oz. According to one hacker legend, the machine got its nickname because it required a smaller PDP-11 machine to power its terminal. One hacker, upon viewing the KL-10–PDP-11 setup for the first time, likened it to the wizard’s bombastic onscreen introduction in the Wizard of Oz. “I am the great and powerful Oz,” the hacker intoned. “Pay no attention to the PDP-11 behind that console.”5
If hackers laughed when they first encountered the KL-10, their laughter quickly died when they encountered Twenex. Not only did Twenex boast built-in security, but the system’s software engineers had designed the tools and applications with the security system in mind. What once had been a cat-and-mouse game over passwords in the case of the Laboratory for Computer Science’s security system, now became an out-and-out battle over system management. System administrators argued that without security, the Oz system was more prone to accidental crashes. Hackers argued that crashes could be better prevented by overhauling the source code. Unfortunately, the number of hackers with the time and inclination to perform this sort of overhaul had dwindled to the point that the system-administrator argument prevailed.
Cadging passwords and deliberately crashing the system in order to glean evidence from the resulting wreckage, Stallman successfully foiled the system administrators’ attempt to assert control. After one foiled “coup d’etat,” Stallman issued an alert to the entire AI staff.3
“There has been another attempt to seize power,” Stallman wrote. “So far, the aristocratic forces have been defeated.” To protect his identity, Stallman signed the message “Radio Free OZ.”
The disguise was a thin one at best. By 1982, Stallman’s aversion to passwords and secrecy had become so well known that users outside the AI Laboratory were using his account as a stepping stone to the ARPAnet, the research-funded computer network that would serve as a foundation for today’s Internet. One such “tourist” during the early 1980s was Don Hopkins, a California programmer who learned through the hacking grapevine that all an outsider needed to do to gain access to MIT’s vaunted ITS system was to log in under the initials RMS and enter the same three-letter monogram when the system requested a password.
“I’m eternally grateful that MIT let me and many other people use their computers for free,” says Hopkins. “It meant a lot to many people.”
This so-called “tourist” policy, which had been openly tolerated by MIT management during the ITS years,6 fell by the wayside when Oz became the lab’s primary link to the ARPAnet. At first, Stallman continued his policy of repeating his login ID as a password so outside users could follow in his footsteps. Over time, however, the Oz’s fragility prompted administrators to bar outsiders who, through sheer accident or malicious intent, might bring down the system. When those same administrators eventually demanded that Stallman stop publishing his password, Stallman, citing personal ethics, refused to do so and ceased using the Oz system altogether.3
“[When] passwords first appeared at the MIT AI Lab I [decided] to follow my belief that there should be no passwords,” Stallman would later say. “Because I don’t believe that it’s really desirable to have security on a computer, I shouldn’t be willing to help uphold the security regime.”3
Stallman’s refusal to bow before the great and powerful Oz symbolized the growing tension between hackers and AI Lab management during the early 1980s. This tension paled in comparison to the conflict that raged within the hacker community itself. By the time the KL-10 arrived, the hacker community had already divided into two camps. The first centered around a software company called Symbolics, Inc. The second centered around Symbolics chief rival, Lisp Machines, Inc. (LMI). Both companies were in a race to market the Lisp Machine, a device built to take full advantage of the Lisp programming language.
Created by artificial-intelligence research pioneer John McCarthy, a MIT artificial-intelligence researcher during the late 1950s, Lisp is an elegant language well-suited for programs charged with heavy-duty sorting and processing. The language’s name is a shortened version of LISt Processing. Following McCarthy’s departure to the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, MIT hackers refined the language into a local dialect dubbed MACLISP. The “MAC” stood for Project MAC, the DARPA-funded research project that gave birth to the AI Lab and the Laboratory for Computer Science. Led by AI Lab arch-hacker Richard Greenblatt, AI Lab programmers during the 1970s built up an entire Lisp-based operating system, dubbed the Lisp Machine operating system. By 1980, the Lisp Machine project had generated two commercial spin-offs. Symbolics was headed by Russell Noftsker, a former AI Lab administrator, and Lisp Machines, Inc., was headed by Greenblatt.
The Lisp Machine software was hacker-built, meaning it was owned by MIT but available for anyone to copy as per hacker custom. Such a system limited the marketing advantage of any company hoping to license the software from MIT and market it as unique. To secure an advantage, and to bolster the aspects of the operating system that customers might consider attractive, the companies recruited various AI Lab hackers and set them working on various components of the Lisp Machine operating system outside the auspices of the AI Lab.
The most aggressive in this strategy was Symbolics. By the end of 1980, the company had hired 14 AI Lab staffers as part-time consultants to develop its version of the Lisp Machine. Apart from Stallman, the rest signed on to help LMI.7
At first, Stallman accepted both companies’ attempt to commercialize the Lisp machine, even though it meant more work for him. Both licensed the Lisp Machine OS source code from MIT, and it was Stallman’s job to update the lab’s own Lisp Machine to keep pace with the latest innovations. Although Symbolics’ license with MIT gave Stallman the right to review, but not copy, Symbolics’ source code, Stallman says a “gentleman’s agreement” between Symbolics management and the AI Lab made it possible to borrow attractive snippets in traditional hacker fashion.
On March 16, 1982, a date Stallman remembers well because it was his birthday, Symbolics executives decided to end this gentlemen’s agreement. The move was largely strategic. LMI, the primary competition in the Lisp Machine marketplace, was essentially using a copy of the AI Lab Lisp Machine. Rather than subsidize the development of a market rival, Symbolics executives elected to enforce the letter of the license. If the AI Lab wanted its operating system to stay current with the Symbolics operating system, the lab would have to switch over to a Symbolics machine and sever its connection to LMI.
As the person responsible for keeping up the lab’s Lisp Machine, Stallman was incensed. Viewing this announcement as an “ultimatum,” he retaliated by disconnecting Symbolics’ microwave communications link to the laboratory. He then vowed never to work on a Symbolics machine and pledged his immediate allegiance to LMI. “The way I saw it, the AI Lab was a neutral country, like Belgium in World War I,” Stallman says. “If Germany invades Belgium, Belgium declares war on Germany and sides with Britain and France.”
The circumstances of the so-called “Symbolics War” of 1982–1983 depend heavily on the source doing the telling. When Symbolics executives noticed that their latest features were still appearing in the AI Lab Lisp Machine and, by extension, the LMI Lisp machine, they installed a “spy” program on Stallman’s computer terminal. Stallman says he was rewriting the features from scratch, taking advantage of the license’s review clause but also taking pains to make the source code as different as possible. Symbolics executives argued otherwise and took their case to MIT administration. According to 1994 book, The Brain Makers: Genius, Ego, and Greed, and the Quest for Machines That Think, written by Harvey Newquist, the administration responded with a warning to Stallman to “stay away” from the Lisp Machine project.8 According to Stallman, MIT administrators backed Stallman up. “I was never threatened,” he says. “I did make changes in my practices, though. Just to be ultra safe, I no longer read their source code. I used only the documentation and wrote the code from that.”
Whatever the outcome, the bickering solidified Stallman’s resolve. With no source code to review, Stallman filled in the software gaps according to his own tastes and enlisted members of the AI Lab to provide a continuous stream of bug reports. He also made sure LMI programmers had direct access to the changes. “I was going to punish Symbolics if it was the last thing I did,” Stallman says.
Such statements are revealing. Not only do they shed light on Stallman’s nonpacifist nature, they also reflect the intense level of emotion triggered by the conflict. According to another Newquist-related story, Stallman became so irate at one point that he issued an email threatening to “wrap myself in dynamite and walk into Symbolics’ offices.”9 Although Stallman would deny any memory of the email and still describes its existence as a “vicious rumor,” he acknowledges that such thoughts did enter his head. “I definitely did have fantasies of killing myself and destroying their building in the process,” Stallman says. “I thought my life was over.”5
The level of despair owed much to what Stallman viewed as the “destruction” of his “home”—i.e., the demise of the AI Lab’s close-knit hacker subculture. In a later email interview with Levy, Stallman would liken himself to the historical figure Ishi, the last surviving member of the Yahi, a Pacific Northwest tribe wiped out during the Indian wars of the 1860s and 1870s. The analogy casts Stallman’s survival in epic, almost mythical, terms. In reality, however, it glosses over the tension between Stallman and his fellow AI Lab hackers prior to the Symbolics-LMI schism. Instead of seeing Symbolics as an exterminating force, many of Stallman’s colleagues saw it as a belated bid for relevance. In commercializing the Lisp Machine, the company pushed hacker principles of engineer-driven software design out of the ivory-tower confines of the AI Lab and into the corporate marketplace where manager-driven design principles held sway. Rather than viewing Stallman as a holdout, many hackers saw him as a troubling anachronism.
Stallman does not dispute this alternate view of historical events. In fact, he says it was yet another reason for the hostility triggered by the Symbolics “ultimatum.” Even before Symbolics hired away most of the AI Lab’s hacker staff, Stallman says many of the hackers who later joined Symbolics were shunning him. “I was no longer getting invited to go to Chinatown,” Stallman recalls. “The custom started by Greenblatt was that if you went out to dinner, you went around or sent a message asking anybody at the lab if they also wanted to go. Sometime around 1980–1981, I stopped getting asked. They were not only not inviting me, but one person later confessed that he had been pressured to lie to me to keep their going away to dinner without me a secret.”
Although Stallman felt anger toward the hackers who orchestrated this petty form of ostracism, the Symbolics controversy dredged up a new kind of anger, the anger of a person about to lose his home. When Symbolics stopped sending over its source-code changes, Stallman responded by holing up in his MIT offices and rewriting each new software feature and tool from scratch. Frustrating as it may have been, it guaranteed that future Lisp Machine users had unfettered access to the same features as Symbolics users.
It also guaranteed Stallman’s legendary status within the hacker community. Already renowned for his work with Emacs, Stallman’s ability to match the output of an entire team of Symbolics programmers—a team that included more than a few legendary hackers itself—still stands has one of the major human accomplishments of the Information Age, or of any age for that matter. Dubbing it a “master hack” and Stallman himself a “virtual John Henry of computer code,” author Steven Levy notes that many of his Symbolics-employed rivals had no choice but to pay their idealistic former comrade grudging respect. Levy quotes Bill Gosper, a hacker who eventually went to work for Symbolics in the company’s Palo Alto office, expressing amazement over Stallman’s output during this period:
I can see something Stallman wrote, and I might decide it was bad (probably not, but somebody could convince me it was bad), and I would still say, “But wait a minute—Stallman doesn’t have anybody to argue with all night over there. He’s working alone! It’s incredible anyone could do this alone!”10
For Stallman, the months spent playing catch up with Symbolics evoke a mixture of pride and profound sadness. As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal whose father had served in World War II, Stallman is no pacifist. In many ways, the Symbolics war offered the rite of passage toward which Stallman had been careening ever since joining the AI Lab staff a decade before. At the same time, however, it coincided with the traumatic destruction of the AI Lab hacker culture that had nurtured Stallman since his teenage years. One day, while taking a break from writing code, Stallman experienced a traumatic moment passing through the lab’s equipment room. There, Stallman encountered the hulking, unused frame of the PDP-10 machine. Startled by the dormant lights, lights that once actively blinked out a silent code indicating the status of the internal program, Stallman says the emotional impact was not unlike coming across a beloved family member’s well-preserved corpse.
“I started crying right there in the equipment room,” he says. “Seeing the machine there, dead, with nobody left to fix it, it all drove home how completely my community had been destroyed.”
Stallman would have little opportunity to mourn. The Lisp Machine, despite all the furor it invoked and all the labor that had gone into making it, was merely a sideshow to the large battles in the technology marketplace. The relentless pace of computer miniaturization was bringing in newer, more powerful microprocessors that would soon incorporate the machine’s hardware and software capabilities like a modern metropolis swallowing up an ancient desert village.
Riding atop this microprocessor wave were hundreds—thousands—of commercial software programs, each protected by a patchwork of user licenses and nondisclosure agreements that made it impossible for hackers to review or share source code. The licenses were crude and ill-fitting, but by 1983 they had become strong enough to satisfy the courts and scare away would-be interlopers. Software, once a form of garnish most hardware companies gave away to make their expensive computer systems more flavorful, was quickly becoming the main dish. In their increasing hunger for new games and features, users were putting aside the traditional demand to review the recipe after every meal.
Nowhere was this state of affairs more evident than in the realm of personal computer systems. Companies such as Apple Computer and Commodore were minting fresh millionaires selling machines with built-in operating systems. Unaware of the hacker culture and its distaste for binary-only software, many of these users saw little need to protest when these companies failed to attach the accompanying source-code files. A few anarchic adherents of the hacker ethic helped propel that ethic into this new marketplace, but for the most part, the marketplace rewarded the programmers speedy enough to write new programs and savvy enough to copyright them as legally protected works.
One of the most notorious of these programmers was Bill Gates, a Harvard dropout two years Stallman’s junior. Although Stallman didn’t know it at the time, seven years before sending out his message to the net.unix-wizards newsgroup, Gates, a budding entrepreneur and general partner with the Albuquerque-based software firm Micro-Soft, later spelled as Microsoft, had sent out his own open letter to the software-developer community. Written in response to the PC users copying Micro-Soft’s software programs, Gates’ “Open Letter to Hobbyists” had excoriated the notion of communal software development.
“Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?” asked Gates. “What hobbyist can put three man-years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product, and distributing it for free?”11
Although few hackers at the AI Lab saw the missive, Gates’ 1976 letter nevertheless represented the changing attitude toward software both among commercial software companies and commercial software developers. Why treat software as a zero-cost commodity when the market said otherwise? As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, selling software became more than a way to recoup costs; it became a political statement. At a time when the Reagan Administration was rushing to dismantle many of the federal regulations and spending programs that had been built up during the half century following the Great Depression, more than a few software programmers saw the hacker ethic as anticompetitive and, by extension, un-American. At best, it was a throwback to the anticorporate attitudes of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like a Wall Street banker discovering an old tie-dyed shirt hiding between French-cuffed shirts and double-breasted suits, many computer programmers treated the hacker ethic as an embarrassing reminder of an idealistic age.
For a man who had spent the entire 1960s as an embarrassing throwback to the 1950s, Stallman didn’t mind living out of step with his peers. As a programmer used to working with the best machines and the best software, however, Stallman faced what he could only describe as a “stark moral choice”: either get over his ethical objection for “proprietary” software—the term Stallman and his fellow hackers used to describe any program that carried private copyright or end-user license that restricted copying and modification—or dedicate his life to building an alternate, non-proprietary system of software programs. Given his recent months-long ordeal with Symbolics, Stallman felt more comfortable with the latter option. “I suppose I could have stopped working on computers altogether,” Stallman says. “I had no special skills, but I’m sure I could have become a waiter. Not at a fancy restaurant, probably, but I could’ve been a waiter somewhere.”
Being a waiter—i.e., dropping out of programming altogether—would have meant completely giving up an activity, computer programming, that had given him so much pleasure. Looking back on his life since moving to Cambridge, Stallman finds it easy to identify lengthy periods when software programming provided the only pleasure. Rather than drop out, Stallman decided to stick it out.
An atheist, Stallman rejects notions such as fate, dharma, or a divine calling in life. Nevertheless, he does feel that the decision to shun proprietary software and build an operating system to help others do the same was a natural one. After all, it was Stallman’s own personal combination of stubbornness, foresight, and coding virtuosity that led him to consider a fork in the road most others didn’t know existed. In describing the decision in a chapter for the 1999 book, Open Sources, Stallman cites the spirit encapsulated in the words of the Jewish sage Hillel:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?12
Speaking to audiences, Stallman avoids the religious route and expresses the decision in pragmatic terms. “I asked myself: what could I, an operating-system developer, do to improve the situation? It wasn’t until I examined the question for a while that I realized an operating-system developer was exactly what was needed to solve the problem.”
Once he reached that decision, Stallman says, everything else “fell into place.” He would abstain from using software programs that forced him to compromise his ethical beliefs, while at the same time devoting his life to the creation of software that would make it easier for others to follow the same path. Pledging to build a free software operating system “or die trying—of old age, of course,” Stallman quips, he resigned from the MIT staff in January, 1984, to build GNU.
The resignation distanced Stallman’s work from the legal auspices of MIT. Still, Stallman had enough friends and allies within the AI Lab to retain rent-free access to his MIT office. He also had the ability to secure outside consulting gigs to underwrite the early stages of the GNU Project. In resigning from MIT, however, Stallman negated any debate about conflict of interest or Institute ownership of the software. The man whose early adulthood fear of social isolation had driven him deeper and deeper into the AI Lab’s embrace was now building a legal firewall between himself and that environment.
For the first few months, Stallman operated in isolation from the Unix community as well. Although his announcement to the net.unix-wizards group had attracted sympathetic responses, few volunteers signed on to join the crusade in its early stages.
“The community reaction was pretty much uniform,” recalls Rich Morin, leader of a Unix user group at the time. “People said, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea. Show us your code. Show us it can be done.’”
In true hacker fashion, Stallman began looking for existing programs and tools that could be converted into GNU programs and tools. One of the first was a compiler named VUCK, which converted programs written in the popular C programming language into machine-readable code. Translated from the Dutch, the program’s acronym stood for the Free University Compiler Kit. Optimistic, Stallman asked the program’s author if the program was free. When the author informed him that the words “Free University” were a reference to the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, Stallman was chagrined.
“He responded derisively, stating that the university was free but the compiler was not,” recalls Stallman. “I therefore decided that my first program for the GNU Project would be a multi-language, multi-platform compiler.”3
Eventually Stallman found a Pastel language compiler written by programmers at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. According to Stallman’s knowledge at the time, the compiler was free to copy and modify. Unfortunately, the program possessed a sizable design flaw: it saved each program into core memory, tying up precious space for other software activities. On mainframe systems this design flaw had been forgivable. On Unix systems it was a crippling barrier, since the machines that ran Unix were too small to handle the large files generated. Stallman made substantial progress at first, building a C-compatible frontend to the compiler. By summer, however, he had come to the conclusion that he would have to build a totally new compiler from scratch.
In September of 1984, Stallman shelved compiler development for the near term and began searching for lower-lying fruit. He began development of a GNU version of Emacs, the program he himself had been supervising for a decade. The decision was strategic. Within the Unix community, the two native editor programs were vi, written by Sun Microsystems cofounder Bill Joy, and ed, written by Bell Labs scientist (and Unix cocreator) Ken Thompson. Both were useful and popular, but neither offered the endlessly expandable nature of Emacs. In rewriting Emacs for the Unix audience, Stallman stood a better chance of showing off his skills. It also stood to reason that Emacs users might be more attuned to the Stallman mentality.
Looking back, Stallman says he didn’t view the decision in strategic terms. “I wanted an Emacs, and I had a good opportunity to develop one.”
Once again, the notion of reinventing the wheel grated on Stallman’s efficient hacker sensibilities. In writing a Unix version of Emacs, Stallman was soon following the footsteps of Carnegie Mellon graduate student James Gosling, author of a C-based version dubbed Gosling Emacs or GOSMACS. Gosling’s version of Emacs included an interpreter that exploited a simplified offshoot of the Lisp language called MOCKLISP. Determined to build GNU Emacs on a similar Lisp foundation, Stallman borrowed copiously from Gosling’s innovations. Although Gosling had put GOSMACS under copyright and had sold the rights to UniPress, a privately held software company, Stallman cited the assurances of a fellow developer who had participated in the early MOCKLISP interpreter. According to the developer, Gosling, while a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon, had assured early collaborators that their work would remain accessible. When UniPress caught wind of Stallman’s project, however, the company threatened to enforce the copyright. Once again, Stallman faced the prospect of building from the ground up.
In the course of reverse-engineering Gosling’s interpreter, Stallman would create a fully functional Lisp interpreter, rendering the need for Gosling’s original interpreter moot. Nevertheless, the notion of developers selling off software rights—indeed, the very notion of developers having software rights to sell in the first place—rankled Stallman. In a 1986 speech at the Swedish Royal Technical Institute, Stallman cited the UniPress incident as yet another example of the dangers associated with proprietary software.
“Sometimes I think that perhaps one of the best things I could do with my life is find a gigantic pile of proprietary software that was a trade secret, and start handing out copies on a street corner so it wouldn’t be a trade secret any more,” said Stallman. “Perhaps that would be a much more efficient way for me to give people new free software than actually writing it myself; but everyone is too cowardly to even take it.”3
Despite the stress it generated, the dispute over Gosling’s innovations would assist both Stallman and the free software movement in the long term. It would force Stallman to address the weaknesses of the Emacs Commune and the informal trust system that had allowed problematic offshoots to emerge. It would also force Stallman to sharpen the free software movement’s political objectives. Following the release of GNU Emacs in 1995, Stallman issued “The GNU Manifesto,” an expansion of the original announcement posted in September, 1983. Stallman included within the document a lengthy section devoted to the many arguments used by commercial and academic programmers to justify the proliferation of proprietary software programs. One argument, “Don’t programmers deserve a reward for their creativity,” earned a response encapsulating Stallman’s anger over the recent Gosling Emacs episode:
“If anything deserves a reward, it is social contribution,” Stallman wrote. “Creativity can be a social contribution, but only in so far [sic] as society is free to use the results. If programmers deserve to be rewarded for creating innovative programs, by the same token they deserve to be punished if they restrict the use of these programs.”13
With the release of GNU Emacs, the GNU Project finally had code to show. It also had the burdens of any software-based enterprise. As more and more Unix developers began playing with the software, money, gifts, and requests for tapes began to pour in. To address the business side of the GNU Project, Stallman drafted a few of his colleagues and formed the Free Software Foundation (FSF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to speeding the GNU Project towards its goal. With Stallman as president and various hacker allies as board members, the FSF helped provide a corporate face for the GNU Project.
Robert Chassell, a programmer then working at Lisp Machines, Inc., became one of five charter board members at the Free Software Foundation following a dinner conversation with Stallman. Chassell also served as the organization’s treasurer, a role that started small but quickly grew.
“I think in ’85 our total expenses and revenue were something in the order of $23,000, give or take,” Chassell recalls. “Richard had his office, and we borrowed space. I put all the stuff, especially the tapes, under my desk. It wasn’t until sometime later LMI loaned us some space where we could store tapes and things of that sort.”
In addition to providing a face, the Free Software Foundation provided a center of gravity for other disenchanted programmers. The Unix market that had seemed so collegial even at the time of Stallman’s initial GNU announcement was becoming increasingly competitive. In an attempt to tighten their hold on customers, companies were starting to close off access to Unix source code, a trend that only speeded the number of inquiries into ongoing GNU software projects. The Unix wizards who once regarded Stallman as a noisy kook were now beginning to see him as a software Cassandra.
“A lot of people don’t realize, until they’ve had it happen to them, how frustrating it can be to spend a few years working on a software program only to have it taken away,” says Chassell, summarizing the feelings and opinions of the correspondents writing in to the FSF during the early years. “After that happens a couple of times, you start to say to yourself, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’”
For Chassell, the decision to participate in the Free Software Foundation came down to his own personal feelings of loss. Prior to LMI, Chassell had been working for hire, writing an introductory book on Unix for Cadmus, Inc., a Cambridge-area software company. When Cadmus folded, taking the rights to the book down with it, Chassell says he attempted to buy the rights back with no success.
“As far as I know, that book is still sitting on shelf somewhere, unusable, uncopyable, just taken out of the system,” Chassell says. “It was quite a good introduction if I may say so myself. It would have taken maybe three or four months to convert [the book] into a perfectly usable introduction to GNU/Linux today. The whole experience, aside from what I have in my memory, was lost.”
Forced to watch his work sink into the mire while his erstwhile employer struggled through bankruptcy, Chassell says he felt a hint of the anger that drove Stallman to fits of apoplexy. “The main clarity, for me, was the sense that if you want to have a decent life, you don’t want to have bits of it closed off,” Chassell says. “This whole idea of having the freedom to go in and to fix something and modify it, whatever it may be, it really makes a difference. It makes one think happily that after you’ve lived a few years that what you’ve done is worthwhile. Because otherwise it just gets taken away and thrown out or abandoned or, at the very least, you no longer have any relation to it. It’s like losing a bit of your life.”
Ibid. Newquist, who says this anecdote was confirmed by several Symbolics executives, writes, “The message caused a brief flurry of excitement and speculation on the part of Symbolics’ employees, but ultimately, no one took Stallman’s outburst that seriously.”
To view an online copy of this letter, go to http://www.blinkenlights.com/classiccmp/gateswhine.html.
Stallman adds his own footnote to this statement, writing, “As an atheist, I don’t follow any religious leaders, but I sometimes find I admire something one of them has said.”