The Last Farkle

In the spring of 1983 I went to work for Digital Equipment Corporation. At that time Digital was mostly providing support for different flavors of Unix on their PDP-11 and VAX lines of computers for the telephone company and universities that were using them. However, a decision had been made to make and release a binary-only version of the Unix operating system so commercial customers could get it without having to pay the very high source-code license fee that AT&T required of them.

By the time I joined Digital, they had a small group of engineers already hard at work on a product initially called V7m-11 (Version Seven, modified for the PDP-11) and which ultimately became known as Ultrix-11. The lead engineer on this project was a man named Fred Canter.

For those of you not familiar with the PDP-11, it basically had a 16-bit address space (64K bytes of memory), which could be expanded to be 64K bytes of instruction and 64K bytes of data, along with both system and user space. The real memory of the machine could be several megabytes in size, but the virtual memory size was limited to these 64K segments. In order to fit something like an operating system into such a small space, a concept known as "overlays" were used, the ability to "overlay" blocks of instructions into memory when they were needed. Then when no longer needed, these blocks of memory were reallocated to another function in another overlay. To say that creating an operation system on this machine took concentration and planning is a massive understatement. It took an engineer like Fred.

When you came to work in the morning, Fred was there. When you went home at night, Fred was there. If you came in on Saturday, Fred was there. But Fred was not a work-a-holic, it was just that Fred was driven to have a really good operating system.

People also respected Fred's opinion. Fred was kind of quiet, and did not speak much, but when he did speak even the most respected of the other engineers quieted to hear what he had to say. People often sought him out to ask his opinion on technical matters.

There were several versions of V7m-11/Ultrix-11 that came out. The first Unix system I ever had at Digital was an old PDP 11/34 that we built from spare parts and placed V7m-11 on it. The system worked great for the three or four people we had in our group, and we used it in our day-to-day work. We named the system "shaman", a name that I maintain today on the main system I use.

Fred had a unique (at least to me) way of programming. He used key words that he had invented ("farkle", "shazbot", "Meepzorb", "Zundap", "Oregeno" and "Vvvrrrrrrtt" as examples) that he sprinkled throughout his code. If I remember right, "farkle" stood for a piece of code that he had inserted just to get something working, but did not represent "production quality" code. Nothing went out the door unless Fred could "get the farkles out".

Eventually Digital decided to retire Ultrix-11, and in retiring the product Fred decided to fix and check off every single customer customer Software Quality Report ("bug report" to y'all) associated with the product. In retiring the product we did get one last comment back from a famous university that had specialized in Unix systems...."Not a bad piece of code"....the only such comment that Digital ever got from them.

Fred went on to work on Ultrix-32 (nee Digital Unix, nee Tru-64) for several more years, but decided to take "early retirement" in 2002 and return to his native state of Ohio after a 38 year engineering career.

A few years after that a friend of mine in Brazil was looking to name a new CMS system, and I suggested the name "Fred", to honor Fred Canter. My friend took this to heart, and today there are several sites "powered by FRED". I will let him tell the story:

"I told you we had this CMS project I could not find a good name for it. Then you came up with FRED! As I was THE BOSS ;) at the time, I was able to name our CMS FRED! It didn't have to stand for anything, no acronym, no nothing, and a lot of things at the same time. Specially a tribute to Fred Canter, someone I had never met and yet admired thanks to you.

Of course in 2003 we didn't get the handful of CMSs we have today. Still, Fred is one of the main Solis' FOSS products, and it powers several websites such as the following: - Of course! - Of course, also! - My brother and wife's agency

There are dozens more I cannot remember from the top of my mind right now.

By the way, here is the URL:

Thanks a lot for your message! And thank Fred on our behalf!"

A few days ago I got the sad news that Fred Canter was dying of brain and lung cancer, with weeks to live. Friends of his rushed across the continent to be by his side in the hospital, and then to help him in his home. People are trying to put together pictures and remembrances of this person so he can know that they are thinking of him.

I can not be with Fred, as I have commitments in South America that I know (as an engineer), Fred would want me to keep. So I write this blog in honor of him.

Ironically, on this trip I ran into a young man named Frederico ("Fred" for short) who has a lot of the same characteristics as Fred Canter. Frederico is studying computer science, and I hope that some day he will create and demand the same high quality that Fred Canter created and demanded as an engineer. I will tell the student about Fred Canter, and the things I learned from Fred.

Fred, for all those people that never had to experience a "Farkle" left in their operating systems, I thank you.

Warmest love,



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He was my Uncle, It's very

Katy's picture

He was my Uncle, It's very nice to know he was very well liked. :)

re: The Last Farkle

John Hoffman's picture

hi Jon and others
Thanks for the wonderful article and followups on Fred Canter. These brought back lots of good Ultrix Engineering Group memories from the Merrimack (MK) and later Nashua (ZK) facilities. Fred and others like him worked long and fruitful hours to create the O.S. foundation on our UNIX product lines were based.

Here's to you, Fred!

FWIW... Although most of Fred's key words were home brewed, Farkle had already been around for a long time. It's a dice game in the same family as my favorite variant, Zilch.

John Hoffman
Ultrix Workstation Group 1986-1991

Thanks, Jon

liza sanford-crane's picture

You nicely described the Fred that I remember so well in the early UEG days. He was a great pizza maker, too! I can't believe he is gone - just like that.

Thanks Jon a fitting tribute

Former Tru64 Prod Man Isaac Chute's picture

Thanks Jon a fitting tribute to a noble icon. I often wondered if the corridors of Tru64 weren't indeed the paths on mount Olympus with all the stellar individuals like Fred who we each had the privilidge to work with. Sometimes I didn't know if I should have genuflected or bowed, but I'm sure Fred wouldn't have wanted either.

I can only wish that more folks were as concerned as Fred about Farkles, it seems that the industry is getting worse in that dept sadly :(


Isaac aka the Singing Product Manager :)

A good man

Mark Longo's picture

Thanks for your writing about Fred, Jon. I had the pleasure of working with Fred for a good many years at DEC. And while I can certainly vouch for his abilities and talents as an excellent engineer, the thing that struck me most about Fred was that he is a kind, sweet, good hearted man. In knowing Fred you can't help but like him, it's just automatic. And in his quiet, good natured, and gentle way he made the workplace an easier and happier place to be. I (and I'm sure so many others) have nothing but the kindest regards and wishes for Fred, and the sincerest most heart felt thanks for having the pleasure of knowing him.


Farkle and Fred...

Sridar G's picture


Wonderful piece. As an ex-DEC person myself I remember the joy in simply using such wonderfully written code , right from RT-11 to Tru64.

Was it those "farkles" that actually made our eyes sparkle ? or just coincidence on rhyming ;-)

g s

I remember Fred Canter very well

Brian W. Masinick's picture

Dear Jon,

Thanks for that very kind and moving eulogy to a very quiet and capable Fred Canter, whom I also got to know in those 16 bit days. My first project in the Bell Accounts Systems Engineering (BASE) group was finishing up a port of UNIX System V to a PDP-11/73 system using a very strange combination of Massbus and UNIbus peripherals - part of that was because we had existing support for one, but not the other.

I was introduced to Fred Canter by Rick Rogers, whom I worked with on my first project. That was also when I got to meet Tom Tresvik, Dave Cardos, and several other great contributers to those early UNIX projects. All of those guys were great, but Fred was truly special, and I think your article was a great tribute to Fred. I do not believe there was another engineer in the entire organization who understood as many components of the complete operating system as Fred did. Regardless of what he called his code fragments, I would call them solid, perhaps even brilliant. My only memories of Fred Canter are fond ones.

My memories of Digital Equipment Corporation and those early days in MKO2 are priceless. Ironically enough, I am now working in the "Contra Way" building, the new name for that facility we all enjoyed so much back in the eighties. The memory of Fred is one great memory. Talking to you next to the microwave while popping bags of popcorn and discussing how to merge BSD and AT&T code into our UNIX implementation are also forever etched into my memory.

Kindest regards,
Brian Masinick

Fred was a "Marvel"

Ted Gent's picture

Fred and the "three amigos" worked on the last Digital Tru64 Unix system, the GS1280. Jon has written a wonderful article on Fred accurate even on the last product. Fred was a great person to work with, he knew Tru64 Unix in the minutest detail. This helped us hardware and system types out because Fred would put in a "farkle" to help us out. The GS1280, Marvel, was a truely outstanding product and Fred gave his all to make it the system it became.

Thank-you Fred!

Good partners

Sam Duncan's picture

Thank you Jon for this post.

Fred and I shared many hours in the lab and a few over cold beers. He was an excellent partner and friend. It has been fun seeing him more recently when he comes to town. I will miss him.

Cheers Fred.


Lee Lemmon's picture

I have known Fred since I was very young around 5 years old. Fred and my father, Floyd Lemmon grew up together and remained best friends to the end. I know my father misses him very much as do I. Fred was very nice and even when I was very young still remember the farkle and blurps he would talk about after a few beers. I always thought it was so funny. I work in IT now and appreciate very much Fred's intelligence. Ironically at work the day Fred passed I was dissasembling some old DEC equipment that we were replacing. I found peace with Fred's passing knowing that he found Jesus before he passed. Maddog, your entry was read at the ceremony as a very nice tribute to Fred.

Thanks for the insite about Fred from all your postings.