Just Folks

by Peter H. Salus

Who did what concerning Linux 1.0, and who's who in open systems, are intriguing queries. Not merely because I think “open” goes back 45 years, but also because I'm not at all certain that any of today's contemporaries (other than Linus, Guido, Larry and Eric) will be considered important in a decade. While Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson are remembered, other influential people have faded into the mists of time.

This isn't meant to dismiss the activities of, say, Jon “maddog” Hall. But who remembers the “gang of five” who started USENIX? Who recalls that Lou Katz, then at Columbia University, was the first President? Or that Katz and Reidar Bornholdt organized the very first UNIX Users Group meeting (May 15, 1974, in the Merritt Conference Room at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons)?

Nor do I want to devalue Tim Berners-Lee's contribution. But Peter Deutsch's archie has vanished, as have gopher, veronica, jughead and Mosaic.

We talk about “Internet time”, but our memory of individuals is even worse than our memory of things. So I thought I'd put together a different sort of merit-based who's who—or perhaps a hall of fame for people whose work has had a truly lasting impact. (Note, I intentionally omitted the obvious: Torvalds, Ritchie, Stallman, etc.)

  • Eric Allman for Sendmail (1978)

  • John Backus for creating FORTRAN (1957)

  • Gordon Bell for the PDP-4 through PDP-8 and the VAX

  • Fernando Corbato for writing CTSS, the Compatible Time-Sharing System (1963)

  • Edson de Castro for collaborating with Bell

  • Steve Crocker for inventing the form and writing RFC 1 (1969)

  • Ralph Griswold for SNOBOL4 (1971) and ICON (1983)

  • Brian Kernighan for being the “K” in K&R and in AWK

  • Don Knuth for TeX and The Art of Computer Programming

  • Mike Lesk for uucp, grep, lex, tbl and refer

  • J.C.R. Licklider for making the ARPANET possible

  • John McCarthy for LISP 1.5 (1962)

  • Doug McIlroy for the idea of pipes

  • Bob Metcalfe for Ethernet

  • John Ousterhout for Tcl/Tk

  • Jon Postel for running IANA

  • Bjarne Stroustrup for C++

  • Andy Tanenbaum for MINIX

  • Larry Wall for rn, patch and Perl

I guess I could easily make this list twice as long. But with very few exceptions, the names would be even less familiar than the ones above.

However, if Backus and his team hadn't developed FORTRAN, we wouldn't have COBOL or Algol or most other languages we use (such as C and PASCAL, both 1971). Without MINIX, we'd have no Linux; without the ARPANET, no Internet.

My real point isn't that everyone ought to memorize who did what to whom. I'm not sure if it matters at all. Alexander Graham Bell, Rudolf Diesel, Tesla and Marconi have their places in technological history, but hardly anyone except historians of science remembers Wankel or even Stephenson. Thus, who's-who volumes are highly ephemeral: some of those once thought important will fade away in a few years. My guess is that we are like those “trunkless legs of stone” in “Ozymandias”.

Peter H. Salus , the author of A Quarter Century of UNIX and Casting the Net, is an LJ contributing editor. He can be reached at peter@ssc.com.
Load Disqus comments