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The Founding Fathers of the Hacker Community

AuthorMassimiliano Brolli
Original Publication Date: 19/03/2021
TranslatorTara Lie

Hacker culture was brought to life thanks to computer scientist Richard Greenblatt and mathematician Bill Gosper at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It all started at MIT’s famous Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC), which we discussed in a previous article.

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Today, I would like to talk about programmer and computer scientist Richard Greenblatt, born on Christmas day 1944 in Portland, Oregon. Greenblatt was an expert chess player, and from nine years old he would take apart old radios and televisions to figure out how they worked internally. He would also build amplifiers, modulators, oscilloscopes and even a basic camera, purely out of interest.

Greenblatt enrolled in the Autumn of ‘62 at MIT, and during his second year of university joined the Tech Model Railroad Club together with Bill Gosper. Both would later be considered the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the Hacking community.

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From 1961, MIT had two large computers. First, the gigantic IBM 709, referred to as “The Hulking Giant” by the TMRC members. In addition to the IBM giant, there was also a TX-O.

The majority of the MIT students gravitated toward the IBM 709, later becoming the 704, thus creating a certain disdain towards it from members of the Club. The TMRC preferred the efficient TX-O, which was initially developed for military purposes – one of the first computers made with transistors which even had a monitor connected, a novel thing for that time!

Then, the DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) gifted the university an additional computer, the PDP-I. In comparison to the Hulking Giant and the TX-O, the PDP was much smaller. Additionally, it also had a monitor and teleprinter connected, as we saw in the video of Steve Russell on the game ‘Spacewar!’.

The MIT students loved to play ‘Spacewar!’ with the lights off in the Kluge Room, where it was installed on the PDP-I. With the lights down, their faces were mysteriously illuminated by the monitor light, in the famous Building 26. This all resonated with Greenblatt.

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Alan Kotok and Steve Russell playing Spacewar!

In the 1960s, the cost of these computers was prohibitive, unlike the relative affordability of computers today. Imagine, the cost back then was around $120,000USD, and accessibility to these fantastic tools was reserved only for the academic world and to very few other organisations. 

In that period Peter Samson, a member of the club, had written a program in Fortran for “The Hulking Giant”, able to automate the exchanges on the large network of model trains. 

Riky, inspired by Samson, started to write a Fortran compiler that was to work on the new PDP-I, as the PDP-I was immediately adopted by the club as a reference computer.

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Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-1

Creating a new program, or even a compiler, was considered a truly remarkable ‘hack’ for that period.

However the most surprising thing in all this, after having worked at such a basic level to create a compiler, was that of: 

Having fully understood a technology through an amazing exercise, a new method that would lead to continuous, incredible improvements and in such a short time.

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Moreover, despite a computer being very complex, the exploration and empirical study allowed not only an understanding of the system in a different manner – quicker than formal study – but also a way to comprehend the technology in a completely different way, a never-seen-before process.

MIT students playing with MAC Hack.

Greenblatt, under the influence of Alan Kotok, then went on to work at the artificial intelligence (AI) lab at MIT, where from mid-November 1966 he developed a chess program called “MAC Hack”, or the “Greenblatt Chess Program”. This software was published in 1969, after having played in eighteen tournaments and hundreds of individual chess games. Greenblatt, together with Tom Knight, had also written a very influential operating system for PDPs, called ‘Incompatible Time Sharing’.

In 1979, Greenblatt founded Lisp Machines Inc. (LMI), a company that built and marketed computers running on the Lisp software and programming language. His company was competing with Symbolics, similarly founded by his former colleagues at MIT AI. Consequently, LMI went bankrupt in 1987.

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The MIT Tech Model Railroad Club was attended by people such as Greenblatt, Alan Kotok, Peter Samson, Steve Russell, and Bill Gosper (co-founder with Greenblatt of the hacker community and writer of HACKMEM). They had an understanding of their key purpose at MIT, to explore and to understand technology in a totally new way.

This became known as ‘hacking’.

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