Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (ISBN 0-385-19195-2) is a book by Steven Levy about hacker culture. It was published in 1984 in Garden City, New York by Nerraw Manijaime/Doubleday. Levy describes the people, the machines, and the events that defined the Hacker Culture and the Hacker Ethic, from the early mainframe hackers at MIT, to the self-made hardware hackers and game hackers. Immediately following is a brief overview of the issues and ideas that are brought forward by Steven Levy’s book, as well as a more detailed interpretation of each chapter of the book, mentioning some of the principal characters and events.
The book saw an edition with a new afterword (entitled “Afterword: Ten Years After”) by the author in 1994. In 2010, a 25th anniversary edition with updated material was published by O’Reilly.
Levy’s description of hacker ethics and principles
First and foremost to Levy’s principles is the concept of the hacker ethic and the popularization of them to popular culture. In Levy’s own words, the principles dictate;
- Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-on Imperative!
- All information should be free.
- Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.
- Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position.
- You can create art and beauty on a computer.
- Computers can change your life for the better.
The hacker ethic deals with the idea that individuals are performing a duty for the common good, an analogy to a modern day ‘Robin Hood’. The hacker communities as a result are prided on the fact that they are the rebellion against authority figures that restrict this level of computer freedom. Hackers are only judged by their ability as opposed to the various systems in places that currently dictate authority, such as schools and universities. Mostly the hacker ethic idealizes the notion of hacking being an art-form, something revered as opposed to disputed and frowned upon. Popularized by ‘phreakers’ in the 1970s and 1980s, this is something that is not only evident, but also widespread among the growing community. As Manuel Castells, another lecturer involved in the field of computing, it is something that reflects not only on this community, but also of the wider social, political and financial world. In a sense, hacking is something that should affect everyone, but it is whether or not the interpretation that is given to hackers by Steven Levy compared with negative stereotypes of the media that dictate this perception.
Levy decided to write about the subject of hackers because he thought they were fascinating people. He also wanted to present a more accurate view of hackers than the one most people had. Levy found them to be “adventurers, visionaries, risk-takers, artists” rather than “nerdy social outcasts or ‘unprofessional’ programmers who wrote dirty, ‘nonstandard’ computer code.”
For this book, Levy talked to many different hackers, who were active from the 1950s until the 1980s.
At the beginning, Levy introduces many important hacker figures and machines. Among them are: John Draper (also known as Captain Crunch), infamous phone phreaker; Bill Gates, Harvard dropout and “cocky wizard” who wrote Altair BASIC; Richard Greenblatt, the “hacker’s hacker”; Steve Jobs, visionary; Marvin Minsky, “playful and brilliant” MIT professor who headed the MIT AI Lab; Richard Stallman, The Last of the True Hackers; and many, many others. Among the machines mentioned are the Altair 8800, Apple II, Atari 800, IBM PC, PDP-1, TX-0, and many others.
Part One: True Hackers
1. The Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) is a club at MIT that built sophisticated railroad and trains models. The members were among the first hackers. Key figures of the club were Peter Samson, Alan Kotok, Jack Dennis, and Bob Saunders. The club was composed of two groups, those who were interested in the modeling and landscaping, and those who comprised the Signals and Power Subcommittee and created the circuits that made the trains run. The latter would be among the ones who popularized the term hacker among many other slang terms, and who eventually moved on to computers and computer programming. They were initially drawn to the IBM 704, the multimillion-dollar mainframe that was operated at Building 26, but access and time to the mainframe was restricted to more important people. The group really began being involved with computers when Jack Dennis, a former member, introduced them to the TX-0, a three-million-dollar computer on long-term-loan from Lincoln Laboratory. They would usually stake out the place where the TX-0 was housed until late in the night in hopes that someone who had signed up for computer time did not show up.
2. The Hacker Ethic was a set of concepts, beliefs, and morals that came out of a symbiotic relationship between the hackers and the machines. It was not something that was written up as a manifesto, but a commonly, silently, agreed upon creed that simply came to be. The Ethic basically consisted of allowing all information to be free in order to learn about how the world worked; using the already available knowledge to create more knowledge. Anything that prevented them from getting to this knowledge was resented. The best system was an open one that could be debugged and improved upon by anyone. For them, bureaucracy was the bane of open systems and the IBM culture at the time was its epitome. The worth of a hacker should only be judged by looking at his hacking, not on other criteria such as education, age, race, or position, and anything a hacker created on a computer could be considered artistic and beautiful just like anything else. The most beautiful computer code was one that was aesthetic, innovative and did not waste memory space. The practice of optimizing program code was known as “bumming.” Another belief was that computers can enhance your life, even if you are not a hacker. At the time computers were not well understood and hackers had to convince others, including their professors, of this belief.
3. Spacewar!: Many of the hackers were also fascinated by the telephone companies and their exchange systems and would often go on tours the companies offered to learn as much about them as possible. Alan Kotok, who had acquired some prestige with his skills with the TX-0 and also worked for Western Electric (the manufacturing arm of the Bell System), would read as much as he could about the technical details of the telephone system and then explore or fingerprint the network. In September 1961, DEC donated to MIT’s RLE lab the second PDP-1 that it had produced. The machine was a dream to hackers. Six of them, including Kotok, Samson, Saunders, and Wagner, spent a total of two hundred and fifty man-hours one weekend to rewrite the TX-0 compiler for the PDP-1 because they did not like the first choice. They were only paid five hundred dollars for their feat, but the finished product that had come of the Hacker Ethic, was its own reward. Steve “Slug” Russell was another PDP-1 hacker that came up with a 2D game called Spacewar! in which two space ships, controlled by toggle switches on the PDP-1, would fly around the screen and shoot torpedoes at each other. His program was further improved by the other hackers. Samson, for example, changed the random dots that represented the stars to look like the real constellations and he made the screen scroll as the ships moved in space. Dan Edwards, another programmer, added a sun and the effect of gravitational pull. Kotok and Saunders even created the first computer joystick out of TMRC parts to aid with the playing. The game and the compiler were readily and freely available to anyone. Eventually two programs were started to make computers usable by more than one person at a time, a concept that was called time-sharing. One was started by Jack Dennis for the PDP-1, and one was started by Professor Fernando J. Corbató for the IBM 7090. MIT would eventually be paid three million dollars a year by ARPA to develop time-sharing through Project MAC headed by Robert Fano with the involvement of Corbató, Dennis, and Minsky who would focus on Artificial Intelligence. Project MAC was housed on the ninth floor of Tech Square, and it would become a home to many hackers.
4. Greenblatt and Gosper: Ricky Greenblatt was a born hacker, although when asked whether a hacker is born or made, he said, “If hackers are born, then they’re going to get made, and if they’re made into it, they were born.” He was an intelligent child, and used to play chess and make electrical devices at an early age. When he first got into MIT he was intent on making the Dean’s List, but by his sophomore year he flunked out, because he was spending too much time hacking relay circuits at the TMRC and programming for the PDP-1. He even programmed a FORTRAN compiler for the PDP-1. Bill Gosper was a math genius. He took a programming course with John McCarthy, and Minsky’s course on artificial intelligence. The hackers enjoyed Chinese food, and they would order anything that seemed interesting to their exploratory minds. Most did not have much of a social life outside of hacking, and some such as Greenblatt were notorious for their lack of personal hygiene. Gosper managed to graduate, but he had to work to pay back the tuition money that the Navy had paid him. Gosper did not like the Navy culture which did not allow programmers near the computers, and he hated the UNIVAC computer that they used since he considered it erroneous in its very design. He managed to work for a private company and later for Project MAC. Greenblatt decided to write a better chess program because he found Kotok’s version to be lacking in strategy. The program was good enough to defeat the renowned academic Hubert Dreyfus who had proclaimed that no chess program would be good enough to beat a ten-year-old (and, correctly, that the MIT Artificial Intelligence Programme was doomed to failure due to profound theoretical fallacies). Although the hackers proved the skeptic wrong, their Hacker Ethic concluded that convincing the outside world of the merits of computers was not as interesting as hacking them.
5. The Midnight Computer Wiring Society was created by Stew Nelson, a hacker who was really interested in phone networks and computer programming. He created the MCWS because he wanted to add an instruction to the PDP-1 computer, and the lab administrators had forbidden anyone “not qualified” from messing with the computer hardware. Just like many other hackers, he believed in the Hacker Ethic, and he would use any tools and make any modifications that he believed would improve the system. The hackers would find a way to unlock any door and any safe simply because they did not believe in bureaucracy and closed systems. Nelson also wired the PDP-1 to automatically dial and route telephone calls through the use of a blue box. At the same time, he also believed that hacking should not be done for profit.
6. Winners and Losers were two classifications by hackers whereby they were the former, and the grad students were the latter because they were not capable of hacking feats and could not understand about doing “The Right Thing”. Hackers were initially against time-sharing systems because they felt that a system should be used to its fullest, and this could only be done by one person at a time. The time-sharing systems at the time were slow and imposed many restrictions on its users. Greenblatt was convinced by Ed Fredkin that time-sharing systems could be more beneficial, so he set out, along with Nelson, to write a new time-sharing system called ITS, or Incompatible Time-sharing System, initially for the PDP-6, and later the PDP-10. This new system would allow many users to each run many programs at once. ITS allowed all users full access to all the files in the system, and it did not require any passwords. ITS continued to be improved by Greenblatt and the other hackers in an open fashion.
7. LIFE: Outside the ninth floor or Tech Square, life was very different. At one point it was the late 1960s and many students were protesting the war, and everything involved in the war. The AI Lab was funded by the Department of Defense so they were also the target of protests. Many hackers were also anti-war, but they did not feel that what they were doing had any direct effect on the war. When the protesters took their protest to the ninth floor itself, security was tightened and locks added. This was against the Hacker Ethic, but they felt that it had to be done in order to protect the equipment. The hacker way of life was also the target of criticism. Many felt that hackers were obsessed or even addicted to computers, and hardly had any social interactions in the real world. For some hackers the lack of sleep, malnutrition, the pressure of finishing a hack, and the entire lifestyle was too much. A hacker was even doing drugs, and later attempted suicide. He was not the only one. In this chapter, Levy explores the hacker lifestyle, and its effect on the hackers. The hacker culture though was spreading outside of MIT as computers became more common. One other center of hacker culture was Stanford’s AI Lab (SAIL) which had been started by John McCarthy. At SAIL the atmosphere was more laid back. Whereas MIT’s lab developed Spacewar!, SAIL developed an Adventure game. SAIL even had a sauna, in which some “willing young coeds” once participated in a sex orgy captured by video camera and transmitted at computer terminals for the hackers to watch. The Stanford hackers could be just as eccentric however, and they also lived by the Hacker Ethic. One hacker lived in his car parked outside the SAIL building, whereas others would sometimes sleep in the crawl space between the roof and the artificial ceiling. Some hackers moved to Stanford, whereas others stayed at MIT. The Hacker Ethic spread even further with the creation of ARPAnet (the precursor to the Internet) that connected several computer systems in different parts of the country in a network. LIFE was a computer simulation written by John Horton Conway, and it became the focus of Gosper in 1970. This resulted in some arguments with Greenblatt, who was not as fascinated with LIFE, and did not think that Gosper and others should be monopolizing the machine with this simulation. Gosper was fascinated because LIFE was uncharted territory and it posed the question of what could be called real life. Funding started to dry up from ARPA after Congress passed the Mansfield Amendment. The AI Lab could not hire any hacker who showed talent anymore. Instead, they started looking for more professors to teach computer courses. Gosper left MIT for Stanford where he would study under Donald Knuth, while still hacking on the PDP-10 at Tech Square via ARPAnet. A new generation of hackers was coming along that would spread the gospel of computers by making them smaller and more affordable.
Part Two: Hardware Hackers
8. Revolt in 2100: Lee Felsenstein was one of the founders of Community Memory, an offshoot of Resource One based in Berkeley, California that wanted to establish a communication system for people to contact each other. They made use of a computer terminal connected to a XDS-940 mainframe. He was joined by Efrem Lipkin, another hacker who was wary of any project that had military involvement, in forming Community Memory. Bob Albrecht and his computer-book publishing company Dymax also brought computing to the people by teaching young students to program. He formed People’s Computer Company, a storefront in Menlo Park, California, to offer computer time and classes to ordinary people. PCC spun off a series of books and a tabloid newspaper.
9. Every Man a God: While Felsenstein and Bob Marsh were trying to build their Tom Swift Terminal, a company in Albuquerque, New Mexico called MITS and run by Ed Roberts came out with an article in Popular Electronics about a computer kit that cost only $397. The Altair 8800, based on the Intel 8080 microprocessor, only had 256 bytes of memory, but it struck a chord with so many hackers that MITS went from being close to bankruptcy to having millions of dollars worth of orders, and being unable to fulfill the orders in time. Although it was not yet a computer for the general public, the Altair brought that dream a lot closer.
10. The Homebrew Computer Club was founded by Fred Moore and Gordon French as a way for electronics hobbyists and hackers to get together and exchange information and talk about their projects. The first meeting took place on March 5, 1975 in Gordon’s garage in Silicon Valley. There were only 32 people in the first meeting, among them Lee Felsenstein, Bob Marsh, Bob Albrecht, Steve Dompier, Allen Baum and Stephen Wozniak. Dompier wrote a program that was able to play simple musical melodies on the Altair that could be heard on a radio because of electrical interference. Some of the participants thought of making some add on boards for the 8800, and they even formed their own small companies to sell these boards. The membership of the club grew to hundreds, and members were sharing equipment and knowledge in a continuation of the Hacker Ethic developed at MIT. Many products were introduced and critiqued during club meetings, and their schematics and source code would be freely shared and improved.
11. Tiny BASIC: Altair BASIC was an interpreter that translated instructions from the BASIC programming language into assembly instructions that the Altair 8800 could understand. It was developed by Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the founders of Micro-soft, specifically for the Altair 8800 and it would fit in 4K of memory. Unlike previous hackers and against the Hacker Ethic, Micro-Soft and MITS felt that people should pay for BASIC just like they paid for any add-on card. Many hackers had in fact put in orders for BASIC, but still had to wait for the order to be shipped. During a show put up by MITS, someone got hold of and copied a paper tape containing Altair BASIC. The tapes were duplicated and passed around freely before the commercial product was even shipped to customers. Gates and Allen did not appreciate this turn of events since they were actually paid commission for each copy of BASIC that MITS sold. Gates responded by writing an open letter titled “Open Letter to Hobbyists” that considered the sharing of software to be theft. Tiny BASIC was a similar interpreter that would fit in only 2K of memory as it supported a subset of the functionality of Micro-Soft BASIC (which itself was a subset of Dartmouth BASIC). It was developed by Dick Whipple and John Arnold in Tyler, Texas and distributed freely in PCC magazine. Many more people sent in improvements and programs developed in Tiny BASIC to be published. This eventually led to the creation of Dr. Dobb’s Journal edited by Jim Warren that distributed free or very inexpensive software in response to Gates’ claims of theft. Tom Pittman was someone else who did not take kindly to Gates’ words. He wrote a version of Tiny BASIC for the Motorola 6800 microprocessor. Although he sold it to AMI for $3,500, he retained the rights to sell it to others and decided to charge only $5 for it. He received many orders and even money from people who had already gotten a copy and simply wanted to pay him for his efforts. Pittman also wrote the essay “Deus Ex Machina” on the AI and hardware hackers and what tied them together. Lee Felsenstein and Bob Marsh banded together to create a fully contained computer for an issue of Popular Electronics that they called SOL that sold for under a thousand dollars.
12. Woz or Steve Wozniak was a hardware hacker since high school. Along with another friend he went to the first Homebrew meeting and was happy to have found people with similar interests in hardware and computers. He was working for Hewlett-Packard at the time he built his own computer based on the MOS Technology 6502 microprocessor. He was able to build a machine with fewer chips by thinking about problems in clever and different ways. Wozniak was friends with Steve Jobs, who worked for Atari at the time. Jobs was interested in the computer Wozniak had built and thought they should make more of these machines and sell them. Wozniak had to ask HP for permission because he worked for them, but they did so because they did not believe that it was marketable. They decided to call their company Apple and sell their machines for $666.66. Their software and diagrams were available to others for free or for a minimal cost. They soon followed their first computer with the Apple II that would spark a revolution in the computer industry. They built their company out of their garages with Steve Jobs taking care of managing the company, while Steve Wozniak hacked at the hardware. At the Homebrew club their machine was hailed by some, while others felt that the Sol machine was more adequate since it used more “standard” parts and software.
13. Secrets: The West Coast Computer Faire, organized by Jim Warren and Bob Reiling in 1977, was amongst the first signs that a new industry was about to take off and that it would take computers into the houses of ordinary people. Machines like the Commodore PET and the Radio Shack TRS-80 came into the market and sold in big numbers. The Hacker Ethic fell to the wayside as companies started to keep their hardware and software specifications secret because of the competition. The Homebrew members started to dwindle as many hackers had either formed their own companies or had become employed and could not divulge what they knew anymore. Others were too busy to even attend the meetings. It signaled a shift in the hacker culture.
Part Three: Game Hackers
14. The Wizard and the Princess: Ken and Roberta Williams were the founders of Sierra On-Line, one of the first computer gaming companies, and among a new generation of hackers. Ken learned programming on his own while doing work for different companies on mainframes. Ken got Roberta hooked to computers when he showed her the Adventure game written by Don Woods. Ken was not as interested in the game as Roberta who immersed herself in it. The couple were parents of two small children at the time. Ken’s younger brother had bought an Apple II, and soon afterwards Ken bought one as well. He decided to write a FORTRAN compiler and hired five other programmers to help him with it. Meanwhile Roberta devised a game of her own based on Adventure which they called Mystery House. Ken scrapped the compiler project and instead wrote the code for the game. They talked to Programma, the biggest distributor of Apple software, and they were offered 25% in royalty, which could have netted them more than $9,000. Instead they decided they wanted all the profits and sold the game independently. They started making tens of thousands of dollars each month just from their games, while Ken was still working for a company and making $42,000 a year. Ken quit his job and they moved to the woods in Oakhurst, California to live out their dream life. Their second game, Wizard and the Princess made them even more money and that was only the beginning of a new genre of commercial software, games.
15. Brotherhood: Computers began to be bought by people who had no wish to program them, but rather bought their software at computer stores. Games were the hot item when it came to software. Among the game companies of the time were On-Line, Brøderbund (the Brotherhood), and Sirius Software. Some of these companies formed a sort of brotherhood of their own by communicating and cooperating with each other.
16. The Third Generation consisted of hackers who had much more access to computers than the former hardware hackers. Personal computers were becoming popular to the point where high school kids could afford them. Among this new generation was John Harris (software developer), an Atari assembly hacker, who later produced games for On-Line.
17. Summer Camp was the nickname for On-Line’s headquarters. The staff partied and had fun whenever they were not working. The atmosphere was very casual and free-spirited, but it could not last as the company was growing.
18. Frogger: John Harris decided to port the arcade classic to the Atari 800 computer for On-Line systems. He spent a lot of time and energy perfecting the game, but his disks were stolen before he even finished the game at a trade show. He was devastated as he had also lost his entire software library. His relationship with Ken Williams suffered as John was unable to return to programming for two months. He eventually remade Frogger and the game was a big success for On-Line, but the atmosphere had changed. Ken no longer believed that business could go along with hackers and their ethic, instead it had to become more professional. He realized that he needed some professional management to handle On-Line which had grown beyond his control. Ken decided on Dick Sunderland, his former boss who had told him that he had “no management potential,” for On-Line’s president. However, Ken could not remove himself from the company matters. Although he knew that he had to let a non-hacker run the company, he could not get away from the fun and excitement.
19. Applefest: The Third Generation was not as interested in the Hacker Ethic, instead sales figures started to matter a lot more, and many software companies started using copy protection mechanisms to prevent their software from being used without permission. Hackers saw these mechanisms as just another form of locks to be picked in order to liberate the software (see also Software cracking). Mark Duchaineau was a hacker who came up with a protection scheme called “Spiradisk” for the Apple computer. This scheme actually made the software loading process faster by loading data in spirals instead of in concentric circles. He started working for On-Line, which actually wanted him to use more conventional protection schemes. Mark basically held On-Line hostage by insisting on implementing copy protection on their big release, Ultima II, with his Spiradisk scheme rather than conventional ones. The game could not be released without copy protection for fear of unauthorized copying. The 1982, San Francisco Applefest was among the last important Applefests, and it signaled a shift in company attitudes. From the days of the Brotherhood, to the new, more business oriented, competitive atmosphere.
20. Wizard vs. Wizards was a televised contest devised by Tom Tatum and held in Las Vegas, where game authors would compete by playing each other’s games.
Epilogue: The Last of the True Hackers
Richard Stallman, also known as RMS as per his initials, was called by Levy the “last of the true hackers”. This did not mean “last real hacker”, but rather the last faithful member of the class of hackers that Levy called the “true hackers”. Stallman was getting a physics degree from Harvard at the same time as he was hacking at MIT’s Tech Square building. He was for people cooperating instead of competing, and he did not like computers that restricted user access to computers through passwords. He advocated choosing the empty password so anyone could use the computers. RMS also wrote the text editor EMACS and shared it on the condition that those who modify its source code also share their modifications.
While RMS was fighting to keep the Hacker Ethic going with the computers at MIT, Richard Greenblatt and other AI hackers came up with a LISP machine and sought to form a company to sell them. Greenblatt was unwilling to yield to business pressures and wanted to form a company that would maintain the Hacker Ethic. Many others disagreed and the result was two competing companies. LISP Machine Incorporated, or LMI, was headed by Greenblatt, and Symbolics was headed by Russ Noftsker. Symbolics hired most of the lab hackers, and a schism was created between the two groups of hackers, to the point where some would not even talk to each other.
Stallman saw a whole hacker culture die as the existing hackers left for these companies and there were no new hackers to fill their shoes. RMS held Symbolics responsible for the lab’s death, and set out to help their competitor LMI in response. RMS subsequently launched development of the GNU operating system, based on the UNIX design but following the principles of free software.