Multics and Mr. Rogers

Because nothing in this world lives or dies alone and because the obsessive dot-com deathwatch in the news could make a person think that what’s happening is the end of an era, I’d like to direct your attention to one of life’s quiet little synchronicities and the end of an actual computing era, which I’m defining as any period of time longer than the dot-com gold rush, which I’m in turn defining as “I’ve got shoes older than that.” Contemplate with me for a second the curious parallels between two recent events: the news early this month that the world’s last remaining Multics system has been decommissioned and the announcement that Fred Rogers, the beloved host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, is hanging up his cardigan for the very last time.

Most of us, born in the ’60s and ’70s, postdate both the gentle children’s show and the time-sharing, multi-user-capable ancestor of Unix and Linux. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired in February 1968, while the first Multics system—built as a joint project by MIT’s Project MAC (“Machine-Aided Cognition” or “Multiple-Access Computers”), Bell Telephone Labs, and General Electric—went online for paying customers in October 1969.

The two went on to varying degrees of success. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood became beloved of children and adults, with Rogers receiving a lifetime-achievement Emmy in 1998 for his good work in teaching children the importance of sharing, understanding their feelings, and liking themselves. Many parents like the television show because of its noncommercial ways and Rogers’ gentle but firm way of talking to children.

Multics, on the other hand, became a rarity, flourishing briefly in military, banking, and automotive settings but eventually relegated to a few small installations, such as the last one, located at a Nova Scotian outpost of the Canadian Department of National Defence. Many computer professionals disliked the system because of its noncommercial ways and Multics’ gentle but firm way of disallowing any add-on feature or instruction that wasn’t both well constructed and design-consistent with the basic system (“Multicious,” as the faithful say).

As the computing community reflects on the passing of that last 5-processor configuration perking away up in the wilds of Halifax, Peter Neumann, one of the men first charged with implementing the earliest Multics system and not incidentally the guy who coined the term “UNICS” (later spelled “Unix”), sent around the list of goals expressed for Multics back in ’65 by two of its creators. I’ve been looking at that list, and do you know what? I think that everything I needed to know about Multics, I got from Mr. Rogers.

Check out these eight goals set for Multics back in the day:

* Convenient remote terminal use. (Translation: “Hello, neighbor! Nice to see you.”)

* Continuous operation, like phone or utility service. (Translation: Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is the longest-running show on public television, and it’s somehow always there for you, even when you’re grown-up but too sick to watch anything more demanding on TV. And Mr. Rogers is always happy to have you visit.)

* A wide range of system configurations. (Translation: Sometimes the sport coat, sometimes the cardigan—it’s all good.)

* A highly reliable internal file system. (Translation: Keep things tidy and you’ll know where to find them.)

* Hierarchal structures of information. (Translation: The Neighborhood of Make-Believe has a king who is in charge of things, and he helps the kingdom solve its problems. See also that favorite Mr. Rogers song devoted to hierarchal structures: “Tree, tree, tree . . . We love you, Yes we do. . . . Tree, tree, tree.”)

* Support for a wide range of applications. (Translation: Everybody has feelings. It’s okay for people to have all different kinds of feelings.)

* Support for multiple environments and interfaces. (Translation: Sharing is fun.)

* The ability to evolve the system. (Translation: You’re growing up every day, and that’s nice.)

In his e-mail to the remaining Multics faithful, Neumann noted that these eight goals are still relevant today and still not as widely observed as they ought to be. But even though Multics itself didn’t succeed widely (and was considered by some observers to be “doomed” as early as 1967, as you, too, would be if a trilateral commission of MIT, Bell Labs, and GE was in charge of your development and fate), the system lives on in widely-used operating systems, such as Unix and Linux, and in that contrary foster child of Unix known as the Internet. And for propagating those big ideas—sharing, learning, growing, and playing fair—Mr. Rogers will be in reruns for a good long time.


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