raspberry-pi A look back: Unix from 50 years ago

We've come a long way in technical writing. If you'd like to see how technical writers did their work in the 1970s, watch this video.

We don't really think about what "Unix" means anymore. If you use Linux, you may think of it as Unix, but Linux is a much more modern Unix that goes well beyond what "Unix" aimed to do.

But you can still run Linux like the original Unix. And as an experiment, I did exactly that.

A brief history

My favorite story about Unix was how it became a text processing platform. The first Unix prototype ran on an old PDP-7 minicomputer. When the Unix team wanted to replace the PDP-7 with a new PDP-11, Bell decided they didn't want to get into the operating systems market, and denied the request. 

Around the same time, the Patents team wanted to purchase a document processing system to write patent applications. They were ready to select a hardware vendor, but the software wouldn't be ready for some time. The Unix team convinced the Patents team to purchase a new computer for them to continue working on Unix, and the Unix team would update an existing document processing system to support the necessary features to write patent applications.

Unix 1st Edition (1971) ran on the new PDP-11 computer at Bell Labs, and was mostly for internal use within the Labs plus the Patents team. This early Unix included lots of commands that modern Linux users would recognize, plus a tool called runoff that was an early text formatting system. Unix 2nd Edition (1972) added more features, including a new version of runoff called nroff. But it was Unix 3rd Edition (1973) that modern Linux users might recognize as "Unix," with pipes that allow users to string multiple commands together.

Watch it in action

As an experiment, I ran my desktop Linux system like it was Unix from 50 years ago. I used a shell called Cool Retro Term to simulate an old Unix plain text "green screen" terminal, and only used the commands available in Unix 3rd Edition. That meant I could only use the ed editor, because full-screen editors like vi weren't invented yet.

Among the tasks I set myself in this "old Unix" scenario was writing documentation like it was 50 years ago. If you'd like to see how technical writers did their work in the 1970s, watch my video: