Confessions of a Happy Hacker

Steele, Guy. The Hacker's Dictionary: a Guide to the World of Wizzards. Harper & Row, 1983.

I was a teen-age hacker.

When I was about twelve or so, a lab secretary at MIT who knew I was "interested in science" (it might be more accurate to say "a latent nerd") arranged for one of the computer hackers there to give me an informal tour. I remembered stumbling around racks full of circuit boards and wires, a screeching cabinet that printed a full page every six seconds, and rows of blinking lights: the computer room was crammed full of equipment with no obvious organization. One set of gray cabinets had some trophies and plaques sitting on it: this was the PDP-7 computer that, running a program called MacHack, consistently won prizes by outwitting human players in chess tournaments. This PDP-6 was also versatile: it had two speakers and a stereo amplifier sitting on top of it. The hacker typed a couple of commands on a keyboard, and the PDP-7 burst into a Bach Brandenburg Concerto (no. 6, as I recall).

One part of that tour stands out most clearly in my mind. I was told to sit down in front of a large, round, glass screen, and given a box that had some buttons and a stick on the top. My hacker guide typed a command on the keyboard, and suddenly, green and purple space ships appeared on the screen! The purple one started shooting little red dots at the green one, which was soon obliterated in a multicolored shower of sparkles. The green ship was "mine," and the hacker had expertly shot it down. This was a color version of Space War, one of the very first video games.

Remember that this was years before "Apple" and "TRS-80" had become household words. Back then computers were still rather mysterious, hidden away in giant corporations and university laboratories. Playing Space War was fun, but I learned nothing of programming then. I had the true fascination of computers revealed to me in November, 1968, when a chum slipped me the news that our school (Boston Latin School, of Boston, Massachusetts) had an IBM computer locked up in the basement. I was dubious. I had earlier narrowly avoided buying from a senior a ticket to the fourth-floor swimming pool (Boston Latin has only three stories, and no swimming pool at all), and assumed this was another scam. So of course I laughed in his face.

When he persisted, I checked it out. Sure enough, in a locked basement room was an IBM 1130 computer. If you want all the specs: 4090 words of memory, 16 bits per word, a 15-character-per-second Selectric ("golf ball") printer, and a card reader (model 1442) that could read 300 cards per minute. Yes, this was back in the days of punched cards. Personal computers were completely unheard-of then.

Nominally the computer was for the training of juniors and seniors, but I cajoled a math teacher into lending me a computer manual and spent all of Thanksgiving vacation reading it.

I was hooked.

No doubt about it. I was born to be a hacker. Fortunately, I didn't let my studies suffer (as many young hackers do), but every spare moment I thought about the computer. It was spellbinding, I wanted to know all about it: what it could and couldn't do, how its programs worked, what its circuits looked like. During study halls, lunch, and after school, I could be found in the computer room, punching programs onto cards and running them through the computer.

I was not the only one. Very soon there was a small community of IBM 1130 hackers. We helped to maintain the computer and we tutored our less fanatical fellow students in the ways of computing. What could possibly compensate us for these chores? Free rein in the computer room.

Soon after that, I developed into one of the unauthorized but tolerated "random people" hanging around the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. A random hacker is to a computer laboratory much as a groupie is to a rock band: not really doing useful work, but emotionally involved and contributing to the ambiance, if nothing else. After a while, I was haunting the computer rooms at off-hours, talking to people but more often looking for chances to run programs. Sometimes "randoms" such as I were quite helpful, operating the computers for no pay and giving advice to college students who were having trouble. Sometimes, however, we were quite a nuisance. Once, I was ejected from the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory by none other than Richard Greenblatt, the very famous hacker who wrote the MacHack program with whic the PDP-7 had won its chess trophies. He threw me out because I was monopolizing the one terminal that produced letter-quality copy. (I was using the computer to write "personalized" form letters to various computer manufacturers, asking for machine manuals.) I deserved to be tossed out, and gave him no argument. But when you're hooked, you're hooked, and I was undaunted: within a week or two I was back again.

Eventually I got a part-time job as a programmer at MIT's Project MAC computer laboratory. There I became a full-pledged member of the hacker community, and ultimately an MIT graduate student.

I was never a lone hacker, but one of many. Despite stories you may have read about anti-social nerds glued permanently to display screens, totally addicted to the computer, hackers have (human) friends too. Often these friendships are formed and maintained through the computer.

At one time, the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory had one common telephone number, extension 6765, and a public-address system. The phone was answered "six-seven-six-five," or sometimes "Fibonacci of twenty," since, as mathematicians know, 6765 is the twentieth Fibonacci number. Through this number and the public-address system, it was easy to call and reach anyone and everyone. In particular, one could easily ask, "Who wants to go for Chinese food?" and get ten or fifteen people for an expedition.

"Unfortunately," says MIT hacker Richard Stallman, "most of the people and terminals have moved to other floors, where the 6765 number does not reach. The ninth floor, the lab's ancient heart, is becoming totally filled with machines, leaving no room for people, who must move to other floors. Now I can't even call up and find out if anyone is hungry."

Stallman can, however, still call us all up using the computer. Through timesharing (where many people use one computer) and networking (where many computers are connected together), the computer makes possible a new form of human communication, better than the telephone and the postal system put together. You can send a message by electronic mail and get a reply within two minutes, or you can just link two terminals together and have a conversation.

MIT has no monopoly on hackers. In the 1960s and 1970s hackers congregated around any computer center that made computer time available for "play," (Some of this play turned out to be very important work, but hacking is done mostly for fun, for its own sake, for the pure joy of it.) Because universities tend to be more flexible than corporations in this regard, most hackers' dens arose in university laboratories. While some of these hackers were unauthorized "random people" like me, many hackers were paid employees who chose to stay after hours and work on their own project -- or even continue their usual work -- purely for pleasure.