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UNIX: A History and a Memoir

Brian W Kernighan · 123 HN points · 15 HN comments
HN Books has aggregated all Hacker News stories and comments that mention "UNIX: A History and a Memoir" by Brian W Kernighan.
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Amazon Summary
The fascinating story of how Unix began and how it took over the world. Brian Kernighan was a member of the original group of Unix developers, the creator of several fundamental Unix programs, and the co-author of classic books like "The C Programming Language" and "The Unix Programming Environment."
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Hacker News Stories and Comments

All the comments and stories posted to Hacker News that reference this book.
“UNIX: A History and a Memoir” by Kernighan is a really fun read. Just published a few years ago as well.

You know what I'd really like to see?

The Story Of C, by Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze.

Kurtwood Smith plays old Kernighan. Peter Boyle or Christopher Lloyd as old Ritchie.

I can't wait till I can type that into an AI prompt.

Nov 21, 2022 · pushedx on Music Mouse
“UNIX: A History and a Memoir” by Kernighan is a really fun read. Just publushed a few years ago as well.

> What was the origin of the idea that the Unix philosophy is "do one thing and do it well"?

Relatedly: Brian Kernighan's Unix: A History and a Memoir was an enjoyable read. (not an affiliate link).

"UNIX: A History and a Memoir" by B. Kernighan features both Unix creation and Bell Labs culture of its time.

I learned from that article that the shell had been around in Multics for 5 years before UNIX inherited the concept! There were no pipes, but it seems like there were command-line arguments even in Louis Pouzin's shell. Does anyone know what it was called? Wikipedia only knows the Thompson shell [0].

"i decided that it was close to a time sharing system, just lacking an exec call, a shell, an editor, and an assembler. (no compilers) the exec call was trivial and the other 3 were done in 1-week each" ... "in mid to late 1969" - Ken Thompson [1]


[1] Page 34, UNIX: A History and a memoir - Brian Kernighan.

Louis Pouzin's shell was called RUNCOM ? Is that what you're asking or something else?

Anyway this was a neat article, and I only knew of the Thompson shell as well. I knew that Multics had a shell but I didn't know anything about them.

Wikipedia knows of his invention and coinage of the term "shell":

For anyone interested in the history of UNIX development, Brian Kernhigan's "UNIX: A History and a Memoir" is a quick and enlightening read. I loved the history, and I came away with a better understanding of today's cli environment as well.

I found the title a little misleading. A better title might have been "A History of Bell Labs Center 1127".

A large chunk of the book is anecdotes about the people who worked with Mr. Kernhigan, most of which are delightful. I highly recommend the book. There's a huge section on how they had to hack the hell out of their new printer to get it to work properly. Printer drivers have been crap and the hardware cursed since the invention of printers.

This isn't entirely specific to the internet, but rather the development of UNIX. Brian Kernighan's UNIX: A History and a Memoir [0] is great. It covers a bit of the technical underpinnings of UNIX, but also covers the people and personalities behind its development. It helped me better understand many of the tools we still use today.

UNIX: A History and a Memoir by Brian Kernighan is excellent. It traces the history of Unix from the early days at Bell Labs through the period where it reached widespread use in the rest of the world. It's a fascinating history of people building the command line tools that we still use today, and the environment that allows those tools to be combined in powerful ways.

I came away with a much clearer picture of how these systems were developed, and I am a little better on the command line for understanding the original philosophy better as well.

The recent book by Brian Kernighan, "UNIX: A History and a Memoir" [1], was a fascinating personal memoir about the birth of Unix as well as how things used to work at AT&T Bell Labs.


Recently someone on HN recommended Unix: A History and a Memoir by Brian Kernighan. I'm almost finished, and it's been a wonderful read.

I love reading about the development of early programming languages and computing environments, but I was surprised to find how helpful it is for deepening my understanding of things I use every day. It's amazing to me that tools like grep, which I use without a second thought, were written in the 1960s and 1970s and the code behind them hasn't been changed all that much.

Not a history book, per se, but a great tour into the culture and philosophy of Unix: The Art of Unix Programming [1], by Eric Raymond. Chapter 2 is titled "History."

You also have resources like The Unix Heritage Society [2], who show a timeline of historic events on their wiki [3].

I bought Brian Kernighan's memoir [4], which so far is an incredibly detailed and personal account of his time at BTL.





It's now available. Big thanks to BWK for doing this.

Australia: A$11.99 [my local site]

or US$8.20

vs printed book US$18

As others have noticed, there is no Kindle version. Look Inside is enabled so you can start reading in-browser:

While the story/writing is interesting, like most self-published titles this book needs some professional layout/editing help. The second and sixth pages of chapter 1 are full page Google Maps of central NJ and Google Satellite view of Bell Labs. Eeek.

This may also be why there is no Kindle version yet. Many pages have full-color images and would need significant changes for a decent Kindle reading experience.

Oct 21, 2019 · 123 points, 22 comments · submitted by fjarlq
I wish I could see memoirs like this from Ken Thompson and Rob Pike.
Videos of Ken Thompson and Rob Pike telling Unix history stories:

Ken Thompson (interviewed by Brian Kernighan, 2019, starts after 7m38s):

Rob Pike (Unix History presentation, 2018, starts after 3m40s):

Ken Thompson interviewed by Kernighan is a real treat. I love this interview.
Thank you soooo much for posting the links to these. I'm just starting to dive in to the Thompson interview and it's amazing.

I strongly recommend anyone with even a vague interest in UNIX (well, obviously that would be everyone reading this HN thread) to watch these!

Rummaging around the local mall bookstore in ~1982, I came upon 'Software Tools in Pascal', by Kernighan and Plaugher. I fell in love with the ideas, and the prose. It became the first of what is now a nearly complete collection of everything Kernighan has published (I don't have the AMPL book, or 'D for Digital'.) I can't calculate how much I know because of Dr. Kernighan, or how much my career's course has been altered by the levers he's given me, but it's a large number.

This is now on my Amazon wish list (How many of you have private lists for 'things to remember and check out later?' Mine's called 'Random Followup Stuff')

You might find this interesting, then:

It's Kernighan's view of Pascal after writing "Software Tools in Pascal". It's not (as widely perceived) a hit piece on Pascal. It's Kernighan saying "I wrote the original 'Software Tools' in Ratfor. Rewriting it in Pascal should have been much easier than it was. Why?"

I know the piece well. Back when, my university used "Oh, Pascal!" to teach introductory programming to programmers. For worse reasons than Kernighan, I never liked that the length of an array was part of the type in Pascal, but, in retrospect, that might've saved a couple Trillion in buffer overflow problems.
At the price of being fundamentally unable to deal with variable-length arrays? That seems like taking away a rather fundamental ability.
Amazon is returning a 404 on this item for me, when this post is 6 hours old. Googling for the book and following links gives similar 404 errors.
Interesting, it opened the Amazon page for me without issue...
Weird, URL is which loads for me.
I ordered a copy just now, but was somewhat disappointed that it didn't ship in tape format.
It's a long-proved bound paper-tape format.
Copyright 2020. Spooky.
$su date 010112012020
When I was a teenager, I bought a book from a bookstore that had a copyright date or printing date a month in the future. I was surprised that the date included the month, and realized the page has been laid out weeks in advance. But even so, it felt weird to own that book for that first month.
Zero mentions of Solaris. Surprising. BSD, Minix and Linux are mentioned. Even Santa Cruz Operation is mentioned. Bill Joy and Sun Microsystems are mentioned. Solaris was the most influential Unix of the 90’s so its omission is curious.
>Solaris was the most influential Unix of the 90’s so its omission is curious.

I think you meant 2000s because in the 90s Solaris was nothing special. All the interesting stuff (zones, SMF, dtrace, ZFS) was introduced in Solaris 10, which was released in 2005.

No I meant the 90’s. Solaris was the top platform for dotcom startups in the 90’s. By 2001-2002 the dotcom crash had happened. By the time the “interesting stuff” you mention were added, Solaris was waning in popularity.
True enough. But when it was big, it was nothing special. 2.2 (2, in the final number scheme) was pretty crashy. One would not expect a Bell Labs person to find a SysV variant interesting.

As I recall, solarix had Doors by 2001, but I can't remember what it was.

Solarix probably deserves mention if Tru64 nee OSF/1 did. Ah, the Unix Wars: Sunview vs. Motif, buggy vs. ugly.

Windows 95 was buggy too, but a history of OSes would be silly to leave it out
Buggy and ugly. But not Unix.
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