Bits of Freedom
Bits of Freedom

Tinkerer and thinker on everything free and open. Exploring possibilities and engaging with new opportunities to instigate change.

Jonas Öberg
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Jonas is a dad, husband, tinkerer, thinker and traveler. He's passionate about the future and bringing people together, from all fields of free and open.

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Bits of Freedom

St. Olaf's GNU

Jonas ÖbergJonas Öberg

Over the past close to 20 years, I've spoken to, and interviewed, many hackers from the free software movements' early days. One of my pet projects, which I'm gathering more data for at the moment, is writing a book tentatively called "Untold stories & unsung heroes". Here's a draft excerpt of one of those stories. Do you want to read more? Well, I guess you should then fund me to write the book properly :-)


The VAX 11/780 at St. Olaf's College in Minnesota wasn't equipped to handle 30 concurrent users running GNU Emacs, and barely anyone used it. But after stumbling over a tape reel from the "Unix Users of Minnesota" group containing Emacs, Mike Haertel was hooked.

While Emacs had been around for a while, and the GNU C Compiler reached St. Olaf's on another tape reel in 1987, it was grep, join, and diff which became Mike's project for a few months in the summer of 1988 when he joined fellow St. Olaf's student Pete TerMaat as a programmer for the FSF in Boston. It wasn't uncommon for the FSF to hire programmers for the summer, and some of them stayed on for long after. With Mike working on the utilities, Pete took to maintaining gdb.

"After Richard hired me for the summer (based on one code sample that I had emailed him, and no interview, and no resume, and neverhaving met me!) he asked me if there was anybody else I could recommend who might be interested. I thought about the skills of the other programmers I knew from St. Olaf and decided to try to recruit Pete. He was a bit of a hard sell, but eventually I convinced him to write some sample code and send it to Richard," recalls Mike.

Without intention, St. Olaf's had become a recruitment ground for the FSF, at least for that summer. With Mike and Pete on board, Mike's old flatmate from St. Olaf's, David Mackenzie, wasn't far behind.

While working for the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, DC, David took to rewriting some of the standard tools then available in 4.3BSD, improving them and resolving some of their limitations. As the Environmental Defense Fund wasn't in the software business, they saw no value in the tools David were writing and allowed him to contribute this back to the GNU Project.

"I was tired of editing Makefiles several times a day," David Mackenzie told me, as an interview with him turned to his later work. Having worked for the FSF as a summer intern, David continued contributing code and eventually found himself as the maintainer of a small mountain of packages.

Taking an hour here and there, as he could and as it was needed, autoconf eventually grew out of the necessity of making the GNU fileutils compile on several different flavors of Unix, each with their own specific needs.

"I'm glad people are still keeping that software useful and up to date, and I'm glad I don't have to do it," he says.

Jonas Öberg
Author

Jonas Öberg

Jonas is a dad, husband, tinkerer, thinker and traveler. He's passionate about the future and bringing people together, from all fields of free and open.