Originally, a ‘hacker’ was ‘someone who made furniture with an axe’. Transpose the image to coding and a hacker becomes someone who knocks code into shape with speed, making something from it that is both elegant and useful. In the language of the early hackers of the AI Lab, as recorded in the ‘jargon file’, a hacker was ‘a person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary’
A hacker was also described as ‘one who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorising about programming’. The hackers of the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) and later the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT saw programming not as a job but a creative adventure – a chance to stretch their horizons.
Programming wasn’t just a means to an end, but a source of creativity and fun, a subversive path to an elegant solution. One of the very early definitions of the word ‘hack’ was: ‘to explore the basements, roof ledges, and steam tunnels of a large, institutional building, to the dismay of Physical Plant workers and (since this is usually performed at educational institutions) the Campus Police. This activity has been found to be eerily similar to playing adventure games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Zork’.
The hackers of the TMRC were also known as The Midnight Requisition Committee, in recognition of their sometimes illicit midnight forays through the corridors of Building 20 to collect electrical bits and pieces for the layout tables, or Building 26 to steal time on the TX-0 computer late at night. As recorded in Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution: “When no person in his right mind would have signed up for an hour-long session on the piece of paper posted every Friday beside the air conditioner in the RLE lab… the TMRC hackers, who soon were referring to themselves as TX-0 hackers, changed their lifestyle to accommodate the computer.”
These hackers developed the first Lisp machine, the first computer games, the first music software and the first display hacks. The limits and potential of their programming activities were described by The Hacker Ethic. Among hackers, programming was elevated to something like an art form. As Michael Cardell, a later advocate, tells it: “A true hacker is generally able to appreciate what is called ‘hack value’, a mysterious entity found in great works of art, great theories, workmanship, music and, of course, computer programs”. This spirit of playfulness and creativity was inherited by GNU and the free software movement as free software evolved through the Eighties. Free software was idealistic and serious, but always had elements of playfulness too, reflected in a compulsive use of wordplay. Stallman’s humorous adoption of the persona of St iGNUcius and the Church of Emacs is itself reminiscent of the tradition of the hacker koans (humorous short stories about computer science) of an earlier era.
When Linux arrived in the early Nineties, Linus Torvalds made the fortunate decision to release the Linux kernel under the GPL and to announce his project on Usenet, which made it easy for others to contribute and participate. The arrival of Linux happily coincided with the arrival of the World Wide Web and the explosion of the internet. The community that grew around GNU and Linux during its first decade was dominated by hobbyists and students, and was dedicated to experiment and fun, impossible dreams and improbable success. Very few kernel hackers were able to make a living directly from their work on the kernel until the turn of the decade, when the UNIX companies began to realise the latent value of Linux and free software and the advantage of employing those that had made it possible.
The kernel, and other components of the free software stack, are now seen as the key elements of an increasingly diverse array of corporate product lines, which may be a good thing. Free and open source software has opened opportunities to everyone, but the spirit and playfulness lives on in the community distributions and non-commercial projects, which are dedicated to expression and exploration of ideas. Hobbyists still have a role in keeping software alive and free.