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Prologue: The Real Programmers

In the beginning, there were Real Programmers.

That's not what they called themselves. They didn't call themselves ``hackers,'' either, or anything in particular; the sobriquet ``Real Programmer'' wasn't coined until after 1980. But from 1945 onward, the technology of computing attracted many of the world's brightest and most creative minds. From Eckert and Mauchly's ENIAC onward there was a more or less continuous and self-conscious technical culture of enthusiast programmers, people who built and played with software for fun.

The Real Programmers typically came out of engineering or physics backgrounds. They wore white socks and polyester shirts and ties and thick glasses and coded in machine language and assembler and FORTRAN and half a dozen ancient languages now forgotten. These were the hacker culture's precursors, the largely unsung protagonists of its prehistory.

From the end of World War II to the early 1970s, in the great days of batch computing and the ``big iron'' mainframes, the Real Programmers were the dominant technical culture in computing. A few pieces of revered hacker folklore date from this era, including the well-known story of Mel (included in the Jargon File), various lists of Murphy's Laws, and the mock-German ``Blinkenlights'' poster that still graces many computer rooms.

Some people who grew up in the ``Real Programmer''' culture remained active into the 1990s. Seymour Cray, designer of the Cray line of supercomputers, is said to have once toggled an entire operating system of his own design into a computer of his own design. In octal. Without an error. And it worked. Real Programmer macho supremo.

On a lighter note, Stan Kelly-Bootle, author of The Devil's DP Dictionary (McGraw-Hill, 1981) and folklorist extraordinaire, programmed on the Manchester Mark I, the first fully-operational stored-program digital computer, in 1948. Nowadays he writes technical humor columns for computing magazines which often take the form of a vigorous and knowing dialogue with today's hacker culture.

Others, such as David E. Lundstrom, have written anecdotal histories of those early years ( A Few Good Men From UNIVAC, 1987).

What did the ``Real Programmer'' culture in was the rise of interactive computing, the universities, and the networks. These gave birth to a continuous engineering tradition that, eventually, would evolve into today's open-source hacker culture.

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Last updated: 1999-08-06