History of Hacking

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This History of Hacking is intended to trace the history of the hacker culture. In order to be a member of a hacker culture, a person must have access to a computer, not just to use it, but to also play with it. Also, to be a member of a hacker culture, and not just a lone hacker, a hacker must be in contact with other hackers, preferably through the medium of the computer.


The Babbage Analytical Engine

The first computer honored in hacker lore was the Babbage Analytical Engine. This steam-driven mechanical computer was first described by Charles Babbage in 1837, but was never built. Victorian engineering not up to the task of making the parts with sufficent accuracy so Babbage was forced to invent new tools and procedures in machineing. Unfortunely, the delay this caused, and the endless personal struggles with Joseph Clement - the engineer hired to do the actual work(who after Babbage's death melted down for scrap the completed 12,000 parts of the Difference Engine)-only allowed one-seventh of the machine to be built at the time of Babbage's death in 1871. The plans and parts of the machine were willed to Babbage's youngest son, who used them to construct a simplified 'demonstration model' in 1888. This sucessfully calculated and printed the first 44 digits of pi.  Modern day analysis says that the computer would have worked, and that it was capable of the same functions as modern day computers. This was not the first computer, abacuses had been around for centuries. But it was the first computer that was something more than a simple adding machine. Its legacy inspired some of the electro-mechanical computers of the 1930s.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, became the worlds first computer programmer in 1843, when she described a program that could be run on the Analytical Engine. She was also the inventer of the 'conditional jump' in programming.  The Ada programming language is named in her honor.

The Birth of Science Fiction

Although science fiction is not directly related to computing, the hacker culture as a whole enjoys SF, and there is a massive overlap between hackerdom and science fiction fandom. Science fiction also had its start in the Victorian Era. Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth was written in 1864, and H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine in 1896. While not himself a Science Fiction author, Rudyard Kipling influenced later SF authors in the Golden Age of Science Fiction and beyond. His writing career began in 1886, with the publication of Departmental Ditties.


The company that became IBM started operations in 1888, and was incorporated June 15, 1911. Before the development of computers, it specialized in punch card machines. Punch cards became a primary means of interacting with computers in the early days.

Ham Radio

Ham, or amateur, radio developed at least as early as 1910. Many hams, with their background in electronics, became involved in computers later on. Ham radio takes advantage of a phenomenon known as ionosphere bounce, which allows radio waves to travel around the world. However, this only works at night, when solar radation is not disturbing the upper reaches of the atmosphere. This is an early precedent of the quasi-nocturnal nature of the hacker. This community, communicating with friends that they might never see face-to-face over low-bandwidth medium, also served as a precedent for later hacker communications mediums, such as Usenet, IRC, MUDs, and even this wiki.

Pre-Electronic Computers

Work continued on non-electronic computers, inspired in part by the Babbage Engine. An example is the Differential Analyzer, a mechanical analog computer designed by Vannevar Bush in 1927.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction

In 1937, John W Cambell took over editorship of the pulp science fiction magazine Astounding (which is still printed to this day under the name Analog). This event marked the beginning of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, as notable authors, such as Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, as well as Cambell himself, combined good solid story telling with solid (or at least plausible) science under his leadership. Somewhat before this, First Fandom arose out of the readership of the pulp magazines. According to some chronologies, the Golden Age came to an end during WWII, when the pulp magazines shut down due to paper shortages.

Stone Age

1943 - approx. 1955

The beginning of the Stone Age, and modern computing in general, is usually marked from the commissioning of ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) on May 17, 1943. It was the first all-electronic, Turing-complete computer, and was finished February 14, 1946.

Alan Turing

But the story of modern computing begins with Alan Turing. As one fortune file quote puts it, "Computer Science is merely the post-Turing decline of in formal systems theory." He authored "On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem", which was published May 28, 1936. In it, he described the Turing Machine, a theoritical computer. (Not to be confused with a computer which can pass the Turing Test. All modern day computers are Turing Machines, except that they have merely large, not infinite, amounts of memory.

When WWII broke out in 1939, Turing joined the code breaking team at Bletchley Park in Great Britain, cracking Nazi Germany's Enigma code. To help in this effort, the Colossus, the first programmable digital electronic computer was commisioned in 1943, and January of 1944, the Mark I was finished. The story of Bletchley Park has a role in the fictional historical novel Cryptnomicon, written by Neil Stephenson, who also wrote In the beginning was the command line.

Turing's work remained secret until the 1970s, since many Third World nations and coporations continued to use the Enigma cypher, and the Allied governments did not want them to know how easily they could decypher it. In 1952, Turing was convicted of being a homosexual (still a crime then!) and was given a hormone treatment with the goal of supressing his libido. In 1954, Turing committed suicide.

John von Neumann

Another Great Name from the Stone Age is John von Neumann. Turing was a student of his following the publication of the Entsheidungsproblem paper. (1936-1938) During the war, von Neumann was involved in the Manhattan Project. After the war, he began the study of game theory, and concieved the MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) doctrine. He also created the study of cellular automata, which in turned lead to the idea of the von Neumann replicator - the "nanites" of Star Trek.

He also invented the von Neumann machine.

von Neumann once spoke out against assemblers since it was the misuse of valuable scientific equipment (computers) for a clerical task that could be done by grad students. (Unfortunately I've been unable to relocate that quote.)

Vannevar Bush

A influential event that happend in the Stone Age was the publication of "As We May Think" by Vannevar Bush. This article descibed the memex system, and influenced the creation of the GUI at PARC as well as the system of hyperlinks that allows the World Wide Web to function.

The Model Railroad Club

In 1946, The Model Railroad Club (TMRC) of MIT was formed. Many of the members of TMRC later joined the MIT AI Lab and many of the earliest terms of the Jargon File come from there. (The most important being foo.)

The Technology of the Stone Age

The Stone Age of computing is called that partially because the technology of the time was based on glass vacuum tubes for processing and mecury-delay lines for memory. Computers were room-filling monstrosities that doubled as building heating plants. Entire teams of technicians were required to replace blown vacuum tubes. Input was mainly through punch cards and paper tape. Interaction with computers was generally through batch operations.

Bronze Age

mid 1950s - 1961

The Bronze Age is a transitional period in the history of computing. It began with the mainstream use of transistors and drum memory and ended with the mainstream introduction of core memory. Many chronologies consider the Bronze Age to be just the latter part of the Stone Age.

The transistor had been invented in 1947, but was not practical until transistors began to be made from silicon instead of germanium in the early 1950s. The integrated circuit had been conceived in 1952, and was independently developed in both 1958 and 1961.

During the Bronze Age, computers became cheap enough to be used by entities other than major governments. Now major universities and businesses could use them too. To cater to this market, the Datamation magazine began publication in 1957.

High level languages were developed at this time, as a quick-and-dirty way of making specific programs. They were used much the same way interpreted languages were used about 2000, and "serious" programs were still written using assembler or machine code. The first high level language was Fortran, which was designed 1954-57, and was used for mathematical calculations.

The computing field began to diverge culturally into business computing (this field is what data processing usually refers to) and university-based scientific computing (see Computer Science). The present-day hacker culture is mainly descended from the scientific computing community. MIT's AI Lab, one of the earliest centers of hacker culture, was founded in 1959.

The Bronze Age came to an end with the mainsteam introduction of core memory. Core memory was expensive to produce, since it required that conductive wire been handwoven around the doughnut-like cores. Core memory became practical when its production was moved to Third World countries in Asia, where the cost of labor was cheap. The Story of Mel takes place during the switchover to core memory.

Iron Age


The Iron Age is often bracketed by the release of the PDP-1 in 1960 and the release of the Intel 4004 in 1971. It was a formative period where the first hacker cultures were finally allowed to develop.

These cultures developed at major universities, and were brought together by the advent of timesharing operating systems. By this point, computers had become powerful enough that they could no longer be kept busy with batch programs. But at the same time, computers were expensive enough that hundreds of users were needed to justify the expense. The first timesharing OS was CTSS, which was developed in 1961. Email was introduced in 1965, as a means of users on the same computer to communicate with each other.

The first center of hacking, the MIT AI Lab, had already been founded in 1959. It spun-off Project MAC in 1963. Other major hacking cultures of this era include Stanford's AI Lab (SAIL) and Carnegie Mellon University's (CMU) computing program, both started in 1965.

Also in 1965, Moore's Law was formulated for the first time.

The end of the Iron Age came with the introduction of the first minicomputers in 1971. The name "mainframe computer" comes from the fact that one can fit in the CPU rack - or main frame - of an Iron Age era computer.

In 1969, the first ARPAnet link was created. Also in that year, the ITS operating system was written by programmers who disagreed with the direction that CTSS was heading, and Unix was first written. (See History of Unix.)

Elder Days



According to some, the elder days refer to the entire period before 1980. Others say that the elder days began with the introduction of the first mainframes in 1971. But it might be more useful to date it to 1969, when several very important events happened.

  • the first ARPAnet link was created.
  • the ITS operating system was written by programmers who disagreed with the direction that CTSS was heading
  • Unix, the most influential operating system in history, was first written. (See History of Unix.)

Other events in the mainframe world during the elder days:

  • In 1970, PARC opened.
  • In 1972, the email address convention of user@host was created for use on the ARPAnet.


In 1975, an entirely new class of computer was introduced in the form of the Altair - the microcomputer. The Altair wasn't much, but it was the first computer that was cheap enough to owned by a single person. With its introduction, an entire culture of hackers sprung into being, which had little to do with the older, timesharing-based hacker cultures.

CP/M (which had been developed a few years before) was the first (disk) operating system for the Altair.

Events of 1975:

As a foreshadowing of things to come, Bill Gates criticized the Homebrew Computer Club for freely distributing BASIC compilers and interpreters.

In 1976, the Apple computer company was founded by Steve Jobs and Steve "Woz" Wozniak, both members of the Homebrew Computer Club. In 1977, the Apple II was released.

Also in 1977, the Commodore PET and the Tandy TRS-80 were launched.

In December of 1979, at the very close of the elder days, an event happened that looms so large in legend that the legend obscures the true history. Steve Jobs came to PARC. PARC had been working on many concepts that would eventually make it into personal computing, including the GUI. Apple had already been working on a GUI-capable computer of their own - Project Lisa. It is not sure how much PARC influenced the development of the Macintosh. The main effect of the tour was that it let Apple's engineers know that certain things were even possible, such as bitblt, which enabled overlapping windows.

Other Events During the Elder Days

In the early 70s, modern-style Dynamic RAM, or DRAM, was introduced. It differed from the earlier core memory in that each bit had to be refreshed constantly - if power was cut, the stored information would be lost. One of the first projects to use DRAM was the MAXC, PARC's clone of the PDP-10. At that time, DRAM was difficult to produce, and quality control workers sorting for working chips out of batches of duds referred to the task as "polishing a turd". The MAXC frequently developed bad DRAM chips, which had to be replaced. The cost of DRAM alone was about a third of the total cost of the MAXC.

The Principa Discordia, the foundational text of the parody religion Discordianism, was released in 1968 - a little before the end of the Iron Age. The book became popular in the early 70s, and was quickly adopted by main in the hacker community or communities. In 1975, the Illuminatus! trilogy, which can be considered a novelization of the idea of the Principa Discordia, was published by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. This trilogy consists of five books in three volumes. This arrangement of five books in a trilogy is oddly similar to another series loved by hackers - the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy. This trilogy consists of the original three books, but when two additional books were written, the fans kept the name. This also oddly fits in with a Discordian belief/joke - the Law of Five, which states that everything somehow relates to the number five. For example, "Two is even. Three is odd. Two and Three make Five. Therefore, Five is both even and odd."

In 1972, the first video game, Pong, was released by Atari. Atari also released the first cartridge-based game console in 1977.

Sometime before 1971, the art of phone phreaking, or the hacking of phones, was developed. In 1971, it became popular with the counterculture yippies, and many of the early microcomputer hackers played with it. At this stage in its development, phone phreaking was done for reasons of curiosity and entertainment, not (or at least "not just") for profit, and abided by the hacker ethic.


In addition to the already existing ARPAnet, several networks began to spring up by the end of the elder days. In the microcomputer world, the first BBS went online in 1978, and in the mainframe world, the Usenet started in 1979. Usenet relied on UUCP or Unix-to-Unix Copying Protocol.


The paragraphs concerning PARC, including mainframe hackers' contempt for the microcomputers, the Steve Jobs tour, and the MAXC's DRAM problems, used Dealers of Lightning: XEROX PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael Hiltzik (ISBN 0-88730-891-0) as a reference.

The Microcomputer Era

The Great Microcomputer Crash of 1983

At the beginning of the 80s, the microcomputer world was getting crowded. In addition to Apple's offerings and the Tandy TRS-80, Commodore had released the Commodore 64, and Atari, seeing microcomputers as competition for their game console business, offered its own line of microcomputers.

IBM also entered the fray with the original IBM PC. IBM originally wanted CP/M as the operating system, but wound up going with Microsoft instead. Microsoft, at the time, was mainly known for its BASIC compilers and interpreters, and had no operating system of its own. So it bought one, QDOS or Quick-and-Dirty Operating System. It was later renamed DOS or Disk Operating System.

The overcrowding caused the microcomputer market to crash in 1983. Due to Atari's involvement, it also caused a crash in the game console market. Ironically enough, given later events, the IBM PC bombed in the home market, but found a niche market in businesses.

The Commercialization of Unix

Up until the early 80s, AT&T was not allowed to sell UNIX because of anti-trust regulations. So UNIX was fairly freely redistributed and modified. In the early 80s, AT&T was broken up into smaller companies and deregulated, removing this roadblock to the commercialization of UNIX. In protest of the closing of Unix, the GNU project was launched by Richard Stallman to clone a free version of Unix. Unix devolved into a maze of Unix-alikes, with varying degrees of inter-compatibility. Standards, such as Posix were created to address this problem, but to little avail. One factor in this failure was the existence of multiple standards. (Hence the hacker saying, "The great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from!")

See History of Unix.

The BBS scene and the Rise of the Crackers

With the spread of microcomputers, and the birth of the BBSs, large amounts of teenagers were allowed access to computers for the first time. Some BBSs developed "elite" sections, where trusted members exchanged warez - pirated software. This is where the term "leet" comes from. Leet is a written-only dialect which first developed on the BBSs, probably to defeat obscenity-censoring filter programs. Phone hacking became popular among BBS users, since it allowed hackers to connect to BBSs in other area codes without paying huge telephone bills.

In 1984, 2600, the "hacker's" quarterly, launched. Its name comes from the 2600 Hz tone used in certain phone hacking exploits.

Although the BBS "hackers" had little actual contact with the older hacker cultures, they did know of it, and used the name hackers themselves in their criminal (or at least youthfully irresponsible antics). To protect themselves from the negative publicity, old-school hackers tried to apply the term crackers to computer criminals, but with no great success.

Another event that sealed the hacker-as-criminal idea in the minds of the outsiders was the Morris sendmail worm or Great Worm of 1988.

The Rise of the GUI

Following the microcomputer crash of 1983, GUIs began to arrive on the computer scene. In 1984, Apple released the Macintosh. Commodore released the Amiga in 1985. Also in 1985, Microsoft released Windows 1.0.

IBM's PC had been bombed in the home market during the crash, but had found refuge in the business market. The existence of PC clones, from manufacturers such as Compaq, caused IBM to lower prices, which in turn encouraged sales.

See also