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Bill Joy, "Outliers–The Story of Success", "the Dream of a Lifetime", and no MTS charges?


Bill Joy

Bill Joy was a student at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s. He also worked for Gary Pirkola at the UM Computing Center doing performance measurements and analysis on the MTS file system. He didn't write the Visual command in the MTS Editor, but was around when Viktors Berstis did that work. I've no idea if the speculation that the name of Bill's Unix editor, vi, was inspired by the MTS Editor's visual command is true or not. 

In his book Outliers - The Story of Success (2008, Little, Brown and Company, New York), Malcolm Gladwell talks about Bill Joy and the time Bill spent at the University of Michigan's Computer [sic] Center in the early 1970s accumulating some of the 10,000 hours of experience that Gladwell claims is necessary to become a master in pretty much any field. Starting on page 44 Gladwell tells this story:

This is where Michigan came in, because Michigan was one of the first universities in the world to switch over to time-sharing. By 1967, a prototype of the system was up and running. By the early 1970s, Michigan had enough computing power that a hundred people could be programming simultaneously in the Computer Center. "In the late sixties, early seventies, I don't think there was anyplace else that was exactly like Michigan," Mike Alexander, one of the pioneers of Michigan's computing system, said. "May be MIT. Maybe Carnegie Mellon. Maybe Dartmouth. I don't think there were any others."

This was the opportunity that greeted Bill Joy when he arrived on the Ann Arbor campus in the fall of 1971. He hadn't chosen Michigan because of its computers. He had never done anything with computers in high school. He was interested in math and engineering. But when the programming bug hit him in his freshman year, he found himself--by the happiest of accidents--in one of the few places in the world where a seventeen-year-old could program all he wanted.

"Do you know what the difference is between the computing cards and time-sharing?" Joy says. "It's the difference between playing chess by mail and speed chess." Programming wasn't  an exercise in frustration anymore. It was fun.

"I lived in the north campus, and the Computer Center was in the north campus," Joy went on. "How much time did I spend there? Oh, a phenomenal amount of time. It was open twenty-four hours. I would stay there all night, and just walk home in the morning. In an average week in those years, I was spending more time in the Computer Center than on my classes. All of us down there had this recurring nightmare of forgetting to show up for class at all, of not even realizing we were enrolled.

"The challenge was that they gave all the students an account with a fixed amount of money, so your time would run out. When you signed on, you would put in how long you wanted to spend on the computer. They gave you, like, an hour of time. That's all you'd get. But someone figured out that if you put in 'time equals' and then a letter, like t equals k, they wouldn't charge you," he said, laughing at the memory. "It was a bug in the software. You could put in t equals k and sit there forever."


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2. Bill Joy talks about the past and the future and mentions MTS

posted Sep 20, 2010, 9:02 AM by Jeff Ogden   [ updated Jun 1, 2014, 8:07 PM ]

In the article "The Dream of a Lifetime" from the August 2005 issue of TechnologyReview.com Bill Joy talks about the past and the future and says nice things about MTS and the Merit Network in passing:

 . . .

Dormouse [What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, 2005, by John Markoff, Penguin Books]  tells the important story of what the Bay Area did for computing. But as I read the book, I found myself thinking about other early history, stories not centered on the West Coast. While the PC was born in California, its conception required important contributions from other parts of the country.

Today, PCs are highly networked, run multiple applications at the same time (much as the time-sharing computers of the 1960s and 1970s supported multiple users), and have virtual memory to support large applications. These and many other key technical capabilities originated not in the counterculture of the West Coast, but in the great universities and research labs on the East Coast, in England, and even in the upper Midwest, where I grew up.

Around the time of Engelbart's NLS presentation, a practical implementation of a different set of groundbreaking computing concepts, far beyond a mere demonstration, appeared in the form of the Michigan Terminal System (MTS) operating system.

MTS was written for a mainframe--the IBM 360/67--that was one of the first computers to have virtual memory. IBM had 300 programmers writing a new operating system for this computer, but they were far behind schedule. So the staff at Michigan wrote MTS, which featured time-sharing, support for virtual memory, file sharing with protection, and many other functions in new combinations that were eventually to become key parts of the PC.

By 1967, MTS was up and running on the newly arrived 360/67, supporting 30 to 40 simultaneous users. Fully a year before MTS was finished, in 1966, Michigan began a related project, the Merit network, which would provide a way to network multiple systems. Like the early ARPAnet, Merit used minicomputers--Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP-11s--to connect larger machines to each other.

By the time I arrived as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in 1971, MTS and Merit were successful and stable systems. By that point, a multiprocessor system running MTS could support a hundred simultaneous interactive users, as well as remote graphics applications on computers such as the DEC 8/338 and 9/339--pioneering minicomputers with interactive vector graphics displays. MTS served as a campuswide network for these machines, and Merit soon connected the computers of the University of Michigan with those at other universities.

Similarly powerful systems were built on Digital Equipment PDP-10s at MIT, Stanford (SAIL), and Carnegie Mellon University, often, like Engelbart's NLS, with support from federal research funds. Markoff recounts in passing what I had forgotten (if I ever knew it)--that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were hanging out at SAIL long before the famous Jobs visit to PARC. SAIL, and similar systems, had much greater importance in the birth of the PC than is generally acknowledged. In my view, these systems underpin, as much as Engelbart's work does, personal computing.

 . . .


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1. Does anyone remember this bug?

posted Aug 30, 2010, 7:33 AM by Jeff Ogden   [ updated Dec 1, 2010, 3:42 PM ]

Does anyone remember the "no MTS charges" bug?  Did it really exist?  Was it fixed?  I assume that it had to do with setting an invalid global time limit:  $SIGNON  ccid  T=k.

And by-the-way it was the 'Computing Center' and not the 'Computer Center'.


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