Sep 22, 2019
Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us for the innovations of the future! Today we’re going to look at the Tech Model Railroad Club, an obsessive group of young computer hackers that helped to shape a new vision for the young computer industry through the late 50s and early 60s. We’ve all seen parodies it in the movies. Queue up a montage. Iron Man just can’t help but tinker with new models of his armor. Then viola, these castaway hack jobs are there when a new foe comes along. As is inspiration to finish them. The Lambda Lamda Lamda guys get back at the jock frat boys in Revenge of the Nerds. The driven inventor in Honey I Shrunk the Kids just can’t help himself but build the most insane inventions. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters. There’s a drive. And those who need to understand, to comprehend, to make sense of what was non-sensical before. I guess it even goes back to Dr Frankenstein. Some science just isn’t meant to be conquered. But trains. Those are meant to be conquered. They’re the golden spike into the engineering chasm that young freshman who looked like the cast of Stand By Me, but at MIT, wanted to conquer. You went to MIT in the 50s and 60s because you wanted a deeper understanding of how the world worked. But can you imagine a world where the unofficial motto of the MIT math department was that “there’s no such thing as computer science. It’s witchcraft!” The Tech Model Railroad Club, or TMRC, had started in 1946. World War II had ended the year before and the first first UN General Assembly and Security Council met, with Iran filing the first complaint against the Soviet Union and UNICEF being created. Syria got their independence from France. Jordan got their independence from Britain. The Philippines gained their independence from the US. Truman enacted the CIA, Stalin accounted a 5 year plan for Russia, ushering in the era of Soviet reconstruction and signaling the beginning of the col war, which would begin the next year. Anti-British protests exploded in India, and Attlee agreed to their independence. Ho Chi Minh became president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and France recognized their statehood days later, with war between his forces and the French breaking out later that year resulting in French martial law. Churchill gave his famous Iron Curtain Speech. Italy and Bulgaria abolished their monarchies. The US Supreme Court ordered desegregation of busses and Truman ordered desegregation of the armed forces and created the Committee on Civil Rights using an executive order. And there was no true computer industry. But the ENIAC went into production in 1946. And a group of kids at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology weren’t thinking much about the new world order being formed nor about the ENIAC which was being installed just a 5 or 6 hour drive away. They were thinking about model trains. And over the next few years they would build, paint, and make these trains run on model tracks. Started by Walter Marvin and John Fitzallen Moore, who would end up with over a dozen patents after earning his PhD from Columbia and having a long career at Lockheed, EMI Medical who invented the CT scan. By the mid-50s the club had grown and there were a few groups of people who were really in it for different things. Some wanted to drink cocacola while they painted trains. But the thing that drew many a student though was the ARRC, or Automatic Railroad Running Computer. This was built by the Signals and Power Subcommittee who used relays from telephone switches to make the trains do all kinds of crazy things, even cleaning the tracks. Today there we’re hacking genes, going to lifehacker.com, and sometimes regrettably getting hacked, or losing data in a breach. But the term came from one who chops or cuts, going back to the 1200s. But on a cool day in 1955, on the third floor of Build 20, known as the Plywood Palace, that would change. Minutes of a meeting at the Tech Model Railroad Club note “Mr. Eccles requests that anyone working or hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing.” Maybe they were chopping parts of train tracks up. Maybe the term was derived from something altogether separate. But this was the beginning of a whole new culture. One that survives and thrives today. Hacking began to mean to do technical things for enjoyment in the club. And those who hacked became hackers. The OG hacker was Jack Dennis, an alumni of the TMRC. Jack Dennis had gotten his bachelors from MIT in 1953 and moved on to get his Masters then Doctorate by 1958, staying until he retired in 1987, teaching and influencing many subsequent generations of young hackers. You see, he studied artificial intelligence, or taking these computers built by companies like IBM to do math, and making them… intelligent. These switches and relays under the table of the model railroad were a lot of logical circuits strung together and in the days before what we think of as computers now, these were just a poor college student’s way of building a computer. Having skipped two grades in high school, this “computer” was what drew Alan Kotok to the TMRC in 1958. And incoming freshman Peter Samson. And Bob Saunders, a bit older than the rest. Then grad student Jack Dennis introduced the TMRC to the IBM 704. A marvel of human engineering. It was like your dad’s shiny new red 1958 corvette. Way too expensive to touch. But you just couldn’t help it. The young hackers didn’t know it yet, but Marvin Minsky had shown up to MIT in 1958. John McCarthy was a research fellow there. Jack Dennis got his PhD that year. Outside of MIT, Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby were giving us the Integrated Circuit, we got FORTRAN II, and that McCarthy guy. He gave us LISP. No, he didn’t speak with a LISP. He spoke IN LISP. And then president Lyndon Johnson established ARPA in response to Sputnik, to speed up technological progress. Fernando Corbato got his PhD in physics in 1956 and stayed on with the nerds until he retired as well. Kotok ended up writing the first chess program with McCarthy on the IBM 7090 while still a teenager. Everything changed when Lincoln Lab got the TX-0, lovingly referred to as the tikso. Suddenly, they weren’t loading cards into batch processing computers. The old IBM way was the enemy. The new machines allowed them to actually program. They wrote calculators and did work for courses. But Dennis kinda’ let them do most anything they wanted. So of course we ended up with very early computer games as well, with tic tac toe and Mouse in the Maze. These kids would write anything. Compilers? Sure. Assemblers? Got it. They would hover around the signup sheet for access to the tikso and consume every minute that wasn’t being used for official research. At this point, the kids were like the budding laser inventors in Weird Science. They were driven, crazed. And young Peter Deutsch joined them, writing the Lisp 1.5 implementation for the PDP at 12. Can you imagine being a 12 year old and holding your own around a group of some of the most influential people in the computer industry. Bill Gosper got to MIT in 1961 and so did the second PDP-1 ever built. Steve Russell joined the team and ended up working on Spacewar! When he wasn’t working on Lisp. Speaking of video games. They made Spacewar during this time with a little help from Kotok Steve Piner, Samson, Suanders, and Dan Edwards. In fact, Kotok and Saunders created the first gamepad, later made popular for Nintendo, so they could play Spacewar without using the keyboard. This was work that would eventually be celebrated by the likes of Rolling Stone and Space War and in fact would later become the software used to smoke test the PDP once it entered into the buying tornado. Ricky Greenblatt got to MIT in 1962. And this unruly, unkempt, and extremely talented group of kids hacked their way through the PDP, with Greenblatt becoming famous for his hacks, hacking away the first FORTRAN compiler for the PDP and spending so much time at the terminal that he didn’t make it through his junior year at MIT. These formative years in their lives were consumed with cocacola, Chinese food, and establishing many paradigms we now consider fundamental in computer science. The real shift from a batch process mode of operations, fed by paper tape and punchcards, to a interactive computer was upon us. And they were the pioneers who through countless hours of hacking away, found “the right thing.” Project MAC was established at MIT in 1963 using a DARPA grant and was initially run by legendary J. C. R. Licklider. MAC would influence operating systems with Multics which served as the inspiration for Unix, and the forming of what we now know as computer science through the 1960s and 70s. This represented a higher level of funding and a shift towards the era of development that led to the Internet and many of the standards we still use today. More generations of hackers would follow and continue to push the envelope. But that one special glimpse in time, let’s just say if you listen at just the right frequency you can hear screaming at terminals when a game of Spacewar didn’t go someone’s way, or when something crashed, or with glee when you got “the right thing.” And if you listen hard enough at your next hackathon, you can sometimes hear a Kotok or a Deutsch or a Saunders whisper in your ear exactly what “the right thing” is - but only after sufficient amounts of trial, error, and Spacewar. This free exercise gives way to innovation. That’s why Google famously gives employees free time to pursue their passions. That’s why companies run hackathons. That’s why everyone from DARPA to Netflix has run bounty programs. These young mathematicians, scientists, physicists, and engineers would go on to change the world in their own ways. Uncle John McCarthy would later move to Stanford, where he started the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. From there he influenced Sun Microsystems (the S in Sun is for Stanford), Cisco, and dozens of other Silicon Valley powerhouses. Dennis would go on to found Multics and be an inspiration for Ken Thompson with the first versions of Unix. And after retiring he would go to NASA and then Acorn Networks. Slug Russell would go on to a long career as a developer and then executive, including a stop mentoring two nerdy high school kids at Lakeside School in Seattle. They were Paul Allen and Bill Gates, who would go on to found Microsoft. Alan Kotok would go on to join DEC where he would work for 30 years, influencing much of the computing through the 70s and into the 80s. He would work on the Titan chip at DEC and in the various consortiums around the emergent Internet. He would be a founding member of the World Wide Web Consortium. Ricky Greenblatt ended up spending too much of his time hacking. He would go on to found Lisp Machines, coauthor the time sharing software for the PDP-6 and PDP-10, write Maclisp, and write the first computer chess program to beat world class players in Hubert Dreyfus. Peter Samson wrote the Tech Model Railroad Club’s official dictionary which would evolve into the now-famous Jargon file. He wrote the Harmony compiler, a FORTRAN compiler for the PDP-6, made music for the first time with computers, became an architect at DEC, would oversee hardware engineering at NASA, and continues to act as a docent at the Computer History Museum. Bob Saunders would go on to be a professor at the University of California, becoming president of the IEEE, and Chairman of the Board during some of the most influential years in that great body of engineers and scientists. Peter Deutsch would go on to get his PhD from Berkeley, found Aladdin Enterprises, write Ghostscript, create free Postscript and PDF alternatives, work on Smalltalk, work at Sun, be an influential mind at Xerox PARC, and is now a composer. We owe a great deal to them. So thank you to these pioneers. And thank you, listeners, for sticking through to the end of this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We’re lucky to have you.