date Mar 8, 2016
authors Steven Levy
reading time 20 mins

Who were the hackers…

Beneath their often unimposing exteriors, they were adventurers, visionaries, risk-takers, artists . . . and the ones who most clearly saw why the computer was a truly revolutionary tool.


found a common element, a common philosophy that seemed tied to the elegantly flowing logic of the computer itself. It was a philosophy of sharing, openness, decentralization, and getting your hands on machines at any cost to improve the machines and to improve the world.


The subject made sense. When you grow up with an insatiable curiosity as to how things work, the delight you find upon discovering something as elegant as circuit logic, where all connections have to complete their loops, is profoundly thrilling.

Schooling vs education and learning

There were enough obstacles to learning already — why bother with stupid things like brown-nosing teachers and striving for grades? To students like Peter Samson, the quest meant more than the degree.

What is a hack?

and a project undertaken or a product built not solely to fulfill some constructive goal, but with some wild pleasure taken in mere involvement, was called a “hack.”

Birth of AI

The volatile and controversial nature of his field of study was obvious from the very arrogance of the name that McCarthy had bestowed upon it: Artificial Intelligence. This man actually thought that computers could be smart.


To top the program, someone else might try to do the same thing with fewer instructions — a worthy endeavor, since there was so little room in the small “memory” of the computers of those days that not many instructions could fit into them.

Punch card programming

Still, working with the IBM machine was frustrating. There was nothing worse than the long wait between the time you handed in your cards and the time your results were handed back to you. If you had misplaced as much as one letter in one instruction, the program would crash, and you would have to start the whole process over again.

Artist and a medium

Something about the orderliness of the computer instructions appealed to him: he would later describe the feeling as the same kind of eerily transcendent recognition that an artist experiences when he discovers the medium that is absolutely right for him. This is where I belong.

Why shorter and faster programs

A certain esthetic of programming style had emerged. Because of the limited memory space of the TX-0 (a handicap that extended to all computers of that era), hackers came to deeply appreciate innovative techniques that allowed programs to do complicated tasks with very few instructions. The shorter a program was, the more space you had left for other programs, and the faster a program ran.

Hacker Ethic

By sheer dint of hacking, the TX-0 — no, the PDP-1 — hackers had turned out a program in a weekend that it would have taken the computer industry weeks, maybe even months to pull off. It was a project that would probably not be undertaken by the computer industry without a long and tedious process of requisitions, studies, meetings, and executive vacillating, most likely with considerable compromise along the way. It might never have been done at all. The project was a triumph for the Hacker Ethic.

The birth of LISP

The language was named for its method of List Processing; by simple yet powerful commands, LISP could do many things with few lines of code; it could also perform powerful recursions — references to things within itself — which would allow programs written in that language to actually “learn” from what happened as the program ran.

What does a computer do?

You can tell the computer what to do, and it fights with you, but it finally does what you tell it to. Of course it will reflect your own stupidity, and often what you tell it to do will result in something distasteful. But eventually, after tortures and tribulations, it will do exactly what you want. The feeling you get then is unlike any other feeling in the world. It can make you a junkie.

An approach

Computer programming was not merely a technical pursuit, but an approach to the problems of living.

Living the hacker dream

But new faces and some heightened activity in the field of computing were to insure that the hacker culture at MIT would not only continue, but thrive and develop more than ever. The new faces belonged to breathtakingly daring hackers destined for word-of-mouth, living-legend fame. But the developments that would allow these people to take their place in living the hacker dream were already under way, initiated by people whose names would become known by more conventional means: scholarly papers, academic awards, and, in some cases, notoriety in the scientific community.

Personal computing?

No, in order to do this, you’d have to have several people use the computer at once. (The thought of each person having his or her own computer was something only a hacker would think worthwhile.) This multiuser concept was called time sharing, and in 1960 the heaviest of the MIT planners began the Long-Range Computer Study Group.

Hacking as a pursuit

The matter at hand was hacking, and it seemed obvious — at least, so obvious that no one around TMRC or the PDP-1 seemed to think it even a useful topic of discourse — that hacking was a pursuit so satisfying that you could make a life of it.

Vast mandala

He had a profound respect for programs which used techniques that on the surface seemed improbable, but in fact took advantage of the situation’s deep mathematical truth. The counterintuitive solution sprang from understanding the magical connections between things in the vast mandala of numerical relationships on which hacking ultimately was based.


These arguments were the lifeblood of the hacker community. Sometimes people would literally scream at each other, insisting on a certain kind of coding scheme for an assembler, or a specific type of interface, or a particular feature in a computer language. These differences would have hackers banging on the blackboard or throwing chalk across the room. It wasn’t so much a battle of egos as it was an attempt to figure out what “The Right Thing” was. The term had special meaning to the hackers.

LISP and Assembly

LISP’s acceptance did not diminish the hacker love for assembly language, particularly the elegant PDP-6 instruction set. But as Greenblatt and even Gosper later realized, LISP was a powerful system builder that fit neatly into the hands-on Hacker Ethic.


“He was very persistent. If you try a few times and give up, you’ll never get there. But if you keep at it . . . There’s a lot of problems in the world which can really be solved by applying two or three times the persistence that other people will.” Nelson was displaying an extension of the Hacker Ethic — if we all acted on our drive to discover, we’d discover more, produce more, be in control of more.

Being a physical form through code

When you program a robot to do something, Gosper would later explain, you get “a kind of gratification, an emotional impact, that is completely indescribable. And it far surpasses the kind of gratification you get from a working program. You’re getting a physical confirmation of the correctness of your construction.

Philosophy and physics

What are control systems made of? But as he got more deeply into robotics he found that the questions you had to ask were double-edged. You had to consider things in almost cosmic terms before you could create reality for a robot. What is a point? What is velocity? What is acceleration? Questions about physics, questions about numbers, questions about information, questions about the representation of things . . . it got to the point, Silver realized later, where he was “asking basic philosophical questions like what am I, what is the universe, what are computers, what can you use them for, and how does that relate?

Computer as an artistic medium

But Knight also felt that computers were an infinitely flexible artistic medium, one in which you could express yourself by creating your own little universe. Knight later explained: “Here is this object you can tell what to do, and with no questions asked, it’s doing what you tell it to. There are very few institutions where an eighteen-year-old person can get that to happen for him.”

Data and the cosmos

“Well, data is just a dumb kind of programming.” To Sussman, that answered the eternal existence question, “What are you?” We are data, pieces of a cosmic computer program that is the universe.


Looking at Gosper’s programs, Sussman realized an important assumption of hackerism: all serious computer programs are expressions of an individual. “It’s only incidental that computers execute programs,”

Analogy of a program

“The important thing about a program is that it’s something you can show to people, and they can read it and they can learn something from it. It carries information. It’s a piece of your mind that you can write down and give to someone else just like a book.”

how to get hackers excited

He ultimately accepted the fact that the best way to get hackers to do things was to suggest them, and hope that the hackers would be interested enough. Then you would get production unheard of in industry or academia.

Systems as living things

You can a/ways make it better. Systems are organic, living creations: if people stop working on them and improving them, they die.

When the designer is the implementor == when the idea person is the coding person

The problem of unrealistic software design is greatly diminished when the designer is the implementor. The implementor’s ease in programming and pride in the result is increased when he, in an essential sense, is the designer. Features are less likely to turn out to be of low utility if users are their designers and they are less likely to be difficult to use if their designers are their users.

Evil computers?

On the contrary, many young people in the late 1960s saw computers as something evil, part of a technological conspiracy where the rich and powerful used the computer’s might against the poor and powerless. This attitude was not limited to students protesting, among other things,

When it is not good…

Add that to other factors — lack of sleep, missed meals to the point of malnutrition, and a driving passion to finish that hack — and it was clear why some hackers went straight over the edge.

How hacker culture spread

By the late 1960s, hackerism was spreading, partly because of the proliferation of interactive machines like the PDP-10 or the XDS-940 , partly because of friendly programming environments (such as the one hackers had created at MIT), and partly because MIT veterans would leave the lab and carry their culture to new places. But the heart of the movement was this: people who wanted to hack were finding computers to hack on.

How hacking improved

MIT style of hackerism was destined to travel, but when exposed to things like California sunlight it faded a bit in intensity. The difference began with the setting, a semicircular concrete-glass-and-redwood former conference center in the hills overlooking the Stanford campus. Inside the building, hackers would work at any of sixty-four terminals scattered around the various offices. None of the claustrophobia of Tech Square. No elevators, no deafening air conditioning hiss. The laid-back style meant that much of MIT’s sometimes constructive acrimony — the shouting sessions at the TMRC classroom, the religious wars between grad students and hackers — did not carry over.

Fun things along with coding

It was at Stanford that hackers would actually leave their terminals for a daily game of volleyball. It was at Stanford that a fund-raising drive was successfully undertaken for an addition to the lab, which would have been inconceivable at MIT: a sauna.

Birth of ARPAnet

Stanford and other labs, whether in universities like Carnegie-Mellon or research centers like Stanford Research Institute, became closer to each other when ARPA linked their computer systems through a communications network. This “ ARPAnet “ was very much influenced by the Hacker Ethic, in that among its values was the belief that systems should be decentralized, encourage exploration, and urge a free flow of information.

Computer is…

the computer was a limitless extension of one’s own imagination, a nonjudgmental mirror in which you could frame any kind of self-portraiture you desired. No matter what you wrote, the only fingerprints your message bore were those of your imagination. The fact that nonhackers were getting off on these ideas indicated that the very presence of computers in accessible places might be a spur for social change, a chance to see the possibilities offered by new technology.

Birth of Silicon Valley

Fifty miles south of Berkeley, Silicon Valley was beginning to come alive. The twenty miles or so between Palo Alto on the peninsula and San Jose at the lower end of San Francisco Bay had earned the title “Silicon Valley” from the material, made of refined sand, used to make semiconductors. Two decades before, Palo Alto had been the spawning ground of the transistor; this advance had been parlayed into the magic of integrated circuits (ICs)


They were hackers. They were as curious about systems as the MIT hackers were, but, lacking daily access to PDP-6s, they had to build their own systems. What would come out of these systems was not as important as the act of understanding, exploring, and changing the systems themselves — the act of creation, the benevolent exercise of power in the logical, unambiguous world of computers, where truth, openness, and democracy existed in a form purer than one could find anywhere else.

Homebrew club

. . They discussed what they wanted in a club, and the words people used most were “cooperation” and “sharing.” There was some talk about what people might do with computers in the home,


For Marsh and the others who left the first few Homebrew meetings with board-building fervor, the fun was beginning: designing and building stuff, expressing themselves by the twists and tangles of a digital logic integrated circuit board to be attached to Ed Roberts’ byzantine bus.

Knowing your board

The process was not a terribly simple one. After figuring out what your board would do, you would spend long nights designing the layout. Looking in the manual that described the workings of the 8080 chip, you would jot down the numbers for the various sections you wanted — designating this section for an input, that one for memory — and the labyrinthine grid inside that piece of black plastic would begin to reshape inside your head.


As usual for Lee, the risks of failing were less intimidating than the risks that came from not trying at all.

Different sections of the meeting

So Lee, creating an architecture for the meeting as if he were tackling an electronic design problem, flowcharted the session. There would be a time to go around the room and let people say what they were doing or what they wanted to know — that would be the “mapping” section, akin to drawing a schematic. Then there would be a “random access” section, where you would drift over to the people who suggested things that interested you, or could answer your questions, or seemed to have information you wanted, or just seemed interesting to talk to.

Networking during homebrew

One person’s idea would spark another person into embarking on a large project, and perhaps beginning a company to make a product based on that idea. Or, if someone came up with a clever hack to produce a random number generator on the Altair, he would give out the code so everyone could do it, and by the next meeting someone else would have devised a game that utilized the routine.

Wozniak’s hacking

Woz got a 6800 manual and began designs for a computer that would interface with the TV Typewriter he’d built. When someone brought a computer to a Homebrew meeting that had video included, he knew that his computer would have to have video built in, too. He liked the idea of a computer you could play a videogame on.


Wozniak was not thinking of building a computer to sell. He was building a computer to have fun with, to show to his friends. He would mention what he was doing to his friend Steve Jobs at Atari, who was interested in terminals and thinking about setting up a company that made them.


It was not long before Wozniak addressed the entire Homebrew Computer Club, holding his board in the air and fielding questions from the members, most of them asking how he did this or if he was going to put this feature or that into it. They were good ideas, and Wozniak brought his setup every two weeks, sitting in the back of the auditorium where the electrical outlet was, getting suggestions for improvements and incorporating those improvements.

2 Steves

Soon the pair was known as “the two Steves,” and Wozniak’s computer was known as the Apple, a name conceived by Jobs, who once worked in an orchard. Though the official address of the as yet unincorporated Apple company was a mail drop, Jobs and Wozniak really worked out of a garage.

Paths of iterations

Wozniak had inbred security. He felt comfortable taking chances, letting the design go as far as his imagination could take him. He created an esthetic wonder by optimizing a limited number of off-the-shelf electronic parts so that, very ingeniously laid out and wired, they delivered not only the power of a PDP-1, but color, motion, and sound.

Steve Jobs

As an engineer, Jobs was mediocre; his strength was as a planner, someone with vision to see how computers could extend to a point of usefulness beyond that dreamed of by pure hackers like Steve Wozniak. He was also wise enough to realize that as a long-haired twenty-two-year-old whose customary garb was jeans and bare feet, he was not the person to head a major computer corporation; most of all, he lacked management and marketing experience.

Liberated by computer

Part of the hacker dream was that people who had unfulfilled creative tendencies would be liberated by the computer. They might even ascend to a level of wizardry where they might earn the appellation of hacker.

hackers vs respected company

a respectable business should have, qualities that On-Line conspicuously lacked: predictability, order, control, careful planning, uniform outlook, decorum, adherence to guidelines, and a structured hierarchy. It was no accident that these missing qualities were things that hackers loathed.

marginal success?

Rather than building on past successes in a quest for brilliant programs, On-Line was trying to maximize sales by duplicating even moderate successes, often on relatively limited machines on which the games looked worse than the originals.

Richard Stallman

“I’m the last survivor of a dead culture,” said RMS. “And I don’t really belong in the world anymore. And in some ways I feel I ought to be dead.” Richard Stallman did leave MIT, but he left with a plan: to write a version of the popular proprietary computer operating system called UNIX and give it away to anyone who wanted it. Working on this GNU (which stood for “Gnu’s Not Unix”) program meant that he could “continue to use computers without violating [his] principles.”


“We have to find a relationship between man and machine which is much more symbiotic. It’s one thing to come down from one myth, but you have to replace it with another. I think you start with the tool: the tool is the embodiment of the myth. I’m trying to see how you can explain the future that way, create the future.”

Hackers and craftsmanship

“Hackers can do almost anything and be a hacker. You can be a hacker carpenter. It’s not necessarily high tech. I think it has to do with craftsmanship and caring about what you’re doing.”

New age hacker

Take Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg , who has drawn four hundred million users to share their personal lives online. At twenty-five, he has proven a master at the black art of business development — deliberately and purposefully opening his site to advertisers and marketers. Yet he clearly thinks of himself as a hacker; last year, he told the audience at an event for would-be Internet entrepreneurs that “We’ve got this whole ethos that we want to build a hacker culture.”

Next gen

A previous generation of hackers — and I — worried that the world of commerce would choke off innovation and stymie a burgeoning cultural movement. But hackerism has survived and thrived, a testament to its flexibility and its power.