First Bell Labs Years

Dennis moved back to his family home in Summit, New Jersey in September of 1967, immediately starting work as a Member of Technical Staff at the Murray Hill office of Bell Laboratories. As he described…

“My father was a mathematician, and, before the IBM Selectric typewriter, I can tell you that he bought an expensive manual German typewriter along with boxes of these plastic sticks, each with a metal head containing a math symbol. Very slow and very painful.”“My father worked for Bell Labs. Hence I knew very much about the place…I actually interviewed at several places at Bell Labs. I was out at Indian Hill and Whippany as well as the research group here. And this certainly looked the most interesting.”

Home Life

At the time sister Lynn was married and living in England, John was leaving the house to be a freshman at Dartmouth that fall.  Bill, then 12, was entering Junior High and expecting himself to move into the small attic suite being vacated by John.  He got a rude shock when Dennis swept back home.  Dennis quickly reestablished himself into the family home, setting up his attic suite and taking over the basement as his home office.  His electronics setup was first class… sound system with AR-3 speakers, Heathkit receiver, fancy turntable and headphones, Heathkit Color TV.  His décor was grad-school neglect… lounge chair with fraying upholstery and broken springs propped up by old National Geographics, clothes and papers strewn everywhere.  Mom had a policy to never go into the attic or basement, the cleaning lady did what she could once a week.

Bill vividly remembers Dennis’ basement office; dimly lit with cracked floor tiles and steam pipes hanging from the low ceiling, books and printouts piled high on the floor and on the vinyl top table that served as his desk.  There was a telephone with WATS line that could be accessed by typing “162”.  (During grownup parties, Bill and Mimi Keister would play “Mystery State”, a game where one of us would dial a random number somewhere in the United States and hand the phone to the other person who had to talk to whomever answered.  Free phone was an amazing concept back then.)  There was a printer terminal with IBM style golfball element. Bill recalls being mesmerized as it clacked away at the tractor fed perforated computer paper which cascaded into piles on the floor.  However, he was just a kid in 1967 and only has image memory, he can’t swear when Dennis took delivery of his IBM 2741.  Recollection is not evidence.  

Dennis immediately established the work/life schedule to be followed for most of his career.  Each day Monday through Friday he would rise after noon and drive straight into the Labs, stopping in the cafeteria just before it closed at 1:15 then working at the office until 8:30 or 9:00 at night.  He would come home, retreat to the attic to read the New York Times, come down around 10 to the kitchen to reheat and upgrade the leftovers that Mom had cooked for that evening’s family dinner. (Dennis was a great cook, always very creative with simple ingredients.)  Then he would head down to the basement to work until around 4:00 AM, after which he would take a shower and go to bed.  Saturdays he would disappear for most of the day, nobody knew where he went or what he did.

Dennis’ one family obligation was to attend Sunday dinner.  We ate around 1:30 and were always joined by Dad’s mother, Nannee, who had moved to Summit a few years previous after Grandpa died.  For whatever reason Dennis slept in later than normal on Sundays… Bill recalls how he would be given the task of pushing the attic buzzer to signal Dennis that he needed to come down.  Often Dennis would stumble down still half asleep and sullen as could be.   Nannee was unphased by this, she would pepper him with questions about why he didn’t have a girlfriend or why he had chosen to grow a beard and hide his beautiful face.  Dennis would glower, Mom and Dad would be mortified.   After coffee, Dennis would retreat back to the attic to read the Sunday Times.  Sunday evening around 9 he would head back to the basement and start the weekly cycle again.
Dennis must have written his doctoral thesis during his first months employed at the Labs, in Fall of 1967.  We have no memory of his discussing it or evidence of his typing it (Bill has a vague memory of Dennis showing him the typed pages in a box during Holiday 1967, and explaining that it was about “Loops” and “Complexity”.)  The typed “Fischer” thesis draft is dated January 1968.  Other than that he never talked about it, we have no stories.


Soon enough we plan to talk with former dmr colleagues, find new stories about Dennis in the early years that we can share.  For now, our best way to paint a picture of the first Bell Labs years is to weave together Dennis’ own words.  Most of what we know comes from two documents; A Princeton interview with Michael Sean Mahoney and a UNIX History written by Dennis himself.

We have patched together various comments he made throughout these documents, keeping context but distorting the original flow.  Here are links directly to the articles to see full context:

As described in the Grad School section, Dennis came to the Labs already having time sharing experience from working on Multics at MIT.

When asked by Michael Sean Mahoney… “Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do at the Labs?”, he said…  

“I was just more interested in real computers and what they could do. And particularly struck by the – how much more pleasant it was to have interactive computing as opposed to decks of cards and so forth.”

Bell Labs as a whole was not moving in this direction in 1967.  As Dennis described:

“When I came here the Labs was in essentially the same state as far as computing was or a very similar state as Harvard.” 

(This means that computers were still being fed punch cards as batch inputs)

“For computer science at Bell Laboratories, the period 1968-1969 was somewhat unsettled. The main reason for this was the slow, though clearly inevitable, withdrawal of the Labs from the Multics project.” 
“For much of this time, the Murray Hill Computer Center was also running a costly GE 645 machine that inadequately simulated the GE 635. Another shake-up that occurred during this period was the organizational separation of computing services and computing research.”

Now Multics, clunky and difficult as it was, did represent a new way to interact with computers.  To Dennis and his colleagues, it was a little threatening that it was being shut down.

“From the point of view of the group that was to be most involved in the beginnings of Unix (K. Thompson, Ritchie, M. D. McIlroy, J. F. Ossanna), the decline and fall of Multics had a directly felt effect. We were among the last Bell Laboratories holdouts actually working on Multics, so we still felt some sort of stake in its success. More important, the convenient interactive computing service that Multics had promised to the entire community was in fact available to our limited group, at first under the CTSS system used to develop Multics, and later under Multics itself. Even though Multics could not then support many users, it could support us, albeit at exorbitant cost. We didn’t want to lose the pleasant niche we occupied, because no similar ones were available; even the time-sharing service that would later be offered under GE’s operating system did not exist. What we wanted to preserve was not just a good environment in which to do programming, but a system around which a fellowship could form. We knew from experience that the essence of communal computing, as supplied by remote-access, time-shared machines, is not just to type programs into a terminal instead of a keypunch, but to encourage close communication.”
“Ken and I had been sort of involved with working with each other in various ways. I had been doing other things as well during this period. I did a compiler for the Altran system which was Stan Brown’s algebra system which was completely independent of Multics and that crowd. That was one of the things that made it particularly obvious that having an interactive system was nice. The Altran stuff was actually written on the terminal. I forget now whether the GE TSS stuff was around then or whether it was actually written in Multics terminals and somehow transmitted. But the representation of the program – in the first place was in Fortran, and in the second place it was obvious we were going for punched cards. Typing out on terminals. But the formatting was very rigid and whatnot. And there were batch jobs and object decks and stuff like that. And it really made it very obvious that having a smooth interaction with the machine was a lot more fun, a lot less clumsy. It was really a combination of things that got me involved. Just the fact that the style of thing that Ken was headed for seemed very much, very desirable. I know this just from the work with him.”

This is quite a beautiful summary of what this team was focusing on during this turbulent period 1968-69.  One thing that Dennis did not focus on, in either document, was how an IBM 2741 terminal might have fit into the time sharing vision or figured in any way.  Dennis had produced a typographic masterpiece for his doctoral thesis, he’d worked beside Doug McIlroy and Bob Morris as they implemented roff into BCPL, he never said a thing about typing with a 2741.

This wouldn’t be notable, except for what came after.  UNIX of course got its original Labs funding because the research team committed, in Dennis’ words, to…“create a system specifically designed for editing and formatting text, what might today be called a `word-processing system’” for the patent department.”

As Dennis describes… 

“By the spring of 1971, it was generally agreed that no one had the slightest interest in scrapping Unix. Therefore, we transliterated the roff text formatter into PDP-11 assembler language, starting from the PDP-7 version that had been transliterated from McIlroy’s BCPL version on Multics, which had in turn been inspired by J. Saltzer’s runoff program on CTSS. In early summer, editor and formatter in hand, we felt prepared to fulfill our charter by offering to supply a text-processing service to the Patent department for preparing patent applications. At the time, they were evaluating a commercial system for this purpose; the main advantages we offered (besides the dubious one of taking part in an in-house experiment) were two in number: first, we supported Teletype’s model 37 terminals, which, with an extended type-box, could print most of the math symbols they required; second, we quickly endowed roff with the ability to produce line-numbered pages, which the Patent Office required and which the other system could not handle.”

So… by the spring of 1971, Dennis is deeply involved in text formatting based in Jerry / runoff, and singing the praises of a new generation of terminal, Teletype’s model 37 which can print math symbols.

Why do we not get any references to the 2741, to kludged ways to achieve a similar effect, to the effort of typing of that extraordinary thesis?  Dennis was silent here, just as he was silent about anything that had to do with the thesis at all. 

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