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The Origin of “Hacker” April 1, 2008

Posted by Imran Ghory in Computer Security, etymology.

Everytime the media carries a sensationalist story about “hackers” committing cybercrimes there’s always an uproar among geeks about the misappropriation of the word “hacker”. Sadly it’s the geeks who are mistaken and not for once the media.

A few years ago Fred Shapiro tracked down the earliest known reference to computer hackers:

1963 The Tech (MIT student newspaper) 20 Nov. 1 Many telephone services have been curtailed because of so-called hackers, according to Prof. Carlton Tucker, administrator of the Institute phone system. … The hackers have accomplished such things as tying up all the tie-lines between Harvard and MIT, or making long-distance calls by charging them to a local radar installation. One method involved connecting the PDP-1 computer to the phone system to search the lines until a dial tone, indicating an outside line, was found. … Because of the “hacking,” the majority of the MIT phones are “trapped.”

This is the earliest know usage of hacker in the modern sense, the TMRC Dictionary has it a few years earlier but not in the computer sense. The earliest computer related uses of the term (through anecdotal evidence) were also malicious (although the term wasn’t originally intended maliciously – in practice it was) in the sense that they involved gaining unauthorized access to computers to play on.

The New Hacker's DictionaryThe modern “geek” definition of the term hacker to reflect a skilled programmer didn’t originate until the late seventies when the term ended up in the later famous Jargon File.

Intelligent Design for IdiotsThat doesn’t mean to say we should all stop using the word “hacker” in it’s positive sense, but as evidence advocating geeks we should at least stop claiming a false history to support our cause. As we all know where that ends up.

In response to those who disagree with me: If you think I’m wrong then show me the evidence, if you can find earlier records showing hack(er)s being used in a computer context in a non-“black hat” manner I’d be happy to retract my post and put the evidence up here.

Did Bill Gates say the 640k line ? February 20, 2007

Posted by Imran Ghory in etymology.

“640K ought to be enough for anybody.” -Bill Gates (1981)

One of the most quoted lines of the computer era. Certainly the most quoted line attributed to the Microsoft founder.

However it is only “attributed” as in 1996 Bill decided to publically deny it in an interview:

INTERVIEWER I read in a newspaper that in 1981 you said, “640K of memory should be enough for anybody.” What did you mean when you said this?

BILL GATES: I’ve said some stupid things and some wrong things, but not that. No one involved in computers would ever say that a certain amount of memory is enough for all time.
We at Microsoft disagreed. We knew that even 16-bit computers, which had 640K of available address space, would be adequate for only four or five years.


But I’m not convinced by this denial.

Normally when someone denies saying something they do so fairly soon after the event. This as far as I can find is his first denial of this quote, and is at least four years after the quote was originally popular (usenet posts from 1992 refer to it) and fifteen years after it was allegedely made.

Somehow I find it hard to believe that someone can remember everything that they said 15 years ago. Of course Mr Gates goes on to back up how he never said it by talking about how Microsoft knew back in 1981 (the year the IBM PC launched) that 640k would be too small in 4-5 years.

It’s a pity Mr Gates seems to have forgotten an interview with the Smithsonian just three years prior, in which he talked about how they were surprised when they ran up against the 640k limit in 1986/1987.

BILL GATES: It [640K] was ten times what we had before. But to my surprise, we ran out of that address base for applications within — oh five or six years people were complaining.


So either Mr Gates has trouble remembering these things or he’s trying to rewrite history to make Microsoft seems more prescient. Which of course he’s never done before.

For a long while this quote was taken as “true”, after the denial it became false. But given the unreliability of Mr Gates claims I think that until someone comes up with some more evidence we should label this quote as having what snopes terms “undetermined or ambiguous veracity.”

Update: from the 1989 interview linked to by Dan Oblak:

I have to say in 1981 making those decisions I felt like I was providing enough freedom for ten years, that is the move from 64k to 640k felt like something that would last a great deal of time

[source] – quote is at 22:28