A Footnote to History

Today, I’m doing something I haven’t done in a few years. Programming. Specifically, I’m programming in perl, and therein lies a story. So gather round your chairs, little ones, while I tell you a lunchtime story.

Many years ago, there was a little spinoff of Rand called System Development Corporation (SDC) [you may notice their logo in my graphic], and SDC was working on a little program called BLACKER. What BLACKER did isn’t relevant to our story; what is relevant is that BLACKER was being developed to meet the TCSEC A1 requirement, the highest assurance requirement in the computer security criteria that was colloquially called “The Orange Book”. One of the many requirements of the Orange Book was to have configuration management for your system from its birth.

There were a lot of people working on the BLACKER program: some at SDC headquarters in Santa Monica, CA, and some at a former Burroughs facility in Paoli, PA. One of these folks was Larry Wall, whose primary claim to fame were little programs like rn and an ASCII game called warp.  Also working on BLACKER was Larry’s brother-in-law Mark, and ‘lil ol me. In fact, I was sharing an office with Larry, and Mark, Larry, Mark’s brother Jon (who was in R&D) and I were all carpooling to work together.

Larry was tasked to solve the configuration management problem across the coasts. Being lazy and impatient, he decided to modify netnews (remember Usenet) to be able to synchronize articles across coasts, and to append to articles. This would permit CM requests to be posted as news articles, and be approved by managers. One problem: Reporting. Awk at that time couldn’t march through numerous files. And thus…. perl was born.

Parallel to this I was designing the operating system for one of the BLACKER components, and I wanted an integrated data dictionary. I wanted the Pascal data structures to be defined in one place — the nroff source document — and to have them extracted to build the include files used by programmers. What did I use to do this? Perl. In fact, I was the first user of perl.

And that, children, it the origin of perl. It is a demonstration that the Orange Book requirements did produce something of arguable impact. It is why I’m perl’s paternal Godparent, and Mark is perl’s maternal uncle (Mark’s sister is Larry’s wife).  It is also why I wrote the history section in the Camel book, and thus contributed the footnote to history. Don’t believe me. Look at the “History Made Practical” chapter.

And now that my lunch is done, it is back to perl.

Music: The Big Picture (Elton John): Wicked Dreams



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