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Bell Labs Unix Group Disbanded 270

wandazulu writes "Peter Salus over at is reporting that AT&T Department 1127, responsible for creating and maintaining Unix, has been officially disbanded. The article provides an interesting "where are they now?" list of the original authors of Unix."
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Bell Labs Unix Group Disbanded

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  • by yagu ( 721525 ) * <> on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @10:16PM (#13335967) Journal

    I think this is sad, and a little ominous. I worked at a telco years ago, and managed to fanagle a chat on the phone with Ritchie one time when a Bell worker was on site for some software installations. Cool.

    Anyway, in my arguments to encourage research into trying new ways of doing things, I always used Bell Labs as my favorite example/reason why we should. Guess I won't have that anymore. Sigh.

    What I fear most is the lack of research for research's sake. A lot of things we use today are a direct or indirect result of companies allowing a certain amount of "what if" thinking and activity to go on. Even better, some companies, like Bell Labs actually allocated specifically for that.

    I don't think research in commercial context is really research at all and may even be counterproductive in creating new and better technology (if commercial research into products were for "quality", would there even be a Britney Spears?).

    The last bastion I know of and trust is Google. They seem to be dedicated to the cause. But, they're young, they're new, and they haven't had to deal with stockholders in bad times yet.

    • Google doesn't do any research. What does google do? They may facilitate research with their and whatnot, but everything they do is money motivated. They make huge amounts of money. If your feelings were accurate google would be spending a lot more on research.

      There is a lot of research that goes on you just never hear about it. How about [] or [] ?? Those companies founders are risking it all, and if they fail, you'll never hear about it

      • Google doesn't do any research.

        Google has a policy of giving people a percentage of their work hours to fiddle around with personal interests. At worst, it raises morale. At best it produces new business opportunities.

        But ignoring that, even Google as a company probably does more research than you might think. Of course profit will be a big motivator for it, but I bet there's a lot of very cool stuff going on inside that hasn't yet been publicized, and some may never be until somebody writes a book in

      • Google doesn't do any research.

        WHAT YOU SAY? []

        [totally obvious whoring, sorry.]

      • There is a lot of research that goes on you just never hear about it. How about [] or [] ?? Those companies founders are risking it all, and if they fail, you'll never hear about it.

        but hasn't it always been that way? Er, well - maybe it used to be that way. Today we have ginormous established companies that use all the tools available (primarly lobyists/governments) to suppress competitors that make them obsolete.

        thanks for the links, btw.
      • Quick note to the parent: "everything they do is money motivated" does not imply that the the things that Google does are not research. In fact, every kind of research is motivated by profit for someone: the NSF supports research where the intended profit is the general good or advancement of science, DARPA supports research where the results of said research might have eventual battle applications, the NSA supports research which will lead to new knowledge about cryptography, and Google supports/performs
        • No, you look at tell me how any of that is research? They call it the lab for public relations reasons. Making an image search utility is not research, neither is buying picassa, or buying a mapping company, it simply isn't research, it's capital investment.

          Bell spent billions on research, the "apple man" voice was invented at bell labs, they did a whole lot of voice synthesis research that I am familiar with. They did a lot of other stuff, I am not as familiar with, but voice synthesis, v

      • by fbg111 ( 529550 ) on Wednesday August 17, 2005 @03:12AM (#13337136)
        Google doesn't do any research. What does google do?

        I don't know about that. Google's mission is to "Organize the world's information". Considering such an undertaking has never before been attempted on such a scale (unless you count Yahoo's manual indexing), then I suspect Google engages in quite a bit of advanced research. Why else would they hire brilliant, accomplished PhDs [] and encourage them to research and publish []. It's certainly not to master AJAX web scripting techniques. Granted, Google's research is in more nebulous areas of unstructured datamining, information retrieval, algorithms, AI, OS & filesystem design, and maybe they won't develop the next general, purpose Unix or better materials for spaceship construction, but I wouldn't go so far as to say they don't do research. A brief list of their research areas are:
        • algorithms
        • artificial intelligence
        • genetic algorithms
        • machine learning
        • natural language processing
        • robotics
        (From Papers by Googlers [])

        You might say they're standing on the shoulders of the giants of Bell Labs and Xerox PARC, but in terms of computer science, show us someone who isn't. That doesn't mean Google's research could be any less important or ground breaking. And don't underestimate the value of the knowledge aggregation and improving language translation ability of their search engine. Who knows how this could affect human civilization, maybe even to the point of speeding up our advancement by connecting minds with more relevant information more quickly than the printing press, the worthless main stream media, and even P2P email allowed. Only time will tell...
    • Schiavo Status (Score:5, Insightful)

      by James_Aguilar ( 890772 ) <aguilar.james@gmail . c om> on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @10:40PM (#13336098) Journal
      Besides being totally tasteless (it was), the following quote does have the redeeming feature that it illustrates why you shouldn't be discouraged.

      "My take is that 1127 probably reached Schiavo status when Rob, Presotto, et al. fled west to Google."

      Although the unnamed employee goes on to say that it's a nail in the coffin of the "sort of research environment Bell Labs once represented," he neglects to mention that there is still tons of work that is being done in computing science-related research all over the nation and all over the world. Although it's fine to feel sentimental, let's not go over the top with saying that Google is the "last bastion" of anything. We see the demise of Bell Labs' Unix group as a big thing because it has a lot of history; now think how many tens or hundreds of places that someday will have a lot of history are out there right now; as yet unknown, but destined to be giants in the future.
    • I agree completely. The single most important factor in research (and it can't be controlled) is SERENDIPITY.

          All areas of research must be funded, because they often yield interesting stuff not sought for. I can not express this strongly enough.

      • I'm all for funding research, and I'd certainly agree many of the best products of research are not exactly whatever the original intent of that research was, but...

        "All areas of research must be funded"

        In the absence of infinite funds, this is impossible. If there is a dollar being spent on research, someone, somewhere has to decide to spend it on one thing and not another. Better to spend that dollar on an area of research that seems most likely to produce a sought for benefit; that area is just as like
    • by Coryoth ( 254751 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @11:52PM (#13336421) Homepage Journal
      Anyway, in my arguments to encourage research into trying new ways of doing things, I always used Bell Labs as my favorite example/reason why we should.

      That's okay, you just need to change what Bell Labs is an example of. I mean really, what has Bell Labs produced recently? Some very impressive stuff if you actually look at some of what has managed to trickle it's way out. Things like Plan9 [] and Inferno [] are actually very impressive indeed in terms of the core ideas (that is, the part the research division is responsible for). Had a little more money been thrown into really building something out of those they could have been huge. So really Bell Labs is an example of what happens when management stops paying attention to, and having faith in, their research department.

      Want another example. How about Microsoft research? They have some very good people there, Tony Hoare [] and Leslie Lamport [] to name just two off the top of my head. If you dig around through some of the stuff they are working on there's some amazing ideas there. How much of that is actually seeing the light of day and making it into product? Very very little.

      The reason Google seems so good is not because they have more good people doing research - in practice they probably don't. It's because management spends more time listening to and working with the research teams to see that those ideas actually get used.

      The death of Bell Labs is just another example of what happens when the research department gets ignored. And yes, I am a bit bitter, having worked in a research department that regularly got ignored.

      • Slightly OOT, but I noticed a few months ago that László Lovász [] works at Microsoft R&D. His name comes up frequently in the study of graph theory and discrete math in general. For example, he proved the (Weak) Perfect Graph Theorem in 1972: a graph is perfect iff its graph complement is perfect.
    • What made AT&T different from modern corporations when it came to pure research? Nothing. In fact, they had even more restrictions on them than most companies, because for a long time they weren't even allowed as a monopoly to profit off of their innovations. But they did it anyway. Why?

      Two reasons. First, pure research into many of their areas wasn't as "pure" as many make it out to be. Claude Shannon's work had a direct effect on telecommunications. There's a reason he was working on what he was.

    • by demachina ( 71715 ) on Wednesday August 17, 2005 @01:57AM (#13336881)
      An important thread to note here is that none other than Carly Fiorina is the one of the principals in spinning off Lucent and Bell Labs from AT&T. She looked like a superstar for it though in fact Lucent was mostly just a beneficiary of being a telecom/networking company during the bubble when none could fail. Their stock history [] is interesting from a peak around $80 in 2000 to $2.88 today. Carly's time in the sun at Lucent was from the spinoff in 1996 until she jumped to HP in 1999. Here is a glowing Businessweek [] article on her when she took the helm at HP then. One interesting quote:

      "she helped to turbocharge product development by the long-coddled Bell Labs engineers."

      A guy told me once on an airplane beware any company or person who makes the cover of Businessweek because it usually means they've peaked and are starting down. He said it in context of SGI and its a rule that worked just as well for Carly.

      Hindsight being 20/20 you have to wonder if Carly didn't get lucky at Lucent thanks to the bubble and she was made to look like a superstar when in fact she was a one women wrecking ball for research and development at both Lucent/Bell Labs and HP and its labs.

      Another Carly theme at Bell Labs, if you go to their web site [] today they are a case study in out sourcing with their greatest achievement today looking to be the fact that they have labs in China, India and Ireland.
  • Insensitive (Score:5, Insightful)

    by agm ( 467017 ) * on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @10:17PM (#13335971)
    From TFA:

    "My take is that 1127 probably reached Schiavo status when Rob, Presotto, et al. fled west to Google.

    That expression is a tad insensitive, don't you think?
    • Yep, probably on purpose, too. Programmers aren't typically a sensitive lot.
    • Re:Insensitive (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Zen Punk ( 785385 )
      Well, it was a direct qoute of an employee that was interviewed, so it's important for them to include it, bad taste notwithstanding.
    • they didn't want to say that it's as dead as *BSD... /rimshot
    • Who was it insensitive to?
    • Would you like someone to call the waaaaaambulance?
    • by multiplexo ( 27356 ) * on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @11:37PM (#13336362) Journal
      From TFA:

      "My take is that 1127 probably reached Schiavo status when Rob, Presotto, et al. fled west to Google.

      That expression is a tad insensitive, don't you think?

      Yes, it is insensitive. He should have said "My take is that 1127 probably reached George W. Bush status when Rob, Presotto, et al. fled west to Google.

    • Insensitive to who?
    • Schiavo Status - Something kept technically alive far past the point of its practical death.

      Getting Schiavoed- Someone whos job has been eliminated for practical purposes but is kept on the payroll in a meaningless position.

  • Linux Labs. (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @10:20PM (#13335990)
    "The article provides an interesting "where are they now?" list of the original authors of Unix."

    They've joined Linco. Developing cutting-edge technology to put into a commodity OS. With Linus as Director.
  • by igny ( 716218 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @10:23PM (#13336007) Homepage Journal
    What is cooking at Department # 1337.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    "Goodbye Dep. 1127 and thank you for all the code"

    Thank you 1127 :)
  • Good times (Score:5, Interesting)

    by saddino ( 183491 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @10:34PM (#13336066)
    I worked at Bell Labs in Murray Hill from 1985 through 1989, and though I did not work in Dept 1127, I did get the amazing chance to see what Bell Labs was all about: the incredible, vibrant home to tremendously talented scientists from the UNIX gurus to the low temperature physics gods. As a young high school and then college student, aspiring to join their ranks full time, I was mesmerized by the environment where a 2pm coffee break could evolve into a deep discussion of networking theory and then reflect sincerely on the goings-on in the world. Bell Labs was a magical place, and hopefully, the seeds of similar pure research incubators are being sewn in today's tech powerhouses such as Google.
    • Re:Good times (Score:5, Insightful)

      by blackbear ( 587044 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @11:01PM (#13336209)
      I've had more good ideas from conversations on long coffee breaks than I care to remember. And they usually saved the company money, or fixed something. The ability to get away from a problem and take your mind productively in another direction has, for me, usually been a function of having talented and intelligent people around to share ideas with.

      These days, if you're seen having a conversation of longer than two minutes you start to get the attention of management. Geeks aren't like everyone else, and they aren't motivated in the usual ways or by the usual things.

      The effort now, seems to be to put armies of non-geeks at the keyboard, hoping that they can make up with numbers and procedures what they lack in talent. I just hope that this one doesn't turn out like The Celts vs. The Romans.

      Hey! Maybe we should sacrifice a secretary to the god of system stability. Just be sure to start the fire with a printout of the last core dump.
    • Re:Good times (Score:2, Interesting)

      by triple6 ( 50069 )
      I was lucky enough to work in Building 2 for a couple of years and am happy to have been in Murray Hill at all. It was as magical a place as everyone says. Just being around so many great thinkers made me feel smarter too. I'll certainly miss it. (I wonder if the pjw's xface made of magnets still appears at the top of Stair 8)
    • I agree. I will be a college freshman CS major in the fall, and I have been interested in computer science research for quite a while. I have read some of Kernighan's, Ritchie's, Pike's, Thompson's, and some of the other Unix guys' papers (some of them even came with my OS, FreeBSD; thanks Caldera for releasing the sources). I always heard that Bell Labs was a very interesting place, and I am intrigued by the work that these researchers have done and continue to do.

      My goal is to either become a research

  • by Sv-Manowar ( 772313 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @10:35PM (#13336072) Homepage Journal
    Its a shame to see this department go, given the great contributions made by it to the state of modern operating systems. Of course Unix lives on in other forms, and its testament to the strength of the operating system that its free workalikes and variants have been as rampantly successful in developing and thriving. I can't help but wonder whether Plan 9 is affected at all by the demise..
  • by GillBates0 ( 664202 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @10:37PM (#13336081) Homepage Journal
    Steve Johnson [] - a 20 year veteran of Bell Labs, author of yacc, lint and the pcc, and former president of USENIX [] now works at Mathworks [].

    I had the good fortune of meeting the gentleman when I interviewed with Mathworks a couple of years ago. I was taken aback by his humility, and the poor guy was embarrassed when I requested his autograph :) He has a former license plate in his office that reads "YACCMAN".

  • Great job guys, your legacy shall be remembered. Hopefully, history will learn that creating barriers to knowledge only leads to trouble. I see FS/OSS as the future, but K&R shall be remebered.
  • Let's us not forget (Score:4, Informative)

    by stox ( 131684 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @10:41PM (#13336103) Homepage
    Joe Ossanna and Lee McMahon. Both made significant contributions which made UNIX, as we know it today, possible.

    Another important contributor, Michael Lesk, is currently on the faculty at Rutgers University.

    I'm sure there are many more that deserve recognition.
    • Joe Ossanna and Lee McMahon. Both made significant contributions which made UNIX, as we know it today, possible.

      By all means we should not forget them. And, while I know that you know this, other Slashdot readers might not know that both of these amazing men are dead, having died far too young. Sigh...there are days when I feel I am the last person on the planet to have used troff, Scribe, and LaTeX. And troff started the whole game.

      • by stox ( 131684 ) on Wednesday August 17, 2005 @12:43AM (#13336645) Homepage
        Lee died in 1989. Although still way too young, he had probably made most of his major achievments and his children were adults. Joe, on the other hand, died in a tragic accident in 1977, just as he was really hitting his stride. I don't know if he had any children. Had Joe lived, I suspect that troff would have ruled the world, or a direct decendant. Sadly, after Joe died, development of troff pretty much froze solid. Every memo and publication I have ever read from Joe Ossanna indicated, to me at least, that he would have been a true giant in the computing community.
  • Avast, we knew ye well! ARRRrrrggghhh...

    Well, at least as well as the product you developed, maintained, improved, and sent off to blossom into what it is today.

    "Thanks for all the fish!" indeed!
  • What were the contributions of the AT&T guys to Unix? I thought it was the BSD guys who pushed it forward. I don't mean to attack AT&T. The initial creation of Unix and the other stuff they've done over the years has been great.

    But when it comes to the stuff that gets used, I have a hard time remembering anything that came out of AT&T that I use. Now I would guess the NetBSD/FreeBSD/OpenBSD people are the ones doing state-of-the-art stuff, with Unix.

    Similarly, the BSD people must have had the sa
    • by blackbear ( 587044 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @11:21PM (#13336296)
      Right. I mean Newton just invented calculus. Einstein really pushed it forward and did things with it. Not to knock Newton, since calculus is a really big deal. And his work with harmonic motion was great.

      But the stuff you really think about and use, like time dialation, that was all Einstein. And Newtonion Mechanics is hardly state of the art.

      Einstein, Heisenberg, and others must have looked back and thought; "What did you really contribute, Newton? You didn't even have the concept of light having a finite speed."

      No one ever stood on the shoulders of giant before, right?
    • Yes, the BSD guys; McKusick, Joy, Karels, and a few other people that I have forgotten, have made some huge contributions to the Unix world (you can thank Bill Joy for vi and the C shell). You can also thank them, as well as Bill Jolitz, for being able to run freely available BSD derivatives on your PCs. However, the original Unix 32V sources (which BSD was derived from until Karels decided to purge BSD of all AT&T "taint" in the late 80s), the orignial kernels, the original programs, and many of the

  • Doug McIlroy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by theoddball ( 665938 ) <> on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @10:55PM (#13336183)
    Hell of a guy, and a prof who's still teaching undergrads. Bell Labs is where he did his best work, but he's still a very, very sharp guy.

    I mean, there's something to be said for learning data structures and operating systems from a guy who helped invent the idea of pipes.

    McIlroy's homepage [].

    • Hell of a guy, and a prof who's still teaching undergrads.

            Eww. Whatever for? Undergrads don't deserve to be taught. The little parasites. All they think about is sex and beer. They're not interested in learning at all. What a waste of time. Come back in 4 years, I'm busy. Let me finish my research.

  • by anothy ( 83176 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @10:58PM (#13336198) Homepage
    just for clarity, there hasn't been an AT&T department 1127 since 1996; when Lucent split off, 1127, along with the rest of Bell Labs, went with them. this is a Lucent re-org.
    • Not all of Bell Labs went to Lucent, only the hardware R&D and the name. AT&T kept most of the software R&D and renamed them AT&T Labs. In the 1990's, they went around buying other companies R&D facilities and expanding AT&T Labs, only to start closing them down mid 2000. I was working at their development lab in the UK until it was closed at the end of 2000, the research lab in Cambridge (where VNC hails from) followed a couple of years later.
  • by HockeyPuck ( 141947 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @11:10PM (#13336251)
    Although IBM [] may be out of the disk drive business, they are still working on it. Take a look at the Almaden Research Center in San Jose [] still going strong after all these years.

  • It seems like they would have a hard time attracting the talent to keep the group open. My dad, an 18 year Bell Labs veteran, left Telcordia /Bellcore/Bell Labs five years ago. The downturn in the tech industry forced many others to leave for more lucrative jobs while they were still available. Two of the math/CS teachers at my old high school were from Bell, for instance.
  • Bell Labs is part of Lucent, not AT&T. The article is about the demise of a Lucent department.
  • by Thornkin ( 93548 ) on Tuesday August 16, 2005 @11:40PM (#13336376) Homepage
    Bell labs, DEC, and Xerox PARC may be things of the past, but Microsoft is funding a lot of general research today. This is not product R&D but basic research of the sort done at many of the big companies of the past. Check out their website [] for a list of some current topics. They employ over 700 people doing everything from pure algorithms to graphics to networking.
    • What good does all their research do if it's going to end up in half-assed implementations and closed to the world so we cannot benefit from it?
    • Too bad their contributions to society can be measured in terms of:
      GUI inconsistencies
      Flight simulators
    • You won't catch me singing Microsofts praises too often, but MS Research is an important contributer to CS today. For example, they employ Simon Peyton Jones [], the guy behind Haskell and GHC.

    • Just wondering if you can name anything thats come out of Microsoft Research that qualifies as revolutionary or groundbreaking? Spending money on research and collecting big names like Akeley and Blinn, for example, in their graphic department doesn't mean they're producing anything that will have lasting impact, like Unix and C did. Microsoft reputation, which they have a hard time shaking no matter how many billions they spend on research is all the groundbreaking stuff happens elsewhere, they just embr
  • ... just an administrative reorg forced by recent cutbacks and layoffs and departures that left the whole research area with too many managers and too few researchers.

    Wow, the only thing I can think of as a response is:

    Et tu, brute?

  • It's not over yet!

    Netcraft hasn't confirmed it yet!
  • Didn't AT&T sell Unix to Novell back in 1993? What have these guys been working on since then?
  • by Marc Rochkind ( 775756 ) on Wednesday August 17, 2005 @01:26AM (#13336803) Homepage
    I was at Bell Labs from 1970 to 1982, and I don't remember any Dept. 1127. My 1980 Bell Labs Directory shows a Dept. 1271, led by McIlroy, consisting of Cherry, Morris, Thompson, Aho, Baker, Lengaauer, Syzmanski, Weinberger, and Yannakakis. Its sibling, Dept. 1273, led by Fraser, consisted of Chesson, Kernighan, Ritchie, Stroustrup, Vollaro, Johnson, Ditzel, Elliott, and Feldman. (No Pike--I don't think he was at Bell Labs yet.)

    I guess everyone thinks that Thompson and Ritchie were in the same department during the 1970s, but I do remember always knowing that they were not.

    Note that by 1980 UNIX-related OS research at Bell Labs was nearly completed. Development of UNIX, which is where I worked, was very active and remained so for another 10+ years, but that's different from research. (Center 127 did research in many areas unrelated to UNIX.)

    So, undoubtedly there was a recent reorg and some department went away, and maybe it was even 1127, but what that means, if anything (since Thompson, Kernighan, and others left a while ago), I have no idea.

    Anyway, I think the gist of the article and most of the responses here is that it's sad that AT&T and Lucent are no longer combined and able to spend as lavishly on research as they once did. That part of this thread is true.

    A few posts are from Bell Labs people who said it was a great place to work, and that's true, too.

    • I think - and it's hard to remember back to a summer scholarship about 11 years ago - that an extra '1' got prepended to the namespace at some point. So what you remember as Center 127 was 1127 by the time I was there (in 1995), and Dept 1271 was 11271.

      So, I think Salus should have written Center 1127, not Department 1127, but the gist of the article is correct.
  • So much for Darl's open letter []!

    (before you mod me troll, back off of the mouse, and try to see the humor in the above comment!)
  • I was never in 1127 (I was a 9212 down at Holmdel), but seeing 1127 finally die is sad.

    It is indeed a reflection of the Labs' culture and research environment vanishing, never to return...

    It was a great environment, and we made some great things there. :o)

    Take care,

Loose bits sink chips.