The Computer Priesthood and the Culture of Happy Hacking (1)

Primary tabs

Our modern computers are an offspring of wartime military need. In the early twentieth century, “computer” still meant a human profession, not a machine.[21] It meant those people who were hired by the U.S. army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory (BRL) to hand-calculate firing tables for rockets and artillery shells. Because of the wartime male labor shortage during World War II, BRL began to recruit female mathematicians as human computers. On the other hand, BRL supported the University of Pennsylvania where the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) project was created in order to automate ballistics calculation. The project was quite successful.

In the summer of 1945, the first electronic computer was already demonstrating its impressive calculating power. As historian Jennifer Light points out, the ENIAC computer replaced two hundred human computers exactly as planned. Furthermore, this government-sponsored computer industry not only soon forgot its women computers, but also reserved its new positions—programmers and engineers—for men released from military service. Huge machines, super power, and male professionals all became characteristics that people associated with computers in the following decades, and to some extent, even to this day.

Until personal computers came into the world in the mid-1970s, a hierarchical access control system governed how computers interacted with their users. In the three decades following the birth of the ENIAC, a basic computer easily cost several million dollars. Only big companies and well-funded research institutions could afford such computers, and computers were manufactured with the mantra “the stronger, the better.” As a result, no one would risk damaging such valuable property by allowing an inexperienced user access. Indeed, most users of this period never physically touched the computer. For every computer, only a select group of administrators, “priests” in users’ slang, were allowed to physically operate the machines.[22]

This access control system—called the “computer priesthood”—was frustrating to users. With the computer priests mediating between users and the machines, using computers became a ritualistic exchange. No matter how passionate and for what purpose a user requested the computer to perform some calculation, after submitting a program (most often written in the low level machine language on punch cards) to the priests, all one could do was wait. Moreover, the waiting period could range from hours to days. Worse, more often than not, the returned results were not the desired calculation results but a bunch of error messages that hardly explained where the program went wrong. It always required a careful and lengthy check of the program and then its re-submission.

On the other hand, there were some users who enthusiastically fell in love with these mighty machines, regardless of the strict control under the computer priesthood. Such users called themselves “hackers.” Hackers often violated the access regulations, sneaked into machinery rooms, and were never afraid to touch the valuable computers. The waiting period for the computer to return results was unbearable, so they wrote more and kept computers busy with programs that seemed to be wasting the resources of the multi-million dollar machines. Hacker Peter Samson at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for example, wrote one of the earliest programs for playing melodies, with very poor sound quality, on a computer that was designed for mathematical calculation and not for entertainment.[23] This kind of enthusiasm looked insane to outsiders. Furthermore, the computer priesthood did not appreciate the hackers’ obsession with computers.

21. For a more detailed history of the first computer, ENIAC, see Jennifer S. Light, “When Computers Were Women,” Technology and Culture 40, no. 3 (1999).
22. Eric S. Raymond, The New Hacker's Dictionary, 3d ed. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1999), 364.
23. Levy, Hackers, 34.