The Hacker's Almanac for Friday March 16, 2007

16 March, 2007

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On this day in 1942, the German Military conducted the first test of the V2 rocket in Peenemunde, a small town near the Baltic coast. The test was a failure and the rocket flew only about 2 miles before crashing into the water.

The V2 was designed by German scientist Werner von Braun who'd been recruited for the military out of graduate school at the Technical University of Berlin. Based on the work of American scientist Robert Goddard, von Braun's rocket used a liquid fuel to propel itself briefly after launch before going into free fall. The onboard navigation system was accurate enough to hit a city from hundreds of miles away.

During the course of the war, about 3000 V2s were built, most of them at a slave labor camp in the Mittelwerk tunnel system near Nordhausen, Germany. The conditions in the camp were terrible and about a third of the 10,000 slaves working there died.

Half of the V2s were fired at Antwerp, Belgium and the other half at London. Since the rockets traveled faster than the speed of sound, they were inaudible in their target cities until after they hit making them a constant terror for the population. Their speed also made them invulnerable to counter-measures or electronic detection.

After the war, von Braun and a number of other German rocket scientists were recruited to work in the US. Von Braun became the father of US rocketry, working on long range nuclear weapons and the space program.

It's the birthday of software developer and political activist Richard Stallman, born in Manhattan in 1953. In high school, Stallman loved math and science and worked as an assistant in a biology lab at Rockefeller University. After graduating, he got a summer job with IBM at the New York Scientific Center where he wrote his first program before heading off to Harvard to study physics.

During his freshman year, Stallman took a programming job in the MIT AI lab where he discovered a community of like-minded hackers and eventually enrolled as a graduated student. At MIT, Stallman published a paper on artificial intelligence and worked on a series of tools for programmers including the Emacs text editor and the Lisp Machine Operating System. He gained a reputation as a critic of all restrictions on computer access and when the administrators of a computer lab he used installed a password control system, Stallman broke in and blanked all the passwords.

In 1980, Xerox donated one of their first laser printers to the lab, but didn't send along the source code so the programmers couldn't modify it to notify them of paper jams and completed jobs as they'd been able to do with earlier printers. After a few months of hunting, Stallman eventually tracked down the author of the code, Robert Sproull, a former Xerox employee now teaching at Carnegie Mellon. When he asked Sproull for the source code to the printer, Sproull refused explaining that he'd signed a non-disclosure agreement with Xerox.

Stallman was shocked. In academic computer science departments, program source code was almost always shared freely with colleagues so it could be commented on, improved, and adapted for local use, just like other academic publications. This was Stallman's first encounter with the new software industry, which kept its source code secret in order to make money selling compiled binary versions of its programs.

Over the next few years, one by one, most of Stallman's colleagues at the MIT AI lab left to join commercial software companies and Stallman's resistance to the trend grew more stringent. And in 1985, he left MIT to start the Free Software Foundation, an non-profit dedicated to creating an operating system and other programmer tools that would not be subject to the restrictions imposed by the commercial companies. Stallman published a manifesto explaining his ethics of software publishing: all programs must be free to copy and redistribute, all source code must be available for study, and programmers must be allowed to modify, improve, and redistribute existing code.

The main focus of the Foundation was on creating an operating system called 'GNU', which stood for 'GNU's Not Unix', a play on its functional similarity to the Unix system used widely on college campuses. In the 1990s, the Foundation combined its code with Linux, another freely licensed project, and the resulting operating system has been wildly successful. Stallman is often caught up in debates over credit for the project, insisting that it be called GNU/Linux to acknowledge the role of the Foundation in its creation.

Nowadays, the Foundation works mostly to provide legal support to programmers working on free software. One of its most important jobs is maintaining the GNU Public License, the legal contract under Linux and many other free software projects are licensed.

Stallman's position at the Foundation is unpaid and he supports himself with speaking fees and prize money from awards. He lives out of his office on the MIT campus where is an honorary 'research affiliate'.

All information courtesy of Wikipedia except where otherwise noted.

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