Computer Science Talk
Dr. Thomas Haigh
Jean Tague-Sutcliffe Visiting Scholar
The Secret History of Open Source: Origins in the 1950s Military-Industrial Complex
July 11, 2012
North Campus Building
The roots of modern open source software projects are conventionally traced to Linux in the early 1990s and to GNU and the Free Software Foundation in the mid-1980s. This grounds open source software in an ideology of opposition to the corporate dominance of the conventional software industry. I present an alternative story: that most of the formal characteristics and informal practices involved in open source projects can be traced back to early corporate users of IBM mainframes during the 1950s, centered on the military aerospace industry. By 1956 the SHARE user group had adopted a software library, distribution of standards for coding and documentation, mechanisms to support discussion between project members, mechanisms to report bugs back to the authors of routines, and mechanisms for users to contribute improvements back into a common code base. Creating these routines was laborious but brought little proprietary advantage, so firms realized they would benefit by pooling their efforts. I conclude with a re-evaluation of the assumed centrality of "hacker" culture to open source practice in the light of these continuities with established corporate and scientific practice.
Thomas Haigh is an Associate Professor with the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
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