Maybe its pervasiveness has long obscured its origins. But Unix, the operating system that in one derivative or another powers nearly all smartphones sold worldwide, was born 50 years ago from the failure of an ambitious project that involved titans like Bell Labs, GE, and MIT. Largely the brainchild of a few programmers at Bell Labs, the unlikely story of Unix begins with a meeting on the top floor of an otherwise unremarkable annex at the sprawling Bell Labs complex in Murray Hill, New Jersey. [...] It wasn’t until late 1971 that the computer science department got a truly modern computer. The Unix team had developed several tools designed to automatically format text files for printing over the past year or so. They had done so to simplify the production of documentation for their pet project, but their tools had escaped and were being used by several researchers elsewhere on the top floor. At the same time, the legal department was prepared to spend a fortune on a mainframe program called “AstroText.” Catching wind of this, the Unix crew realized that they could, with only a little effort, upgrade the tools they had written for their own use into something that the legal department could use to prepare patent applications.
The computer science department pitched lab management on the purchase of a DEC PDP-11 for document production purposes, and Max Mathews offered to pay for the machine out of the acoustics department budget. Finally, management gave in and purchased a computer for the Unix team to play with. Eventually, word leaked out about this operating system, and businesses and institutions with PDP-11s began contacting Bell Labs about their new operating system. The Labs made it available for free—requesting only the cost of postage and media from anyone who wanted a copy.