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The ‘Bun Reunion – Celebrating the 1970’s Roots of the Digital Age

by Randall on July 16, 2012 · 14 comments

Posted in: General,History,Randall Howard,Society,Software,Web

If you are in any way connected to this story, see link to event invitation at end of this post.

In August 1972, just before the start of fall classes, a new arrival was causing a stir in the Math & Computer building at University of Waterloo – a brand new Honeywell 6050 mainframe size computer running GCOS (General Comprehensive Operating Supervisor) and TSS (TimeSharing System). The arrival of this computer (which quickly got nicknamed, “HoneyBun” and eventually “The ‘Bun”) set the stage for a whole new generation of computer innovators at University of Waterloo and was the foundation for many a computer and internet innovator.

In retrospect, it was a fortuitous time to be young and engaged in computing. A fluid group of enthusiast programmers, “The Hacks” (a variant of the term “Hackers” popularized by MIT, yet not to be confused with the later “Crackers” who were all about malicious security breaches), revelled in getting these expensive machines (yet by today’s standards underpowered)  to do super-human feats. The early 1970’s was the decade when software was coming into its own as a free-standing discipline, for the first time unbundled and unshackled from the underlying hardware. The phenemena of the timing of one’s birth affecting whole careers is eerily (the years are the same as my own) described by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2009 book Outliers.

The Honeywell had a whole culture of operators, SNUMBs, LLINKs, GMAP, MMEs, DRLs, Master Mode and not to mention that infamous pitcher of beer for anyone who could break its security. To do so was remarkably easy. For example, one day the system was down, as was commonplace in those days. As it happened the IBM 2741 terminals were loaded to print on the backs of a listing of the entire GCOS operating system. Without the ‘Bun to amuse us, we challenged each other to find at least one bug on a single page of this GCOS assembler listing. And, remarkably for a system reputed to be secure, each of us found at least one bug  that was serious enough to be a security hole. This is pretty troubling for a computer system targeted to mission critical, military applications, including running the World Wide Command and Control System (WWMCCS – ie. the nuclear early warning and decision mechanism).

Shortly after the arrival of the Honeywell, Steve Johnson came to the Math Faculty on sabbatical from Bell Labs. The prolific creator of many iconic UNIX tools such as Yacc, he is also famous for the quote: “Using TSO is like kicking a dead whale down the beach”. I suspect that few people realize his key role in introducing Bell Labs culture to University of Waterloo so early, including B Programming Language, getchar(), putchar(), the beginnings of the notion of software portability and, of course, yacc. It is hard to underestimate the influence on a whole generation at Waterloo of the Bell Labs culture – a refreshing switch from the IBM and Computing Centre hegemony of the time.

The adoption of the high level language B, in addition to the GMAP assembler, unleashed a tremendous amount of hacker creativity, including work in languages, early networking, very early email (1973), the notion of a command and utilities world (even pre-UNIX) and some very high level abstractions, including writing an Easter date calculator in the macros embedded inside the high level editor QED.

Ultimately, Steve’s strong influence led to University of Waterloo being among the first schools worldwide to get the religion that was (and is) UNIX. As recounted in my recent post remembering the late Dennis Ritchie, first CCNG was able to get a tape directly from Ken Thompson to run UNIX in an amazing 1973. That machine is pictured below. A few years later, several of us UNIX converts commandeered, with assistance from several professors, a relatively unused PDP-11/45 on the 6th floor of the Math building. This ultimately became Math/UNIX which provided an almost production system complement to the ‘Bun on the 3rd floor. And, even the subject of several journal papers, we built file transfer, printing and job submission networked applications to connect them.

Photo Courtesy Jan Gray

So, whether you were an instigator, quiet observer or just an interested party, we’d love you to join us to commemorate the decade of creativity unleashed by the arrival of the Honeywell 050 years ago. We’ve got a weekend of events planned from August 17-19, 2012, with a special gala celebratory dinner on the 18th. We hope you can join us and do share this with friends so that we don’t miss anyone. Check out the details here at:


And, do try to scrounge around in your memories for anecdotes, photos and other things to bring this important milestone to life. Long before Twitter handles, I was rjhoward, so do include your Honeywell userID if you can recall it.

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About Randall

Randall Howard is a serial entrepreneur and long term technologist with a passion for social innovation.

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  • Neil LaChapelle

    Thank you for posting this wonderful bit of – for many of us – deep history about the Waterloo tech scene. I strongly believe that knowing this stuff makes me a better member of the tech community here. Knowing the roots of our local tech culture/cluster makes me better aligned with it in some relatively intangible ways, I know, but I value that alignment. There is something clarifying about it.

  • Preston

    Steve also characterized Honeywell TSS as being like trying to catch a cricket with your bare hands.

  • I’m still “idallen” most everywhere I’ve been since. Alas, I can’t make the reunion.

  • I was rjwhite at UW for at least 25 years since the Bun days, till it got noticed and blown away 🙂    Today I am usually just rj on machines I control.I still have my GMAP (and Fortran) pocket guides for the Bun.I loved the B programming language.I didn’t show up at UW till 76, but the old hacks told me wonderful stories about the security holes they found.  Like masternberg.  haha.Not sure if I can make it – already have a reunion on the 18th I said I’d go to…

  • Ah yes, the Bun. I remember it from my early UW days (1983+). One of the first machines to have Maple running on it (the earliest versions of Maple were coded so that a custom macro processor could emit either B or C code for compilation).

  • Judy

    I was jamcmull as you only had 8 letters for your userid. I’m using pretty well the same uid now on gmail but I’ve gone all the way to 10 letters.

  • Michael Dillon

    Randall, mpdillon here. Didn’t you write the lc command (list contents) that allowed you to specify how many EOF markers to skip before displaying data? Combining that with creating large files in the AFT (temp files) led to some interesting snooping. One thing that was discovered was a large segment of a list of student login accounts and passwords that were created automatically for every Math student. But in 74, only a small percentage of students knew about the ‘bun so if you logged in on an account in the middle of the term and they hadn’t used any of their quotas, chances are they never would. That file was transmitted to the IBM-360 downstairs and stashed in a WITS account for reference by a number of the junior hacks.

    Also, there was the password obfuscation on 2741 terminals that could be defeated by simply holding up the paper to the reflection of a bright light and reading the shiny password characters that had been printed last.

    My favourite was the news printout that the MFCF operators used to hang on the bulletin board beside their door. That newslog was really the predecessor of the blog, in reverse chronological order. Remember the CCNG and the first glimmers of digital photography?

  • jsgray

    Thanks for explaining the S.C. Johnson connection. I had no idea how the Unix culture came to Waterloo.

    Check out Thinkage’s GCOS expl catalog for real down-memory-lane fun: http://www.thinkage.ca/english/gcos/expl/masterindex.html

    I was just a young twerp user, but I fondly remember the Telerays and particularly rmcrook/adv/hstar.
    As well as this dialog (approximate) :-
      Sorry, colossal cave is closed now.
      > WIZARD
      Prove you’re a wizard? What’s the password?
      Foo, you are nothing but a charlatan.


  • Ken Lalonde

    Hi Randall.  I’d love to join you, but  I have a long-planned family reunion that weekend. 
    I feel very lucky to have been part of the Honeywell/early Unix UW culture during the early 80’s.  What a strange and amazing bunch of characters.  I remember epic mass frizbee sessions in the quad (and cooling down in the bun machine room after), Bill Joy’s visit, hearing of John Lennon’s death via email in the bun terminal room, my own zealous conversion to the Unix cult thanks to the above-mentioned hacks (still a believer!).Have a great time.  Wish I was there,- kwlalonde

  • Pingback: Photo Album from The Bun Reunion | Randall Howard()

  • Ernie Chang

    The details of my part of the UNIX story is this:

    In the summer of 1973, I went down to Bell Labs and visited Steve Johnson,
    and brought back an RK-5 disk pack with the UNIX system on it, for the
    PDP-11/45, which Jim Linders (then a prof at Waterloo in CSc) and others got for
    the lab….it had a Century DIVA disk (bit disk pack) on it, but no RK-05 pizza
    platter reader. The adjoining Combinatorics had a PDP-11/40, so Mike Malcolm and
    Gary Sager (new profs at Waterloo) got the two talking to each other using a
    wire string across the ceiling, and keyed in from the front console, a download
    program to write to the Century Diva disk from the adjoining 11/40. Thus, UNIX
    in Math was brought to life, probably just after CCNG got theirs up. I recall
    that Kevin Pammett (student) may have had something to do with it at CCNG, but
    of course, Eric Manning was head of CCNG and takes most of the credit for its

    In the Math/UNIX lab, Dave Martindale was the chief systems hack, ably
    working together with Randall Howard and Ciaran O’Donnell. This I feel was more
    important for the universe of computing than the Honeywell, which after all,
    expired eventually (though I was able to print out my PhD thesis for the
    University of Toronto using troff and the photoprinter on the Honewell – and did
    my numerical analysis homework from U of T there, and experiments in distributed
    computing)….in any case…the reason that the Math/UNIX is important is that
    Coherent came out of it, and the lawsuits that Bell Labs lost to Coherent meant
    (to me, correct me if I am wrong) that Unix BSD and its progenies including
    Linux, were able to gain validity.

    Now of course, the hunking IBM mainframes run Linux as a front end, and
    network interface, and the legacy programs run within Linux as

    It turns out that the PDP-11/45 I got UVIC to buy for my research lab in
    1980, called Arctic Research, was the first recipient of an email to UVIC, based
    on the UNIX system we installed there – the first one at UVIC, and the system
    hack for it from that time was Brian Baird, recently Technical Director of
    Broadcom in San Jose.

    Sorry I cannot make it Aug 18 but I hope Dave Martindale will show up. He
    was certainly a major figure in the mid-70s in the Math/Unix lab.

    Ernie Chang

  • HJZid

    Kinda late, but I just found this site after telling a colleague about the Bun, and then doing a search. I came to UW in the fall of 1975, and remember how utterly powerful QED was. I also remember the Grelber command (it would hurl insults at you, named after the troll character in the Broom Hilda comic strip), and how common swear words (.e.g. fu**off) were parsed by the shell: You were given a 50% chance after being admonished (“That’s not nice…”) of being immediately logged off. (“Hope you have your files saved!”). I used the terminals (2400 baud!) in the model railroad lab. Thanks for taking me back! (I think…)

  • jeff hayes

    hey folks, this is really cool to read, thanks Randall! For my part .. i was in SD Engineering from 75 to 80 and knew about the Big Red Room from being bussed up from Toronto while in high school the previous two years. One of the first things i did when I got to campus was to stroll over to the Math Building for a good poke around .. found out that math undergrads did not need to use cards to program .. there were screens for those with an account, and lo an behold, eng. undergrads could get one too!! My entree to the world of modern computing was jjhayes, an ID that i used for a long time thereafter. That first semester I figured out how to drive the Calcomp plotter from the 360 mainframe to do 3D perspective drawings of simple objects. That experience was critical later .. I made the cut to get into the 3D CG course in later years because I could show that I already had some idea of what I wanted to do!
    Some study term later .. might have been 1B or 2A, i found the PDP that was running Unix and got a friendly grad student to make an acct for me .. then I found out about the link to the Bun, and its phototypesetter .. there after all my school reports were troffed and my first library of text processing macros was born. Before XML there was troff markup, and before Word there was Vi 😉
    I rem sitting beside a guy who could touch type at what seemed like over a hundred words a minute .. as he was writing C code !! Charles Forsyth was not a chatty man, and was the only geek that habitually wore a three piece suit. I did get to play with a beta of his Lex program (the lexical analyzer for use with yacc) as he was making some revisions to it.
    By the end of my time at UW i was spending more time in the Math Building than in Engineering .. i did the Computer Graphics course with Kelly Booth and John Beatty as graphics was always my first love .. so i missed the Compilers course .. but i did manage to squeeze in the Real Time programming course and all of the course work was done .. on the bun.
    The incredible foresight of my choice to attend at Waterloo (as it was the only engineering school that disregarded my horrible English marks in high school) meant that i was already trained in the use of cutting edge equipment when I got out on work terms .. so i got some incredible advantages .. having done the CG course using Tektronix vector drawing terminals meant that my boss at the Kaiser Coal Company (later BC Coal) could assign me the job of developing a 3D modeling program for visualizing the data from cores being drilled all over a mountain side to map the coal seams that we need to extract. They had the same equipment and no one to program it !! that was my last work term.
    Another name to drop .. everyone doing CG work with Kelly/Beatty wanted the plum work experience of Alias Research in Toronto .. I never made it there for a work term job as they wanted math masters and PHDs .. but i kept at it and eventually my having known Math grad students paid off and I got a job in Support. I was with Alias|wavefront for just over 10 years and wish devoutly that SGI had not screwed up their handling of their software acquisitions so badly .. I would like to still be with those folks.

  • alan whitton

    I was avwhitton at the tail end of the Bun’s dynasty (1982) but was around for the Rise of the VAXen and such (now there seems to be a plethora of PC’s and such where old trusty Volker-Craig terminals used to live, how things change). Widget (sp?) was fun while it lasted too (PDP’s acting as front end to IBM Mini if I recollect correctly). Never used punched cards at Waterloo (but did elsewhere).

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