I once had a debate with members of my extended family about whether a computer science degree is a degree worth pursuing. I was in college at the time and trying to decide whether I should major in computer science. My aunt and a cousin of mine believed that I shouldn't. They conceded that knowing how to program is of course a useful and lucrative thing, but they argued that the field of computer science advances so quickly that everything I learned would almost immediately be outdated. Better to pick up programming on the side and instead major in a field like economics or physics where the basic principles would be applicable throughout my lifetime.
I knew that my aunt and cousin were wrong and decided to major in computer
science. (Sorry, aunt and cousin!) It is easy to see why the average person
might believe that a field like computer science, or a profession like software
engineering, completely reinvents itself every few years. We had personal
computers, then the web, then phones, then machine learning... technology is
always changing, so surely all the underlying principles and techniques change
too. Of course, the amazing thing is how little actually changes. Most people,
I'm sure, would be stunned to know just how old some of the important software
on their computer really is. I'm not talking about flashy application software,
admittedly—my copy of Firefox, the program I probably use the most on my
computer, is not even two weeks old. But, if you pull up the manual page for
grep, you will see that it has not been updated since 2010 (at
least on MacOS). And the original version of
grep was written in 1974, which
in the computing world was back when dinosaurs roamed Silicon Valley. People
(and programs) still depend on
grep every day.
My aunt and cousin thought of computer technology as a series of increasingly
elaborate sand castles supplanting one another after each high tide clears the
beach. The reality, at least in many areas, is that we steadily accumulate
programs that have solved problems. We might have to occasionally modify these
programs to avoid software rot, but otherwise they can be left alone.
a simple program that solves a still-relevant problem, so it survives. Most
application programming is done at a very high level, atop a pyramid of much
older code solving much older problems. The ideas and concepts of 30 or 40
years ago, far from being obsolete today, have in many cases been embodied in
software that you can still find installed on your laptop.
I thought it would be interesting to take a look at one such old program and
see how much it had changed since it was first written.
cat is maybe the
simplest of all the Unix utilities, so I'm going to use it as my example.
Ken Thompson wrote the original implementation of
cat in 1969. If I were to
tell somebody that I have a program on my computer from 1969, would that be
accurate? How much has
cat really evolved over the decades? How old is the
software on our computers?
Thanks to repositories like this
one, we can see exactly how
cat has evolved since 1969. I'm going to focus on implementations of
that are ancestors of the implementation I have on my Macbook. You will see, as
cat from the first versions of Unix down to the
cat in MacOS
today, that the program has been rewritten more times than you might expect—but
it ultimately works more or less the same way it did fifty years ago.
Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie began writing Unix on a
PDP 7. This was in 1969, before C, so all of the early Unix software was
written in PDP 7 assembly. The exact flavor of assembly they used was unique to
Unix, since Ken Thompson wrote his own assembler that added some features on
top of the assembler provided by DEC, the PDP 7's manufacturer. Thompson's
changes are all documented in the original Unix Programmer's
Manual under the entry for
as, the assembler.
cat is thus in PDP 7 assembly. I've added comments that try to
explain what each instruction is doing, but the program is still difficult to
follow unless you understand some of the extensions Thompson made while writing
his assembler. There are two important ones. First, the
; character can be
used to separate multiple statements on the same line. It appears that this was
used most often to put system call arguments on the same line as the
instruction. Second, Thompson added support for "temporary labels" using the
digits 0 through 9. These are labels that can be reused throughout a program,
thus being, according to the Unix Programmer's Manual, "less taxing both on the
imagination of the programmer and on the symbol space of the assembler."
From any given instruction, you can refer to the next or most recent temporary
nb respectively. For example, if you have some code
in a block labeled
1:, you can jump back to that block from further down by
using the instruction
jmp 1b. (But you cannot jump forward to that block
from above without using
jmp 1f instead.)
The most interesting thing about this first version of
cat is that it
contains two names we should recognize. There is a block of instructions
getc and a block of instructions labeled
putc, demonstrating that
these names are older than the C standard library. The first version
cat actually contained implementations of both functions. The
implementations buffered input so that reads and writes were not done a
character at a time.
The first version of
cat did not last long. Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie
were able to persuade Bell Labs to buy them a PDP 11 so that they could
continue to expand and improve Unix. The PDP 11 had a different instruction
cat had to be rewritten. I've marked up this second
cat with comments as well. It uses new assembler mnemonics for the new
instruction set and takes advantage of the PDP 11's various addressing
you are confused by the parentheses and dollar signs in the source code, those
are used to indicate different addressing modes.) But it also leverages the
character and temporary labels just like the first version of
that these features must have been retained when
as was adapted for the
The second version of
cat is significantly simpler than the first. It is also
more "Unix-y" in that it doesn't just expect a list of filename arguments—it
will, when given no arguments, read from
stdin, which is what
does today. You can also give this version of
cat an argument of
indicate that it should read from
In 1973, in preparation for the release of the Fourth Edition of Unix, much of
Unix was rewritten in C. But
cat does not seem to have been rewritten in C
until a while after that. The first C
cat only shows up in the Seventh Edition of Unix. This implementation is
really fun to look through because it is so simple. Of all the implementations
to follow, this one most resembles the idealized
cat used as a pedagogic
demonstration in K&R C. The heart of the program is the classic two-liner:
while ((c = getc(fi)) != EOF) putchar(c);
There is of course quite a bit more code than that, but the extra code is
mostly there to ensure that you aren't reading and writing to the same file.
The other interesting thing to note is that this implementation of
recognized one flag,
-u flag could be used to avoid buffering input
and output, which
cat would otherwise do in blocks of 512 bytes.
After the Seventh Edition, Unix spawned all sorts of derivatives and offshoots.
MacOS is built on top of Darwin, which in turn is derived from the Berkeley
Software Distribution (BSD), so BSD is the Unix offshoot we are most interested
in. BSD was originally just a collection of useful programs and add-ons for
Unix, but it eventually became a complete operating system. BSD seems to have
relied on the original
cat implementation up until the fourth BSD release,
known as 4BSD, when support was added for a whole slew of new flags. The 4BSD
cat is clearly derived from the original implementation, though it
adds a new function to implement the behavior triggered by the new flags. The
naming conventions already used in the file were adhered to—the
variable, used to mark whether input was being read from
stdin or a file, was
tflg, all there to
record whether or not each new flag was supplied in the invocation of the
program. These were the last command-line flags added to
cat; the man page
cat today lists these flags and no others, at least on Mac OS. 4BSD was
released in 1980, so this set of flags is 38 years old.
cat would be entirely rewritten a final time for BSD Net/2, which was, among
other things, an attempt to avoid licensing issues by replacing all AT&T
Unix-derived code with new code. BSD Net/2 was released in 1991. This final
cat was done by Kevin Fall, who graduated from Berkeley in 1988
and spent the next year working as a staff member at the Computer Systems
Research Group (CSRG). Fall told me that a list of Unix utilities still
implemented using AT&T code was put up on a wall at CSRG and staff were told to
pick the utilities they wanted to reimplement. Fall picked
cat implementation bundled with MacOS today is built from a source file
that still bears his name at the very top. His version of
cat, even though it
is a relatively trivial program, is today used by millions.
cat is much longer than anything we have seen so far. Other than
support for a
-? help flag, it adds nothing in the way of new functionality.
Conceptually, it is very similar to the 4BSD implementation. It is only
longer because Fall separates the implementation into a "raw" mode and a
"cooked" mode. The "raw" mode is
cat classic; it prints a file character for
character. The "cooked" mode is
cat with all the 4BSD command-line options.
The distinction makes sense but it also pads out the implementation so that it
seems more complex at first glance than it actually is. There is also a fancy
error handling function at the end of the file that further adds to its length.
In 2001, Apple launched Mac OS X. The launch was an important one for Apple, because Apple had spent many years trying and failing to replace its existing operating system (classic Mac OS), which had long been showing its age. There were two previous attempts to create a new operating system internally, but both went nowhere; in the end, Apple bought NeXT, Steve Jobs' company, which had developed an operating system and object-oriented programming framework called NeXTSTEP. Apple took NeXTSTEP and used it as a basis for Mac OS X. NeXTSTEP was in part built on BSD, so using NeXTSTEP as a starting point for Mac OS X brought BSD-derived code right into the center of the Apple universe.
The very first release of Mac OS X thus includes an
cat pulled from the NetBSD project. NetBSD, which remains in development
today, began as a fork of 386BSD, which in turn was based directly on BSD
Net/2. So the first Mac OS X implementation of
cat is Kevin Fall's
The only thing that had changed over the intervening decade was that Fall's
err() was removed and the
err() function made
err.h was used in its place.
err.h is a BSD extension to the C
The NetBSD implementation of
cat was later swapped out for FreeBSD's
cat. According to
began using FreeBSD instead of NetBSD in Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther). But the Mac
OS X implementation of
cat, according to Apple's own open source releases,
was not replaced until Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) was released in 2007. The
that Apple swapped in for the Leopard release is the same implementation on
Apple computers today. As of 2018, the implementation has not been
updated or changed at all since 2007.
So the Mac OS
cat is old. As it happens, it is actually two
years older than its 2007 appearance in MacOS X would suggest. This 2005
which is visible in FreeBSD's Github mirror, was the last change made to
cat before Apple pulled it into Mac OS X. So the Mac OS X
implementation, which has not been kept in sync with FreeBSD's
implementation, is officially 13 years old. There's a larger debate to be had
about how much software can change before it really counts as the same
software; in this case, the source file has not changed at all since 2005.
cat implementation used by Mac OS today is not that different from the
implementation that Fall wrote for the 1991 BSD Net/2 release. The biggest
difference is that a whole new function was added to provide Unix domain socket
support. At some point, a FreeBSD developer also seems to have decided that
raw_args() function and
cook_args() should be combined into a single
scanfiles(). Otherwise, the heart of the program is still
I asked Fall how he felt about having written the
cat implementation now used
by millions of Apple users, either directly or indirectly through some program
that relies on
cat being present. Fall, who is now a consultant and a
co-author of the most recent editions of TCP/IP Illustrated, says that he is
surprised when people get such a thrill out of learning about his work on
cat. Fall has had a long career in computing and has worked on many
high-profile projects, but it seems that many people still get most excited
about the six months of work he put into rewriting
cat in 1989.
In the grand scheme of things, computers are not an old invention. We're used to hundred-year-old photographs or even hundred-year-old camera footage. But computer programs are in a different category—they're high-tech and new. At least, they are now. As the computing industry matures, will we someday find ourselves using programs that approach the hundred-year-old mark?
Computer hardware will presumably change enough that we won't be able to
take an executable compiled today and run it on hardware a century from now.
Perhaps advances in programming language design will also mean that nobody will
understand C in the future and
cat will have long since been rewritten in
another language. (Though C has already been around for fifty years, and it
doesn't look like it is about to be replaced any time soon.) But barring all
that, why not just keep using the
cat we have forever?
I think the history of
cat shows that some ideas in computer science are in
fact very durable. Indeed, with
cat, both the idea and the program itself are
old. It may not be accurate to say that the
cat on my computer is from 1969.
But I could make a case for saying that the
cat on my computer is from 1989,
when Fall wrote his implementation of
cat. Lots of other software is just as
ancient. So maybe we shouldn't think of computer science and software
development primarily as fields that disrupt the status quo and invent new
things. Our computer systems are built out of historical artifacts. At some
point, we may all spend more time trying to understand and maintain those
historical artifacts than we spend writing new code.