The X Window System is 10 years old today!

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Jim Gettys

Jun 19, 1994, 11:02:38 AM6/19/94
Or at least the first window system called X is 10 years old; X Version 11 is
really the third significant design for a window system with the name X.

The lineage is:
Versions 1-6 Monochrome only, ran on DEC VS100's displays
connected to VAXen and VAXstations 1 and 2.
Versions 8-10 Dealt with color, for the VAXstation II/GPX.
X10 is the first version that saw widespread
availability and use on many vendor's systems.
Version 11 Redesign for higher performance, more window
management styles, extensibility and better graphics
capability. There were at least 4 protocol versions
during alpha and beta test, but it would have confused
small minded people in the world to have incremented
the version numbers the way we did before. Versions in
X refer to protocol versions, e.g. when your old applications
would stop working. Many earlier versions were small,
though incompatible changes, that might only require
recompilation and/or relinking.

The first mail message widely available on X is below:

Return-Path: <rws@mit-bold>
From: rws@mit-bold (Robert W. Scheifler)
Date: 19 Jun 1984 0907-EDT (Tuesday)
To: window@athena
Subject: window system X

I've spent the last couple weeks writing a window system for the
VS100. I stole a fair amount of code from W, surrounded it with
an asynchronous rather than a synchronous interface, and called it
X. Overall performance appears to be about twice that of W. The
code seems fairly solid at this point, although there are still
some deficiencies to be fixed up. We at LCS have stopped using W,
and are now actively building applications on X. Anyone else
using W should seriously consider switching. This is not the
ultimate window system, but I believe it is a good starting point
for experimentation. Right at the moment there is a CLU (and an
Argus) interface to X; a C interface is in the works. The three
existing applications are a text editor (TED), an Argus I/O
interface, and a primitive window manager. There is no
documentation yet; anyone crazy enough to volunteer? I may get
around to it eventually. Anyone interested in seeing a demo can
drop by NE43-531, although you may want to call 3-1945 first.
Anyone who wants the code can come by with a tape. Anyone
interested in hacking deficiencies, feel free to get in touch.

I guess I'll get this out a few hours late today. Oh well.

A month or two before this mail message, I remember walking into my
office, where my office-mate (Steve Miller) had been debugging some
distributed code for system management, as I remember. He had several
ascii terminals, between which he had a piece of scotch tape and
a sign "Project Athena Window System" hung, to deliberately tweak
his office mate. I don't think Steve had any expectation of anything usable
so soon...

The early history is that an over-eager Digital salesperson had sold
VS100's to Bob Scheifler's group at LCS, and we were using VS100's at
Project Athena, as the first thing that could be called a "workstation",
though VS100's were bitmap displays connected to UNIBUS VAXes. We had
W from Paul Asente and Brian Reid of Stanford (Paul had been a summer student
at Digital's Western Research Laboratory), but other than some use for graphics,
we had not used it much. In May of 1984 we finally received stable firmware
for the VS100's, so finally were able to actually make some forward progress;
before then, we regarded VS100's as expensive almost boat-anchors. Both
Bob and I had played with W, but had not started serious work, though W
had been available to us for 6 months or more.

The large, significant design changes that distinguished X from W included:
1) asynchronous protocol allowing much higher performance.
2) deletion of structured graphics, and replacement with immediate
graphics protocol requests.

The genesis occurred while I was off on vacation and away at USENIX. I returned to
this mail; furious hacking both at LCS and Athena occurred all summer, and X
first saw wide use at Project Athena starting in September of 1984.

One amusing historical note; in 1984 MIT did not have a useable TCP/IP
campus network; the most (geogrphically) widespread network on campus was
CHAOSnet, running its own protocols, which is why the reference to a tape.
While we (attempted) to run IP on top of CHAOS, it typically didn't work
well enough to actually get significant amounts of data across campus,
as Bob was in LCS, and I was in E40.

On the appropriate date, I'll post the original protocol specification,
for your amusement. Bob showed incipient signs of insanity and produced
some... :-).
Jim Gettys

Digital Equipment Corporation
Cambridge Research Laboratory

Digital Equipment Corporation
Cambridge Research Laboratory

James Koukalik

Jun 22, 1994, 11:21:05 PM6/22/94
Jim Gettys ( wrote:
: Or at least the first window system called X is 10 years old; X Version 11 is
: really the third significant design for a window system with the name X.

: The lineage is:
[rest deleted...]

This is the kind of interesting posts that I wade through endless flames
and Usenet garbage to find. A bit of history (especially for us that haven't
been around quite that long) and informative posts are refreshing. Thanks.

Jim Koukalik Mediatech, Inc.
System Administrator Chicago, IL
voice mail: 1-312-828-9223 218

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