Rebuttal to Stallman’s Story About The Formation of Symbolics and LMI

Richard Stallman has been telling a story about the origins of the Lisp machine companies, and the effects on the M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Lab, for many years. He has published it in a book, and in a widely-referenced paper, which you can find at http://www.gnu.org/gnu/rms-lisp.html.

His account is highly biased, and in many places just plain wrong. Here’s my own perspective on what really happened.

Richard Greenblatt’s proposal for a Lisp machine company had two premises. First, there should be no outside investment. This would have been totally unrealistic: a company manufacturing computer hardware needs capital. Second, Greenblatt himself would be the CEO. The other members of the Lisp machine project were extremely dubious of Greenblatt’s ability to run a company. So Greenblatt and the others went their separate ways and set up two companies.

Stallman’s characterization of this as “backstabbing”, and that Symbolics decided not “not have scruples”, is pure hogwash. There was no backstabbing whatsoever. Symbolics was extremely scrupulous. Stallman’s characterization of Symbolics as “looking for ways to destroy” LMI is pure fantasy.

Stallman claims that Symbolics “hired away all the hackers” and that “the AI lab was now helpless” and “nobody had envisioned that the AI lab’s hacker group would be wiped out, but it was” and that Symbolics “wiped out MIT”. First of all, had there been only one Lisp machine company as Stallman would have preferred, exactly the same people would have left the AI lab. Secondly, Symbolics only hired four full-time and one part-time person from the AI lab (see below).

Stallman goes on to say: “So Symbolics came up with a plan. They said to the lab, ‘We will continue making our changes to the system available for you to use, but you can’t put it into the MIT Lisp machine system. Instead, we’ll give you access to Symbolics’ Lisp machine system, and you can run it, but that’s all you can do.’” In other words, software that was developed at Symbolics was not given away for free to LMI. Is that so surprising? Anyway, that wasn’t Symbolics’s “plan”; it was part of the MIT licensing agreement, the very same one that LMI signed. LMI’s changes were all proprietary to LMI, too.

Next, he says: “After a while, I came to the conclusion that it would be best if I didn’t even look at their code. When they made a beta announcement that gave the release notes, I would see what the features were and then implement them. By the time they had a real release, I did too.” First of all, he really was looking at the Symbolics code; we caught him doing it several times. But secondly, even if he hadn’t, it’s a whole lot easier to copy what someone else has already designed than to design it yourself. What he copied were incremental improvements: a new editor command here, a new Lisp utility there. This was a very small fraction of the software development being done at Symbolics.

His characterization of this as “punishing” Symbolics is silly. What he did never made any difference to Symbolics. In real life, Symbolics was rarely competing with LMI for sales. LMI’s existence had very little to do with Symbolics’s bottom line.

And while I’m setting the record straight, the original (TECO-based) Emacs was created and designed by Guy L. Steele Jr. and David Moon. After they had it working, and it had become established as the standard text editor at the AI lab, Stallman took over its maintenance.

Here is the list of Symbolics founders. Note that Bruce Edwards and I had worked at the MIT AI Lab previously, but had already left to go to other jobs before Symbolics started. Henry Baker was not one of the “hackers” of which Stallman speaks.

  • Robert Adams (original CEO, California)
  • Russell Noftsker (CEO thereafter)
  • Minoru Tonai (CFO, California)
  • John Kulp (from MIT Plasma Physics Lab)
  • Tom Knight (from MIT AI Lab)
  • Jack Holloway (from MIT AI Lab)
  • David Moon (half-time as MIT AI Lab)
  • Dan Weinreb (from Lawrence Livermore Labs)
  • Howard Cannon (from MIT AI Lab)
  • Mike McMahon (from MIT AI Lab)
  • Jim Kulp (from IIASA, Vienna)
  • Bruce Edwards (from IIASA, Vienna)
  • Bernie Greenberg (from Honeywell CISL)
  • Clark Baker (from MIT LCS)
  • Chris Terman (from MIT LCS)
  • John Blankenbaker (hardware engineer, California)
  • Bob Williams (hardware engineer, California)
  • Bob South (hardware engineer, California)
  • Henry Baker (from MIT)
  • Dave Dyer (from USC ISI)
http://danweinreb.org/blog/rebuttal-to-stallmans-story-about-the-formation-of-symbolics-and-lmi