Sunday, April 8, 2012

A frog from my past

I spent this past weekend in NYC with Susie.  We walked around Manhattan, wandered through museums, ate too much, and generally had a good time.  The primary reason for the trip was the opportunity on Friday to participate in an oral history panel discussion that the Computer History Museum conducted.  The discussion was about the Kermit file transfer protocol.  A little over 30 years ago, I worked at Columbia University on the original versions of Kermit.   The picture below is from 1981 and shows a much younger me at work in front of PDP-11 and DEC-20 manuals. As you can see, I've always dressed well at work!

Kermit is a protocol and set of programs for moving files between computers before the Internet. In the early years, that meant dial-up connections as slow as 300bps.  (Note the lack of K, M, or G before the bits per second!)  We designed Kermit to work between a wide variety of computers—from IBM mainframes to DEC minicomputers to CP/M microcomputers. To make them able to work together, we designed the protocol to accommodate the lowest common denominator and assume as little as possible. The Kermit programs on a pair of computers negotiated what was possible at the beginning of a file transfer session and were able to work, often in situations where nothing else would. 

I worked on Kermit from its inception in 1981 until I left Columbia and moved to North Carolina in 1985. During that time, I developed the early versions of the Kermit protocol with my boss at Columbia (Frank da Cruz), wrote a number of the original versions of Kermit, co-authored an article for Byte magazine with Frank, and spoke at conventions about Kermit.  Frank continued working on Kermit at Columbia until 2011.  During that time, Kermit became a program used around the world and even in outer space.  Frank even traveled to the Soviet Union in 1989 to speak about Kermit and how to improve it. 

Frank was on Friday's panel discussion along with me and another person who worked on the project long after I was gone.  It was very interesting to discuss the work I had done so many years ago and to in turn hear stories about Frank, Columbia, and Kermit that were new to me.  

I came away from the experience with a couple thoughts.  First, I am proud to have been a part of Kermit.  I believed in the effort and was an enthusiastic (if naive) supporter of the idea of creating software that could be freely used and help as many people as possible at the beginning of the PC revolution.  

At least as importantly, I am once again convinced of how God blessed me in my work during that time, and the years since.  Not only have I had opportunities to work at a number of interesting projects and jobs, but I have been compensated well along the way.  Even better, I have had the support wonderful wife for almost 32 years, and three great kids as well.  I have much to be thankful for. 

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