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  • August 15, 2019
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A Brief History of Operating Systems

We already went over the early stages in the history of the computer operating system in a past blog post about the evolution of desktop operating systems. If you haven’t had a chance to look at that one yet, here are all of the salient points:

The operating system came about as a way to manage the input and operation of these programs, using techniques such as batch processing and multitasking.

The earliest computers, such as the Colossus and the ENIAC, had to be programmed by physically manipulating the machines’ switches and cables.

In the 1950s, computers developed the ability to run programs and input data inscribed onto punched cards or tape; there were also computers that had built-in programs that could support or interact with the user’s punched card-based programs.

The first operating system designed to be compatible with multiple different models of computers was the IBM OS/360, announced in 1964; before this, each computer model had its own unique operating system or systems.

Later in that same blog post, we discussed the development of the desktop operating system from its origins in the first mouse-driven graphical user interface (GUI), the oN-Line System (NLS) at the Stanford Research Institute in the 1960s, to the first commercially-successful computer with a mouse-driven GUI operating system, the first Apple Macintosh of 1984.

Check out that blog post if you’re interested in how the operating system developed after the 1980s (there haven’t been any dramatic developments in server operating systems since then, probably since operating systems are designed for end-users, and end-users don’t interact directly with servers anymore).

But if you’re wondering what happened to the operating system between 1960 and 1980, here are some of the most influential operating systems to appear during that period:

Programmed Data Processor-1 (PDP-1). The PDP-1 was developed by the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1959. Its operating system was to first to focus on interaction between the user and the computer, instead of the computer just spitting out a result based on what the user put into it. The PDP-1’s was also first minicomputer operating system to have a video game played on it.

Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations (PLATO). The University of Illinois developed the first PLATO operating system in 1960, and continued to come out with new versions until the mid-1970s. The innovative features of PLATO included sound, touchscreens, message boards, email, chat rooms, instant messaging, and screen sharing. It was one of the main influences, along with the oN-Line System, on the team that in 1981 developed the Xerox Star, the first commercially-available computer with a mouse-driven GUI.

Master Control Program (MCP). Burroughs, a computer manufacturer and a former incarnation of Unisys Corporation, developed MCP in 1961. It was the first operating system to be written in a high-level programming language instead of assembly language.

Unix. AT&T Bell Labs developed Unix in 1972. Unix was the first computer operating system to be widely adopted by multiple different computer manufacturers. Versions of it are still widely used in servers today, and the Linux, Android, and Apple OS X operating systems are heavily based on it. The name “Unix” is a pun on the name of the OS’s less popular predecessor, Multiplexed Information and Computer Services (Multics).

Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD). BSD was created by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1977. It was derived from one of the early versions of Unix. BSD itself isn’t used by anyone these days, but parts of it have been incorporated into BSD-based open source operating systems, as well as Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X and iOS.


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