40 years later, the X Window System is more relevant than anyone could have guessed

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Many times, when I’m doing long-term research about computers or coding, I’ll come across a document on a university website that says more than any Wikipedia page or archive.

This is usually a PDF, sometimes a plain text file, in the .edu subdirectory starting with the username before the tilde (~) character. It’s usually a paper that a professor faces the same questions semester after semester, putting together to save as much time as possible and get their work back. I recently found such a document within the Department of Astrophysics at Princeton University: “An Introduction to the X Window System,” wrote Robert Lupton.

The X window system, which Turns 40 earlier this weekIn the early 1980s, one thing you had to know was how to work with space-facing tools. VT100s, VAX-11/750s, and Sun Microsystems boxes share space in college computer labs. A member of Princeton’s astrophysics department, then very familiar with computers, it fell to Lupton to fix things and take questions.

“I originally wrote X10r4 server code that eventually became X11,” Lupton said in a phone interview. “For anything that requires graphics code, you want some sort of button or some kind of display, and that’s X… People would mislead me when I was trying to do work in the basement, so I could have written it. That’s why.”

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Where does X come from (after W)

Robert W. at MIT. Scheffler and Jim Gettys “wrote a window system for the VS100 over the last two weeks” in 1984. Project AthenaThe goals of building campus-wide computing with distributed resources and multiple hardware platforms fit the X bill, being independent of platforms and vendors and able to call on remote resources. Scheffler “stolen a fair amount of code W,” made its interface asynchronous and thereby very fast, and “called it X” (when that was still a good thing).

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That kind of cross-platform compatibility made X work for Princeton, and thus for Lupton. He notes in his guide that X provides “rules, not tools,” which allow for “a large number of chaotic appearances.” After explaining the three-part nature of X—server, clients, and window manager—he offers some pointers:

  • Modifier keys are important for X; “This sensitivity extends to things like mouse buttons, which you wouldn’t normally think of as case-sensitive.”
  • To start “X, type xinit; Do not type X unless you are defining an alias. X automatically starts the server but not the clients, resulting in a blank screen.”
  • “All programs running under X are equal, but one, the window manager, is very equal.”
  • using “--zaphod“The flag prevents the mouse from going into the screen where you can’t see it; “someone can explain Etymology To you” (my link).
  • “If you say so kill 5 -9 12345 You’ll regret it because the console looks hopelessly messy. Go back to your other terminal, say kbd mode -aAnd make a point not to use -9 without proper reason.”

I caught up with Lupton on the last day before he left for Chile to help with the Very Large Telescope, and asked him how he felt about X 40 years later. Why did it survive?

“It worked, at least compared to other options we had,” Lupton said. He noted that Princeton’s systems were not “highly networked in those days,” meaning that the network traffic problems that some had at X were not an issue then. “People didn’t expect a lot of GUIs, they expected command lines, maybe a few buttons… It was a very small version of a window system that ran on both VAX and Suns at the time. It wasn’t bad.”

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