Brian Kernighan Remembers the Origins of ‘Grep’

Brian Kernighan Remembers the Origins of ‘grep’

This month saw the release of a fascinating oral history, in which 76-year-old Brian Kernighan remembers the origins of the Unix command grep. Kernighan is already a legend in the world of Unix— recognized as the man who coined the term Unix back in 1970. His last initial also became the “k” in awk — and the “K” when people cite the iconic 1978 “K&R book” about C programming.

The original Unix Programmer’s Manual calls Kernighan an “expositor par excellence,” and since 2000 he’s been a computer science professor at Princeton University — after 30 years at the historic Computing Science Research Center at Bell Laboratories. AT&T as a whole had “well over” a million employees, Kernighan remembers, making them America’s single largest employer outside of government. Their dominant position as the phone company for most Americans gave them a very stable revenue stream, and research represented only a small fraction of the company.

“In some sense, it didn’t matter as long as this collection of people produced things that were useful,” he remembered. He didn’t meet Ken Thompson, the creator of Unix, until 1967, but eventually, he and Dennis Ritchie were all in the same organization as Kernighan. And this brings us to the moment when Thompson invented grep.