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Richard Matthew Stallman


Stallman was born in Manhattan to Alice Lippman and Daniel Stallman. In his programming years he was perhaps better known by his initials, "RMS". In the first edition of the Hacker's Dictionary, he wrote, '"Richard Stallman" is just my mundane name; you can call me "rms".'

His first access to a computer came during his junior year at high school in the 1960s. Hired by the IBM New York Scientific Center, Stallman spent the summer after his high-school graduation writing his first program, a preprocessor for the IBM 7094 written in the PL/I programming language. "I first wrote it in PL/I, then started over in assembly language when the PL/I program was too big to fit in the computer", he later said.

After that job, Stallman held a Laboratory Assistant position in the Biology Department at Rockefeller University. Although he was already moving towards a career in mathematics or physics, his analytical mind impressed the lab director such that a few years after Stallman departed for college, his mother received a phone call. "It was the professor at Rockefeller", she recalled. "He wanted to know how Richard was doing. He was surprised to learn that he was working in computers. He'd always thought Richard had a great future ahead of him as a biologist."

In 1971, as a freshman at Harvard University, Stallman became a hacker at the MIT AI Laboratory. He was hired by Russ Noftsker, a man who would later found Symbolics and become a bitter opponent for Stallman. Later, at the age of nineteen, he worked for a timesharing company in Westchester County with a desk adjacent to that of Eben Moglen, now a well known technology attorney.

Another important point in this history is the development of Emacs. It began life in the mid-1970's as a series of editor macros for TECO, an early editor on the PDP-10. In the early 1980's it was rewritten in C as a collaboration between Richard M. Stallman and James Gosling (the creator of Java); its extension language was known as Mocklisp. This version of Emacs-in-C formed the basis for the early versions of GNU Emacs and also for Gosling's Unipress Emacs, a commercial product.

Decline of the hacker culture

In the 1980s, the hacker community that dominated Stallman's life began to dissolve. The emergence of "portable software" - software that could be made to run on different types of computers - meant that the ability for computer users to modify and share the software that came with computers was now a problem for the business models of the computer manufacturers. To prevent their software being used on their competitors' computers, manufacturers stopped distributing source code and began restricting copying and redistribution of their software by copyrighting it.

For two years, from 1982 to the end of 1983, Stallman single-handedly duplicated the efforts of the Symbolics programmers to prevent them from gaining a monopoly on the Lab's computers. By that time, however, he was the last of his generation of hackers at the Lab. He was asked to sign non-disclosure agreements and perform other actions he considered betrayals of his principles, but chose instead to share his work with others in what he regarded as a classical spirit of scientific collaboration and openness.

Stallman argues that software users should have freedom - in particular, the freedom to "share with their neighbor" and to be able to study and make changes to the software that they use. He has repeatedly said that attempts by proprietary software vendors to prohibit these acts are "antisocial" and "unethical". The phrase "software wants to be free" is commonly attributed to him; however, no evidence can be found to confirm this. He argues that the primary goal of freedom is to benefit users and society rather than to improve software. Consequently, in January 1984, he quit his job at MIT to work full time on the GNU project, which he had announced in September 1983. In 1984, Stallman began working on GNU Emacs, the first program in the nascent GNU project. GNU Emacs was written in C and used Emacs Lisp as an extension language. The first widely-distributed version of GNU Emacs was 15.34, which appeared in 1985.

He did not complete a Ph.D. but has been awarded four honorary doctoral degrees.

Prices and awards

1990MacArthur Fellowship
1991The Association for Computing Machinery's Grace Murray Hopper Award "For pioneering work in the development of ... EMACS"
1996Honorary doctorate from Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology
1998Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer award
1999Yuri Rubinsky Memorial Award
2001Second honorary doctorate, from the University of Glasgow
2001The Takeda Techno-Entrepreneurship Award for Social/Economic Well-Being
2002National Academy of Engineering membership
2003Third honorary doctorate, from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel
2004Fourth honorary doctorate, from the Universidad Nacional de Salta.


  • Stallman, Richard M. & Sussman, Gerald J. (November 1975). Heuristic Techniques in Computer-Aided Circuit Analysis, published in IEEE Transactions on Circuits and Systems, Vol. CAS-22 (11)
  • Stallman, Richard M. & Sussman, Gerald J. (1977). Forward Reasoning and Dependency-Directed Backtracking In a System for Computer-Aided Circuit analysis, published in Artificial Intelligence 9 pp.135-196
  • Stallman, Richard M. (1981). EMACS: The Extensible, Customizable, Self-Documenting Display Editor. Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT. MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory publication AIM-519A.
  • Stallman, Richard M. (2002). GNU Emacs Manual: Fifteenth edition for GNU Emacs Version 21. Cambridge, Massachusetts: GNU Press. ISBN 188211485X.
  • Stallman, Richard M. (2002). Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman. Cambridge, Massachusetts: GNU Press. ISBN 1882114981.

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