Another feature of traditional hero legends also found in hacker legends is a historical setting. The Story of Mel is a good example of a legend about hackers in the past. Like the romantic notions of medieval times and the chivalry of the knights, hacker legends tend to be told about the old days of the computer world. Given that ``the old days'' are only back to the 1950's at the earliest, it is perhaps surprising how much of a historical feel these stories have. The computer industry has moved so rapidly from its birth approximately 40 years ago, and computer programmers are getting started at a younger and younger age, that the early years seem like distant memories to today's programmers. The machines of the 1950's and 1960's could be thought of as the dragons of the past, mean and unforgiving. The hackers who could tame them are the equivalent of the dragon-slayer: the brave knight who by extraordinary skill was able to gain an advantage over the foe. A hacker legend about the old days might talk about programming ``the bare metal,'' meaning writing programs in the most fundamental machine language as Mel did, without benefit of higher level programming tools, or about the single programming insight that inspired the legend. The legends are also likely to focus on the hardships that the early hacker had to deal with in order to make the computer obey his commands,
The feats of the heroic hacker are sometimes referred to in magical terms. Computers seem to be operating largely by magic to many people, so it is not surprising that the person who wields inordinate skill over that machine might be thought of as a magician of sorts. In a hacker legend, the better the hacker, the more magical the feats. Even the terms used by programmers in their profession have an magical aspect to them. Well-regarded programmers in a company are likely to be referred to as ``wizards'' or ``gurus'' by not only their peers but by management as well. I have seen computer professionals for major international companies whose business cards give their position as ``UNIX Wizard,'' or ``C Guru.'' Comments (non-program text meant for documentation) in a hacker's program are likely to refer to particularly obscure commands sequences as ``magic,'' or, if they are particularly obscure even to a hacker, as ``deep magic.''
Another legend about the magical aspects of hacking, this one about hacking hardware rather than software, is told about a machine at MIT [9,7]. In this legend the storyteller comes across a mysterious switch on the side of the MIT AI Lab's PDP-10 computer. The switch has clearly been installed by a hacker and not a computer technician and is labeled by hand with one position marked ``magic'' and the other ``more magic.'' The switch is currently in the ``more magic'' position. The switch is flipped to the other position and the machine crashes instantly. They follow the switch to its source, but the wires don't seem to go anywhere that could influence the machine in any way. So they boot the machine and try again. Again as soon as the switch moves from ``more magic'' to ``magic'', the machine crashes. The story ends:
This time we ran for Richard Greenblatt, a long-time MIT hacker, who was close at hand. He had never noticed the switch before, either. He inspected it, concluded it was useless, got some diagonal cutters and diked it out. We then revived the computer and it has run fine ever since.
We still don't know how the switch crashed the machine. There is a theory that some circuit near the ground pin was marginal, and flipping the switch changed the electrical capacitance enough to upset the circuit as millionth-of-a-second pulses went through it. But we'll never know for sure; all we can really say is that the switch was magic.
I still have that switch in my basement. Maybe I'm silly, but I usually keep it set on `more magic'.