Physics publishing's electronic past - and future?

My friend and colleague Peter Adams just posted a nice essay on the early history of computing in our office. Some day I'll have to write my own version with the more recent history! Peter mentions the early use of the UNIX OS (troff was used for many years for typesetting the journals). This was originally run on Digital VAX hardware, then a series of Sequent machines, then (when I started) we began to replace those servers with Suns, and more recently everything's migrated to Linux. But still essentially UNIX at heart. A lot of what our editors do is still on the command line, and the referee and manuscript data in particular (going all the way back to 1974, plus a small number back-filled from before then to handle later errata) is pretty much completely accessible from a variety of command-line-oriented programs and scripts.

Of course, that command-line culture has been difficult to convey to new editorial and operations staff when they come in, and some of it was really quite cumbersome - especially because until just a few years back it still required paper copies of manuscript information to circulate to the responsible staff member. I remember seeing Peter coming and going from the office carrying a large mail crate filled with manuscripts, to do some of his work at home. So we've made pretty much everything also available through web applications in recent years with links to electronic copies of the manuscripts and correspondence, and a queuing system to assign things around. There are still a few pieces left to put together on that; it's been a major project that I've been centrally involved in for quite some time now. Peter Adams has been a leader in that as well, demonstrating some web-based approaches to doing things before anybody else was quite ready for it. But we were able to get rid of paper copies of manuscripts and correspondence, and it's hard to even remember now what a burden that was.

Thanks, Peter, for the memories of the way things used to be here!


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Indeed! Thanks to both of

Indeed! Thanks to both of you for the blast into the past. Peggy Judd was my boss for six of the years I worked in the APS Liaison Office in AIP's Woodbury location, supporting the technology behind the production/photocomposition process for Phys Rev. I was there for a total of eight years before arriving at the Editorial Office in 1996. What a roller coaster ride, and time sure flies when we're having so much fun. Still have my seat belt fastened!

Ah, nostaliga time, it's

Ah, nostaliga time, it's always nice to be reminded what a difference that early typesetting software made, even with Joe O's original troff.

But I do have a question on chronology. Was there a PDP-11 involved somewhere?

Because in Peter's history, if the first paper was typeset April 1977:
that was about 6 months before the VAX was even announced,
and the first port (UNIX 32/V) to VAX was only really coming up mid-1978 inside BTL,
and VAX/UNIX releases from BTL & UCB didn't happen until 1979.

Also, maybe pass along to him a correction:

that's Dennis Ritchie (dmr), not Brian Ritchie.
That's probably a typo thinking of Brian Kernighan.

John - I do seem to recall

John - I do seem to recall mention of a PDP-11 here. I briefly worked on PDP's and VAX's (using the old Digital VMS, and RSTS on the PDP's) during a summer spent in 1984 at Fermilab, and I know the VAX was still pretty new at that point. Virtual memory!

I've forwarded your comment and question on to Peter, perhaps an erratum is in order :-)

Peter tells me they did have

Peter tells me they did have a PDP 11/55 - it was my mistake to claim the VAX came first, though it did follow on in the early 1980s. He was looking very embarrassed about the names, he knew both Ritchie and Kernighan so I think your guess was right. Oops. I'll post a follow-up if there's any formal correction on this. Thanks!

Thanks ... just doing my duty

Thanks ... just doing my duty as a Computer History Museum guy...