Richard Stallman: High School Misfit, Symbol of Free Software, MacArthur-Certified Genius
Richard Stallman was reading computer books before he'd ever seen a computer. When the Sixties Revolution was running out of steam, he was liberating MIT computers from behind locked doors and helping set off the next great Boomer movement. Though he disdained hippies and radicals in his youth, today, as the leader of the Free Software Movement, he's a long-haired rebel coder-writer with a cause, and an idealistic thorn in the side of the cyber world's killer-app capitalists.
BY MICHAEL GROSS
Interviewed in New York City and Cambridge, Mass., in early 1999.
MG: So you were born 1953. Where?
STALLMAN: In New York. My mother was a substitute teacher. And my father started a printing brokerage business at some point in the '50s, putting together the photographers and the typesetters and the platemakers and the people who owned the presses.
MG: Was he a serviceman? Had he been in the war?
RS: Yes. He avoided being in battles and getting shot at very much. But he had learned to speak French so well that he could pose as a Frenchman, and he did this before the U.S. was in the war because he wanted to use it to defeat the Nazis. So when he was in the Army, he did things for which knowledge of French was useful. For example, liaison with Free French battalions.
MG: Where did you grow up?
RS: Mostly Manhattan. West Side. 95th Street, 93rd Street, 89th Street.
MG: Growing up, did you go to public school?
RS: I went to public school for six years, and then I went to private school for five years, and then I went to a public school again. I was a discipline problem. I was very upset and miserable, and kids used to tease me, and it would make me enraged. I never believed that adults were entitled to give me orders. I considered them to be like any other kind of tyrant; they just had power.
MG: Did you have particular interests?
RS: Yes, I loved mathematics and science, and I wanted to learn as much as I could. I watched television then and I read comic books then, but I also studied advanced math whenever I could.
MG: So that probably made you something of an outsider in school.
RS: That did. But also, I'm weird, and I don't know how to get along with people the usual ways. I've never really learned that.
MG: But didn't you find that there were other people like that in school?
RS: No. I guess I was too weird. I did have friends, but I couldn't fit into a school. So I was sent to a private school for people like that. But most of the people there were either insane or stupid, and I was terribly shamed to have been lumped with them. I wasn't just too smart. Some smart people can get along fine with society. I couldn't. It was something other than just being smart. In fact, if I hadn't been smart, I probably would have been thrown in the garbage, basically. But because I was obviously smart, they couldn't just say, "This is a manufacturing failure; get rid of it."
MG: Were you in any way political as a kid?
RS: Eisenhower I wasn't aware of; I was too young for that. But my mother was very political, and I became political, too, once I got more like 8 or 10. Remember, I was only 10 when Kennedy was killed. I didn't know a lot about what was going on, but I have a vague picture of him as somebody who was trying to lead our nation, to do things that were great.
MG: Were you aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis?
RS: Nope. Didn't notice it. I didn't have the experience of being scared all the time about nuclear war that some other people say they had. I started to think about it a little later on, but I didn't absorb it as fear as a child, or hysteria about nuclear war as a child before I started to actually think about it as an issue, as part of the world.
MG: When did you learn about computers?
RS: At that time all I could find was manuals to read. I didn't see an actual computer. But as soon as I heard about computers, I wanted to see one and play with one. I loved building things. The neat thing about computers is that you can build something, but you don't have to get bogged down in the details of matter. If you want to build something out of wood, the problem is, wood is limited. If you want to cut pieces of wood, you have to saw them, what are you going to saw them with, and you get all the sawdust. On a computer you can build something, but you're building it out of words and numbers. I don't know which year it was when I first got to see a manual at summer camp. I don't know whether I was 9 or 10 or 11. The only computers that existed then were large. These were manuals for the 7094, which was the most powerful IBM computer of its day. A counselor had brought them. I was interested in some other things, too, but I had very little interest in any kind of sports, and I stopped liking Popular Music when the Beatles arrived. I didn't like them.
MG: Why not?
RS: I just didn't like their music. I don't know enough about the vocabulary to describe that kind of difference in music. I just didn't like them at first, and then everyone else started liking them and I thought they were stupid. And it seemed like a fad, and I tend to despise people who let themselves get caught up in fads. I at one point tried to form a parody band called Tokyo Rose and the Japanese Beatles. Not to actually play any music, I wasn't a musician, but I just wanted to make fun of all those people who were crazy about the Beatles.
MG: During the later '60s, '65 to '69, you're in junior high or high school, and the counter-culture starts. Were you part of it?
RS: I wasn't, because it was anti-intellectual and anti-science. It was, "Let's believe whatever seems like a nice story." They obviously didn't understand the idea of Truth, and so I couldn't respect them.
MG: And by Truth, you mean?
RS: The idea that there is a world out there, and that you can figure out how it works--or at least you should try to. There are stories you can tell which are wrong because they just don't fit the facts. You can't just wake up and declare peace, you can't just wake up and declare that you can fly by flapping your arms. The world is a certain way. They wanted to believe in a fairy-tale. But at the time, there was a nice thing about them. which is that they wanted people to love each other and not hurt each other, which I thought was a good thing. But all told, I couldn't be part of that. I didn't want to get involved with the use of drugs, which I thought of as scary and dangerous and foolish. And clearly, they had no idea of caution. They were taking crazy risks because they didn't understand that they could be hurt. I'd read that-supposedly--young people don't believe they can die. Well, that never happened to me. I can't understand how anyone can not believe that he can die. "Those things can't happen to me." It was so obvious to me that it could happen. Not only that, but for a while late in high school the thought of my death was such a horrible thing to me that I sort of wished I hadn't been born. Because to be facing death was such a horrible thing, it seemed to me that nobody should be thrust into a world where you're going to die. That's cruelty.
MG: Did you have a circle of friends who felt the same way?
RS: I was friends with some of my teachers but after I was around 12 or 13, I basically didn't have friends among my peers until I went to college. Because I outgrew what I did with my childhood friends. And I had no idea what would replace it. So I basically had no friends.
MG: What replaced it for many of us, I suppose, was politics...
RS: Well, I got interested in the politics, although I was also scared off by some things about it. I was very disturbed by the people who started wanting the North Vietnamese to win just because they were the enemy of the U.S. Government. Just because someone was the enemy of the U.S. Government didn't make them good.
MG: Did you go to peace marches where you encountered these people?
RS: I didn't encounter them at peace marches. I encountered them when I went to college. And before that, for two or three years I was in a Columbia University Saturday program for high school kids, and there I encountered the occupation of buildings at Columbia, which seemed to me to make no sense at all. Why stop people from going to the math library and studying math because you're angry at what the U.S. Government is doing? It made no sense to me, and it still doesn't really make sense to me. Now, to try to do something about being drafted, that I could understand.
I had a sympathy for opposition to the Vietnam War, but I didn't have sympathy for rejecting science, which was the only thing that made our lives possible and still makes our lives possible. Without scientific ways of, for example, growing our food, we couldn't survive.
MG: Somewhere along the way, somebody recognized that you had this prodigal aspect. Were you scoring high?
RS: Sure. I learned calculus when I was something like 7 or 8. So it wasn't hard for anyone to tell that I was interested in learning as much math and science as possible. For a couple of years when I was 14 to 16, I would go to the library and get two or three books a week about various subjects, like History, Math and Science. And I would read them all. At one point, I decided to learn Latin, so I got a first-year Latin textbook and went through it in a month, and then I got the second-year book and went through that in the next month.
For a year or so, I was working as a sort of lab assistant at a biology lab at Rockefeller University. Then I got involved with the IBM New York Scientific Center, where they actually let me start programming real computers. That was during my senior year. They let me come and program. Then the summer after my senior year, they hired me and had me write a FORTRAN program, and I got that program done in a few weeks, and I swore that I would never use FORTRAN again because I despised it as a language compared with other languages.
MG: You already knew enough about it.
RS: I was basically reading about every programming language I could find out about. I wanted to find out about the variety of programming languages.
MG: You must have had such contempt for the Luddites who surrounded you.
RS: Yes, I did. I am embarrassed by it now to some extent. Because I had a very low opinion of the things they were thinking and I think that's proper, but I also had a low opinion of them in a way that I've come to think since is wrong to think about any person.
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(c) 2000 by Michael Gross