John Lions

Australian UNIX pioneer and advocate

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John Lions' academic awards started in 1959 when he gained a first-class honors degree from Sydney University. He continued his education in England with a doctorate at Cambridge in 1963 then joined Burroughs Corp. initially in Canada and later in Los Angeles. He married and moved back to Australia in 1972 - with a young family - to take up a position as senior lecturer in UNSW's Department of Computing.

In 1974 Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie of Bell Labs published The Unix Time-Sharing System in Comm. ACM. This interested Ken Robinson of UNSW who wrote to AT&T for a copy of the new operating system, and its source code (Version 6 was free to Universities). When it arrived Lions had a look at the source - and liked it. He decided to base his Operating Systems course around this real system so he prepared two text books (the red and orange books):

  • the source code (slightly edited) and
  • a commentary to help students over difficult areas.

He finished them in 1977 and they were reviewed in UNIX NEWS of March 1977:

Ken Thompson has seen the first version of the book and says it is a good job.

However, the source code was licensed by Western Electric Co. and their lawyers ensured it was not published. Greg Rose (Qualcomm, Australia), who was one of John's students, wrote:

The books were not available for general distribution at the time, but were probably the most successful illegally copied books ever; there are numerous reports of 5th generation photocopies.

The fame is emphasised by the Lions Book entry in the New Hackers Dictionary. In 1984 Lions attended his first European Unix User Group conference. After his talk people queued to get their n-th generation illegally copied Lions Book autographed!

He also contributed to the first port of Unix at University of Wollongong in 1978 by re-writing the procedure for directory pathnames.

Lions started the Australian Unix Users' Group (AUUG) and became its founding president. The AUUG awards an annual John Lions Award for Research Work in Open Systems.

On his last visit to the US, in summer 1994, Lions was given a special achievement award by the USENIX Association for his contributions to UNIX.

In declining health he retired from UNSW in July 1995.

Following a failed attempt to publish the Lions Book for Unix' 20th anniversary, Peter Salus obtained permission from Santa Cruz Operations (SCO) for a reprint in 1996:

Lions' Commentary on UNIX 6th Edition, with Source Code

John Lions, 254 pages, 

Published by Peer-to-Peer Communications Inc., August 1996, ISBN 1-57398-013-7
  • Named "1996 Book of the Year" by Unix Review
  • "After 20 years, this is still the best exposition of the workings of a
    'real' operating system." - Ken Thompson, 1996

John Lions died 5 December 1998. A gentle man, a great teacher and, above all, an enthusiast.

John Lions (1940-1998)