In Memoriam: John Lions

by Peter H. Salus

February 1999

John Lions, the principal instigator of UNIX in Australia, founder of the AUUG, and author of the Commentary on V6 (which Ken Thompson called "the best book on how an operating system works"), died on Saturday, 5 December 1998.

John had been quite ill for nearly five years.

John earned degrees from Sydney University and Oxford. He worked for Burroughs in Canada until he went to the University of New South Wales in 1972. He retired in July 1995.

In 1975-76, while teaching a course in operating systems, John wrote a commentary on the source code for his students. The booklets (in bright red and orange covers) were announced in UNIX NEWS (the ancestor of ;login:) and the UKUUG newsletter, only to be suppressed by AT&T lawyers. In 1993, Dennis Ritchie and I attempted to obtain permission to publish these often-xeroxed pamphlets, but only succeeded in 1996, when the rights were sold to SCO; John's masterpiece is finally available. It was reviewed by Jaap Akkerhuis in Matrix News 704 (April 1997). The Commentary and Source Code is available as ISBN 1-57398-013-7; the Japanese translation is ISBN 4-7561-1844-5.

Greg Rose (Qualcomm, Australia), who was one of John's students and is now Vice President of USENIX, wrote:

"While at the University of New South Wales, John introduced a course in Operating Systems, and decided to study the UNIX operating system. One of his motivations in doing this was to introduce the students to code which was well written by other people -- at the time this was not a common practice, although it is now well accepted -- and which implemented a very significant system. In the course of developing notes for this, he wrote an annotation of the source code of UNIX, and produced a pair of books (recently republished and translated) including the source code itself. This was a remarkable achievement, and demonstrated the clarity of thought of which he was capable. 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'.

"I remember an incident when I was a student of John's, simultaneously helping to run the PDP-11 computer in the then Department of Computer Science, where the computer was often 'locking up' under high load. John took home listings of the current source code, and returned the next morning with details of two race conditions and a potential deadlock in the UNIX kernel which might have explained the problem, and indeed when they were fixed the problem went away.

"John pulled together a group of people interested in UNIX, and when it was later formalized as the Australian UNIX Users' Group became the founding president of the organization.

"Within the University of New South Wales there was a battle over centralization versus distribution of computing resources, which indirectly had a major effect on the autonomy of the Department of Computer Science. John's battle to have UNIX accepted as a vehicle for teaching, and later as the subject of teaching, instrumentally led to the increasing importance and independence of the department. Further, the existence of a centre at UNSW helped the formation of similar groups at Melbourne and Sydney Universities."

John Lions was a fine teacher and a good friend. I am certain that all members of the Association join me in expressing heartfelt condolences to his widow, Marianne.

Copyright 1999