A “wiki” Computer Before it Was a Web Technology

Around 1991, I was working as a student programmer and system administrator in the “Hackers Pitt” of the College of Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park.

This story of how “wiki” entered our vocabularies via computers, 3-4 years before the first Web wiki, was recalled in November, 2007 over email by two other student programmers. I edited the emails lightly for clarity.

Chris Ross starts the story:

It was someone illegally using accounts on the Eng systems, and they were logging in from the University of Hawaii. The hostname they logged in from, at least once, maybe even “usually” or “always,” was wikiwiki. This led us to looking up what the heck that meant, and in the days before google and wikipedia, that got us a Hawaiian dictionary. I think, actually, Robin photocopied that page out of a dictionary in the library, and that ended up in the Pitt. So, we knew a bunch of words that started with “w”.

wiki means fast, and wikiwiki, as you may recall, means very fast.

Years later, when I got a MicroVAX resuscitated as part of my habit of fussing with old hardware, I looked up the Hawaiian word for very slow, which was lolohi (lohi is slow).

So, *much* more information about the actual detective work that was being done to track down the guy in Hawaii (which IIRC I heard ended with the FBI knocking on his door saying “Umm, stop that.” or something like that. I don’t necessarily assume “door” is literal here).

Kurt Lidl elaborates:

The college of engineering got broken into from some person that was entering from the Univ of Hawaii, from the host “wiki” or “wikiwiki”, I think. Which, as Chris points out, is Hawaiian for “quick” or “fast”. In Hawaii, you use verb doubling for more emphasis on something — wiki-wiki means “very fast”. Robin was working at the undergraduate library at the time, and they had a copy of the Hawaiian-English dictionary, and she did photocopy a single page out of the “w” section of the dictionary for our use — which is why I still know that “wili kope” is Hawaiian for coffeegrinder and “wili wili wai” is Hawaiian for lawnsprinker. But I digress. (I’m not 100% sure on the spelling for lawn sprinker…)

When Debbie and I got married and went to Hawaii for our honeymoon, we picked up a copy of the Hawaiian-English dictionary. Having a copy of this allowed for further abuse of Hawaiian as a source of machine names in the R&D group later. I know that lolohi was used prior to that, however.

The breakin happened through the new to the College of Electrical Engineering Solbourne computer (a 64bit sparc-alike processor, running a varient of SunOS 4.1.xx that had support for SMP. This was attractive because it wasn’t Solaris 2.0, which is what Sun was pushing as the “only way to get real SMP”). As I recall, we couldn’t replace the telnet and/or rlogind on that machine with the kerberized ones (they just didn’t work on that machine), so that single machine was vulnerable, and someone’s password was sniffed through an account on that machine. Once they got in, they got onto a bunch of other machines.

This incident led to our hacking of “top”, “ps” and maybe one or two other things to “not show” processes that were owned by particular uids. There was a list of these UIDs placed into /usr/lib/libwiki.a (just an ascii list, one per line) and the libwiki.a file was carefully set to have creation/mod time of that of all the other sun-supplied libraries, so it would not show up at the top of the list if you did a “ls -ltr” in /usr/lib.

Their ‘wiki’ was indeed a fast machine – a Vax 8600 class with a bunch of (big at the time) disks on it.

I know that some law-enforcement got involved to have them “stop it”, but I don’t think there was ever anything other than “we know you did this, we have these records, now go away, or else”.

My conclusion:

So, years later when I heard about a new kind of web site called a “wiki”, I already knew the word. I’ve never been to Hawaii, but Hawaiian came to us.



%d bloggers like this: