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The History of the UNIX® License Plate

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History of the UNIX License Plate
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In 1980 Bill and Karen Shannon got a new Datsun 280ZX. Bill was an engineer working on Unix at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and he registered the car with a vanity license plate, "UNIX".

Armando P. Stettner was a Digital engineer with a marketing flair who wanted to have a give-away for an upcoming USENIX technical conference.

One day Armando was driving and he saw a Florida "Sunshine State" plate on the front of a car in a parking lot and was inspired to make a fake license plate as a hand-out. At first Armando considered making a "Sunshine State" license, then thought about New Mexico's "Land of Enchantment", but eventually settled on the New Hampshire License plate motif. The fact that "Live Free or Die" was New Hampshire's state motto and appeared on every license plate made the choice even more fitting, as Armando felt the phrase met UNIX's minimalistic and libertarian orientation.

Armando laid out the license plate with:

                     LIVE FREE OR DIE


                  *TRADEMARK OF BELL LABS

and found someone in the marketing group who located a supplier that made the plates.

Armando's manager, Bill Munson, accepted the idea of DEC not being mentioned anyplace on the plate, highly unusual for a giveaway (at that time nicknamed "swag") at an event and obtained the funding for the project.

The first batch of 3000 license plates were distributed in a hospitality suite at the conference. After the conference Bill Munson told Armando that he had received a letter from Western Electric (WeCo) saying the plates were in violation of our licensing and violated their trademark and DEC might be in trouble. Then Munson said the letter arrived at about the same time as a call from WeCo's head of UNIX licensing who said to ignore the letter as they needed to do that to show they were protecting their trademarks. The WeCo manager also said he thought the license plates were great and he wanted some for his group.

Bill and Karen moved west in 1982 to help start up Sun, and Armando registered the New Hampshire Unix vanity plate the first day it became available (by going to New Hampshire's state capital, Concord) and put the plate on a brand new 1983 Toyota Celica Supra.

Digital published several versions over the years, mostly changing the trademark notation:

* Trademark of Bell Labs
* Trademark of AT&T Bell Labs

and eventually

*Trademark of X/Open

but they also once (for a short time) replaced the word "UNIX" with "Ultrix" (their own version of Unix) and later added "Tru-64" down the side of the plate. The DEC logo also crept onto one or two editions of the license plate.

Over the years many, many plates were made and distributed. The plates were hung over systems administrators desks, in programmer's offices, and in many, many universities. They "escaped" to many countries, carried there by the Unix faithful. A copy of the plate is in the Smithsonian, and also in the Computer History Museum in Mountainview, California.

In 1985 Armando moved to California. For a while he kept his car registered in New Hampshire just to keep the plates. That is, until he received his first ticket from a California Highway Patrolman, who wrote him up a ticket not for the original violation, but for the much more expensive "equipment violation" for not having his car registered in California.

In late 1988 Jon "maddog" Hall bought a brand new 1989 model year Jeep Wrangler. Having worked in Digital's Unix group since 1983, and for Bell Laboratories before that, maddog was also a Unix bigot and well aware of the legacy of Armando's Unix license plate design. Wondering if Armando had dropped the registration of the plate when he moved to California and whether anyone else had registered it, maddog (like Armando before him) went directly to New Hampshire motor vehicles in the state capital and asked to register:

* First choice: UNIX
* Second choice: UNIX&
* Third choice: +UNIX+

He was overjoyed to be told that his first choice was available, and a short time later the "UNIX - Live Free or Die" vanity license plate was on his Wrangler. It stayed on that Jeep for twenty years before being transfered to yet another Jeep Wrangler, where it remains today.

Now versions of the UNIX plate have the phrase "UNIX is a registered trademark of The Open Group."

And now you know the story.

Links: How to obtain a License Plate

Postscript from Armando:

When I got UNIX registered on my car, the New Hampshire DMV gave me a cardboard form and hand wrote UNIX in magic marker on it. I was to use that until my real plates came. I actually used a DEC UNIX license plate on the back of the car for about 7 weeks until the real metal plates came from the state. I was never stopped....

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The Open Group thanks Jon "maddog" Hall for sharing the story of the UNIX license plate, and also to Armando Stettner for his feedback and suggestions.

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