My First Open Source Software at Lawrence Berkeley Lab(1986)

I was writing my PhD thesis in Berkeley in the 1985-86 period. When Mac was released in 1984 and they came for a demo to Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL), many scientists loved the idea of Mac and they placed orders then and there. I offered to set up the first Mac that arrived in my group. Once I did that, I had to do that for each of the subsequent Macs that arrived in the group.

What this did was to put many Macs on the desks of scientists but secretaries were using Wang Word processing system. Publication Division in LBL would only accept that document, which was prepared using Wang. This resulted in a very peculiar situation since scientists would write letters/reports/documents and they would be printed and then retyped by secretaries. This not only resulted in waste of time and effort for secretaries but also for scientists(they had to proofread it a second time!).

When I was writing my PhD thesis, I also wrote that straight in Mac(in fact I did not use a single piece of paper in that process!). However, it looked too bad for me to use the usual method of printing the whole document and letting secretaries type it all back(and that too with plenty of mathematical expressions!).

So I decided to do something about this so that this double work could be avoided. I decided to spend time writing a software that would allow my document to be transferred to Wang in a way that preserved all the details of the original document. As Pascal was the native language of MacOS, I borrowed a compiler from the Comp Sci division of LBL. I guess I must have spent 50% of my thesis writing time on developing that software that would not only convert the document of Mac (written in MacWrite format) to that used in Wang but also electronically transfer them. At that time we did not have compatible floppies or networking to do that.

I almost succeeded in doing this but Mac changed its version of MacWrite from 1 to 2 and made a complete change in the way the document was stored to reduce the size. They used the concept of representing the 15 most used letters by “nibble” (a 4-bit number). In addition, they also did many more changes. This took me extra effort but finally, I could manage to even tame this beast!

Now my effort was to transfer this document between two systems. For this, I connected the two of them by an RS-232 cable and added a feature to my converter to set communication parameters and transfer. All this resulted in my thesis not needing to be typed two times! However fun was not over yet.

When I went to return the compiler to the Scientist in the Comp Sci division from whom I had borrowed Pascal Compiler, he asked me what I did with that. I explained to him. He asked me about the topic of Ph.D. thesis and I explained to him that it is related to “Nuclear Fusion”. He seemed amused that I was working on this software but asked me if I could give him a copy of it. I said I do not mind but it is not properly documented code though I had prepared a brief user manual. He said that is ok with him. So I handed it over to him.


After this, I came back to India to join Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata. Maybe after a year or so I got in touch with Secretary (Tina – who is unfortunately no more) through email. She informed me that whole of LBL is now using my software since it was published in the LBL newsletter and it served needs in all groups!

I guess that was my first entry into Open Source Software development 🙂

Author: Prabhat Ranjan

Prof. Prabhat Ranjan is Vice Chancellor, D Y Patil International University, Akurdi, Pune. He was heading India's Technology Think Tank, TIFAC( as its Executive Director since April 2013 to April 2018. Earlier he was Professor at Dhirubhai Ambani Institute for Information and Communication Technology, Gandhinagar (DA-IICT) since 2002. He was educated in Netarhat School(near Ranchi), IIT Kharagpur and Delhi University. He received his Ph D from University of California, Berkeley where he carried our research on “Nuclear Fusion” at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory during 1983-86. He immediately returned to India after this and carried out research in Nuclear Fusion area at Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Calcutta and Institute for Plasma Research(IPR), Gandhinagar. He played a major role in India’s Nuclear Fusion program and was Project Leader of the largest operational Indian Fusion Reactor, ADITYA, at Institute for Plasma Research from 1996-2002. His current interests include applications of Wireless Sensor Network to Wildlife, Planetary Exploration (Chandrayaan mission), Nuclear Fusion, Healthcare, Agriculture etc. He has received National Science Talent Search Award, IBM Faculty Innovation Grant and HP Innovate 2009 award, NPEDP-Mphasis Universal Design Award 2012, Bihar Gaurav Samman 2012 etc. In March 2022, he was also honored with EduStar India’s Most Impactful Vice Chancellor Award for 2021-22. He has been recognized by outlook among few visionaries, who can lead India towards 5 Trillion Dollar Economy. He has been also honoured with Maharashtra Ratna Gaurav Puraskar by Shalini Foundation in 2024. He is also recognized among the top “100 Great IITians : Dedicated to the Service of the Nation”.

9 thoughts on “My First Open Source Software at Lawrence Berkeley Lab(1986)”

  1. Hi Sir,

    This is the first article that I’ve read on your website. Really Amazing stuff.

    Keep posting, pleasure to read more from you.

    Sincerely Yours,
    raj rishi

  2. Ranjan Bhaiya, This is amazing. I had no idea you worked in Nuclear Fusion and also created a Open Source software. The article is great also.

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