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/wayts/ The mutant cousin of TOPS-10 used on a handful of systems at SAIL up to 1990. There was never an "official" expansion of WAITS (the name itself having been arrived at by a rather sideways process), but it was frequently glossed as "West-coast Alternative to ITS". Though WAITS was less visible than ITS, there was frequent exchange of people and ideas between the two communities, and innovations pioneered at WAITS exerted enormous indirect influence. The early screen modes of Emacs, for example, were directly inspired by WAITS's "E" editor - one of a family of editors that were the first to do "real-time editing", in which the editing commands were invisible and where one typed text at the point of insertion/overwriting. The modern style of multi-region windowing is said to have originated there, and WAITS alumni at XEROX PARC and elsewhere played major roles in the developments that led to the XEROX Star, the Macintosh, and the Sun workstations. Bucky bits were also invented there thus, the ALT key on every IBM PC is a WAITS legacy. One notable WAITS feature seldom duplicated elsewhere was a news-wire interface that allowed WAITS hackers to read, store, and filter AP and UPI dispatches from their terminals; the system also featured a still-unusual level of support for what is now called "multimedia" computing, allowing analog audio and video signals to be switched to programming terminals.

Ken Shoemake adds:

Some administrative body told us we needed a name for the operating system, and that "SAIL" wouldn't do. (Up to that point I don't think it had an official name.) So the anarchic denizens of the lab proposed names and voted on them. Although I worked on the OS used by CCRMA folks (a parasitic subgroup), I was not writing WAITS code. Those who were, proposed "SAINTS", for (I think) Stanford AI New Time-sharing System. Thinking of ITS, and AI, and the result of many people using one machine, I proposed the name WAITS. Since I invented it, I can tell you without fear of contradiction that it had no official meaning. Nevertheless, the lab voted that as their favorite; upon which the disgruntled system programmers declared it the "Worst Acronym Invented for a Time-sharing System"! But it was in keeping with the creative approach to acronyms extant at the time, including self-referential ones. For me it was fun, if a little unsettling, to have an "acronym" that wasn't. I have no idea what the voters thought. :)


Two hundred years ago groups of instrumentalists and singers known as "the waits" roamed the nighttime streets of towns and villages across Britain during the Christmas season. They stopped in front of houses and performed folk songs, popular tunes, or Christmas carols. During the two weeks before Christmas the waits sometimes played well into the night, often awakening people asleep in their beds. In return for these seasonal serenades householders were expected to offer the musicians food, drink, or money. In some towns the waits collected these tips by returning at a more reasonable hour in the days that followed, Boxing Day being a logical choice. In Scotland the waits performed around New Year's Day rather than Christmas.


In medieval England the king required certain of his minstrels to wander through the city streets at night guarding the citizenry and calling out the hour. Collectively known as "the watch," these court pages gradually evolved into uniformed town employees known as "the waits." Several theories have been advanced as to the origin of the term "waits." Perhaps the most popular one claims that "the waits" simply developed from the phrase "the watch." Others suppose that the term "waits" came from wayghtes, an old English word for the oboe, one of the instruments played by these musical watchmen. Another writer suggests that the term derived from the old Scottish word waith, which means "to wander" or "to roam."

In the early 1500s the citizens of London recognized the waits by their blue tunics, red sleeves, red hats, and silver collars and chains. Their official duties included playing for the mayor and town officials at feasts and parades, as well as watching over London's darkened streets. Several accounts dating from around the turn of the eighteenth century report that local youth routinely badgered these town musicians into helping them court their sweethearts with nighttime serenades. Eventually, the night patrols performed by these watchmen were taken over by a regular police force. The waits survived for a time, however, as bands of nighttime singers and instrumentalists.

Perhaps influenced by other Christmas customs, such as wassailing and caroling, the waits eventually adopted the practice of performing songs around Christmas time in exchange for food, drink, or tips (see also Wassail; Wassailing the Fruit Trees). Some towns and cities issued licenses to the waits for this purpose. The Christmas time activities of the waits peaked in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. To the dismay of the established members of the waits, however, impromptu groups, often of dubious musical accomplishment, also began to carol at Christmas time in hopes of cashing in on the customary tip. In the town of Westminister the leader of the officially recognized town waits complained to the city magistrate about the unofficial competition in 1820. Perhaps the dissonant musical offerings made by these amateurs helped to turn public attitudes against the waits. By the late nineteenth century public approval of this and many other seasonal begging practices declined. No longer wanted, either as watchmen or as musicians, the institution of the waits finally disappeared.

Further Reading

Chambers, Robert. "December 24 - The Waits." In his The Book of Days. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Duncan, Edmondstoune. The Story of the Carol. 1911. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. Palmer, Geoffrey, and Noel Lloyd. A Year of Festivals. London, England: Frederick Warne, 1972. Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978.
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