I just finished reading Unix: A History and a Memoir by Brian Kernighan. I'm not much of a history buff, but I enjoyed it, mostly because it brought back memories.
By the time I was in high school I was obsessed with computers. My father somehow arranged for me to get a Unix account in the university computer science department. I'm not sure of the details - my father worked on campus, but wasn't part of the university, he was an entomologist (studied insects) with Canada Agriculture.
My father also arranged permission for me to sit in on some computer science classes. But my high school principal refused to let me take a few hours a week for it. I can't recall why, something about disrupting my school work. Which is totally ridiculous given that I was at the top of my classes. You wonder what goes through the minds of petty bureaucrats.
I remember being quite lost at first. I was entirely self taught which left plenty of gaps in my knowledge. I was intimidated by the university and too shy to ask anyone for help, But I muddled along, teaching myself Unix and C. This would have been in 1977 or 1978, so the early days of Unix. Of course, it was in the universities first.
I recall being baffled that C had no way to input numbers. For some reason I either didn't discover scanf or didn't realize it was what I was looking for. It wasn't really a problem, I just figured out how to write my own string to integer conversions. When the C Programming Language book (by Kernighan and Ritchie) came out in 1978, that helped a lot.
Software Tools (by Kernighan and Plauger) was probably the book I studied the most. I implemented a kind of Ratfor on top of TRS-80 Basic, and implemented most of the tools multiple times over the years. I still have my original copy of the book - dog eared, coffee stained, and falling apart. A few years later, I reverse engineered and implemented my own Lex and then Yacc. Yacc was a challenge because I didn't know the compiler-compiler theory it was based on. Nowadays there are open source versions of all this stuff, but not back then.
I read many more Kernighan books over the years, The Elements of Programming Style (with Plauger), The Unix Programming Environment (with Pike), The Practice of Programming (with Pike), and more recently, The Go Programming Language (with Donovan).
Nowadays, with the internet and Stack Overflow, it's hard to remember how much harder it was to access information in those days (especially if you didn't talk to other people). I had one meeting with someone from the computer science department. (Again, arranged by my father, probably because I was so full of questions.) Looking back it was likely a grad student (he was young but had an office). I questioned him about binding time. He didn't know what I was talking about. I don't remember why I was fixated on that question. I must have seen some mention of it in a book. Me and unsolved questions/problems, like a dog and a bone.
Presumably the Unix man
pages were my main resource. But if you didn't know where to start it
was tough. I remember someone gave me a 20 or 30 page photocopied
introduction to Unix and C. That was my main resource when I started
out. Nowadays, I'd be hard pressed to make it through a day of
programming without the internet.