John McCarthy, the mind behind Lisp, died yesterday at age 84. The photographs below are from one of his web sites at Stanford. Many of his papers are available through a different web page. (I don’t know how long either of these sites will remain on the air.)

John McCarthy, younger and older

The Kiplingesque just-so story of how Lisp got its parentheses has been told several times, by McCarthy and others, but today seems an appropriate occasion to trot it out again. In the winter of 1958–59 McCarthy was at work on a paper that would eventually be published in Communications of the ACM as “Recursive Functions of Symbolic Expressions and Their Computation by Machine, Part I.” (There was never a Part II.) He was looking for good example programs to show that the new language was “neater than Turing machines” as a formalism for describing computable functions. In the end he came up with a demo much better than “Hello world!”

The following paragraphs are from McCarthy’s presentation to the first History of Programming Languages meeting in 1977 (ACM SIGPLAN Notices, Vol.13, No.8, August 1978; there’s an HTML-ized version).

Another way to show that LISP was neater than Turing machines was to write a universal LISP function and show that it is briefer and more comprehensible than the description of a universal Turing machine. This was the LISP function eval[e, a], which computes the value of a LISP expression e—the second argument a being a list of assignments of values to variables (a is needed to make the recursion work). Writing eval required inventing a notation representing LISP functions as LISP data, and such a notation was devised for the purposes of the paper with no thought that it would be used to express LISP programs in practice.

S. R. Russell noticed that eval could serve as an interpreter for LISP, promptly hand coded it, and we now had a programming language with an interpreter.

The “notation representing LISP functions as LISP data,” was the parenthesized prefix syntax now beloved by Lispers and reviled or ridiculed by just about everybody else. McCarthy himself was not a big fan of this notation. He believed—to the end of his life, as far as I know—that the language deserved a more conventional “algebraic” syntax, perhaps something in the Algol tradition. The parenthesized lists were called S-expressions; the elements of the fancier notation were to be called M-expressions. In the 1977 talk McCarthy continued:

The unexpected appearance of an interpreter tended to freeze the form of the language, and some of the decisions made rather lightheartedly for the “Recursive functions…” paper later proved unfortunate…. The project of defining M-expressions precisely and compiling them or at least translating them into S-expressions was neither finalized nor explicitly abandoned. It just receded into the indefinite future, and a new generation of programmers appeared who preferred internal notation to any FORTRAN-like or ALGOL-like notation that could be devised.

I guess I’m part of that new, unregenerate, generation, who have never been weaned away from their (((()))).

In 2005 I attended an International Lisp Conference at Stanford. McCarthy was present throughout the proceedings but kept a low profile until the final discussion session, when he rose from his seat to make this pronouncement:

If someone set off a bomb in this room, it would wipe out half of the worldwide Lisp community. That might not be a bad thing for Lisp, because it would have to be reinvented.

There were two provocative aspects to this statement. First, the lecture hall where we were gathered held no more than a couple of hundred people, so if we represented half of the of worldwide Lisp community, the whole outfit must be pretty small potatoes. Second, if obliterating half the Lisp community would be good for the language, then we must have gone badly astray somwhere in the past 50+ years.

My own view (for what it’s worth) is quite different. I’m simply amazed that so many fundamentally sound ideas were formulated so clearly so early in the history of computation. If McCarthy could get so much right in 1958, what the hell have we been doing since then?

•     •     •

One more reminiscence of John McCarthy. He was a great prognosticator and futurist. In the introduction to a Scientific American special issue on information (September 1966), he wrote presciently about a the prospect of putting a computer in every home and about what we now call cloud computing. (He filled in more details on these themes in a 1970 paper.)

No stretching of the demonstrated technology is required to envision computer consoles installed in every home and connected to public-utility computers through the telephone system. The console might consist of a typewriter keyboard and a television screen that can display text and pictures. Each subscriber will have his own private file space in the computer that he can consult and alter at any time.

But not all of McCarthy’s predictions were precisely on target. In 1989 he wrote about the threat of the fax machine:

Unless e-mail is freed from dependence on the networks, I predict it will be supplanted by the telefax for most uses in spite of the fact it is more advantageous…. Unless e-mail is separated from special networks, telefaxing will prevail because it works by using the existing telephone network directly.

I say we should let him slide on that one. Overall, the world is a richer place for his contributions to it.

This entry was posted in computing.

11 Responses to (McCarthyism)

  1. Pulu says:

    Interesting, thanks for posting.

    It seems to me that email is freed from networks - I can connect my smartphone, computer, etc to most internetworks and access my email just the same. I guess that computer networks aren’t special anymore - do you think McCarthy was right, but not how he expected to be?

  2. Alex Lopez-Ortiz says:

    representing LISP functions as LISP data

    Highlighting this equivalence is nice, yet at the same time the parenthesis notation commixes two different roles into one, namely the function and its parameters. Consider for example the expression

    (+ 2 3)

    + plays a distinguished role there, which is different than 2 and 3, yet the notation does not make a distinction between a pure, should never be evaluated list such as (1 2 3) and (+ 1 2 3). This leads to the horrible quote notation ‘(1 2 3) and shows that the notation shoehorns the equivalence between data and functions as opposed to naturally and gently easing us into it.

    “One can even conjecture that Lisp owes its survival specifically to the fact that its programs are lists, which everyone, including me, has regarded as a disadvantage.”– John McCarthy


    He was a great prognosticator and futurist.

    He was a prolific prognosticator. I’m not sure if he was particularly accurate. I seem to remember most of his predictions being proven wildly optimistic.

  3. Randy A MacDonald says:

    That ‘bomb the conference’ idea has made its way to many an APL gathering. We arrayfolk were not so morbid, and APL _did_ get reinvented, as J.

  4. brian says:

    @Pulu: When McCarthy was writing about fax machines and email, everybody had a (land-line) telephone, but only a tiny fraction of the population had a TCP/IP connection. Given that the value of a communications medium depends strongly on the number of people you can reach with it, fax looked like a winner. The phone companies thought so too. I’m sure that McCarthy was delighted when it eventually turned out he was wrong. I’m sure the phone companies were not delighted.

  5. brian says:

    @Alex Lopez-Ortiz: I’m a language-wars pacificist. Not that I’m neutral—I have my own clear preferences—but I don’t want to fight over them. It’s really just fine with me if other people follow their own goofy, midguided, wrong-headed notions….

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