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Interview: Guy Steele Interviews John McCarthy, Father of Lisp

by Abel Avram on Apr 30, 2009 |

In this phone interview that took place in front of an audience at OOPSLA 2008, Guy Steele spins a yarn with John McCarthy, the father of Lisp, attempting to find  out some details surrounding the language inception in the 50’ and its later evolution.

Watch: Guy Steele Interviews John McCarthy, Father of Lisp (56 min.)

Steele tries to bring back McCarthy’s memories from 1956-1958 when he started thinking about “an algebraic list processing language for artificial intelligence work on the IBM 704 computer”. McCarthy does not forget to mention those who were involved in those early days, either by providing good ideas to him or by working on the Lisp project itself: John Backus, Herbert Gelernter, Carl Gerberich, Steve Russell, Mike Levin and others.

This interview is interesting because it shows some of the Lisp creator’s feelings about the language conception and evolution. For example, McCarthy does not like some “Englishy” syntax that was added later like “loop”.

McCarthy still wishes he succeeded with expressing common sense with mathematical expressions. That’s what he wanted to do back then, and that’s what he challenges today’s students with.

The interview is full of impressions and names from a thrilling age of programming, when many believed Artificial Intelligence was easy, and presents some of the influences languages like FORTRAN, ALGOL, IPL, PL 1 had on Lisp.

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Typos in the transcript by Paul McJones

Noland Simon => Newell & Simon

girdle numbers => Gödel numbers

sum ends => summands

Herbert Stan => Herbert Stoyan

Kozak => [Alan] Kotok

"Amin!" => "Amen!"

Lennart => Lenat

Ken Pitman => Kent Pitman

John Al => JonL [John Lyle]

Thanks for posting the interview by peter lin

that was a fun interview. thanks!

Re: Typos in the transcript by Mark Wutka

Very enjoyable interview!

These are the typos that I thought either skipped information or misconveyed it:

variable lockup => variable lookup

Kotok and ... => Kotok and [Elwyn] Berlekamp

logical connectiveness => logical connectives

the idea had, in my opinion => But IPL had, in my opinion

you are currently convinced that while => you [were?] currently convinced for a while that

IPL had a boss => APL had a boss (If we take Fortran or IPL, each of them had a boss - APL had a boss)

trying to disclaim that boss => trying to disclaim that bossness

garbage collection was needed anyway => garbage collection was neater anyway

and a collected group => an eclectic group

"did he get into Lisp" => "did it get into Lisp"

that I did understand all of until => that I didn't understand at all until

differentiating in the formula and so forth => ... a formula and so forth. So I thought they were gonna hit a wall.

Re: Typos in the transcript by Mark Wutka

Just noticed one other..
Lisp and Prologue => Lisp and Prolog

Re: Typos in the transcript by Luciano Ramalho

Touring complete => Turing complete

Typo by Werner Schuster

Allen Kane -> Alan Kay (he was supposed to do the interview).

Typos fixed by Abel Avram

Thanks for noticing the typos. I believe they all have been fixed.

Re: Typos fixed by Thierry Pirot

Lisp structure -> list structure
(in every place where this occurs)

Fortran-Lisp -> Fortran list

The idea of ... as a function -> the idea of cons as a function

consoles -> cons cells

Heilsberg -> Hejlsberg

Lisp programs or Lisp data -> the fact that Lisp programs are Lisp data, I think

Close related to the idea of a Lisp program and Lisp data is that it enables you to encode, apply and eval
-> Closely related to the idea that a Lisp program be Lisp data is that it enables you to encode APPLY and EVAL

The idea of eval is -> The idea of EVAL as

High order -> Higher order

Re: Typos fixed by Erik Rantapaa

another one:

"the math labs, the maximums" -> "the MATHLABs, the Macsymas"

c.f. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MATHLAB and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macsyma

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