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Interview: Guy Steele Interviews John McCarthy, Father of Lisp

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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