Friday, September 25, 2009

McCarthy Presents Lisp (1959)
Just fifty years ago, John McCarthy circulated a notice that he would be giving an informal talk that he thought would be of interest. I drove up to MIT from New Jersey to attend this seminar of typical length in a typical classroom. But the seminar was anything but typical. It was a revelation. In one session at the blackboard, John introduced Lisp—all you could do with car, cdr, cons, cond, lambda, and recursion.

In the course of the lecture John introduced the usual basic list functions like copy, append and reverse (quadratic and linear), as well as tree manipulation. He went on to higher-level functions, demonstrating maplis and lambda. By the end of the hour he had put together a powerful little toolkit of functions which he used in his finale: symbolic differentiation of univariate expressions.

There it was—functional programming ex nihilo. McCarthy acknowledged IPL V and recursive function theory, but the elegant and practical face he put upon these antecedents was a work of genius.

Me: Attending seminars by John McCarthy was one of the highlights of my undergraduate years at Stanford. For more on JMC:

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