Monday, July 25, 2011

Before Python

This morning I had a chat with the students at Google's CAPE program. Since I wrote up what I wanted to say I figured I might as well blog it here. Warning: this is pretty unedited (or else it would never be published :-). I'm posting it in my "personal" blog instead of the "Python history" blog because it mostly touches on my career before Python. Here goes.

Have you ever written a computer program? Using which language?
  • HTML
  • Javascript
  • Java
  • Python
  • C++
  • C
  • Other - which?
[It turned out the students had used a mixture of Scratch, App Inventor, and Processing. A few students had also used Python or Java.]

Have you ever invented a programming language? :-)

If you have programmed, you know some of the problems with programming languages. Have you ever thought about why programming isn't easier? Would it help if you could just talk to your computer? Have you tried speech recognition software? I have. It doesn't work very well yet. :-)

How do you think programmers will write software 10 years from now? Or 30? 50?

Do you know how programmers worked 30 years ago?

I do.

I was born in Holland in 1956. Things were different.

I didn't know what a computer was until I was 18. However, I tinkered with electronics. I built a digital clock. My dream was to build my own calculator.

Then I went to university in Amsterdam to study mathematics and they had a computer that was free for students to use! (Not unlimited though. We were allowed to use something like one second of CPU time per day. :-)

I had to learn how to use punch cards. There were machines to create them that had a keyboard. The machines were as big as a desk and made a terrible noise when you hit a key: a small hole was punched in the card with a huge force and great precision. If you made a mistake you had to start over.

I didn't get to see the actual computer for several more years. What we had in the basement of the math department was just an end point for a network that ran across the city. There were card readers and line printers and operators who controlled them. But the actual computer was elsewhere.

It was a huge, busy place, where programmers got together and discussed their problems, and I loved to hang out there. In fact, I loved it so much I nearly dropped out of university. But eventually I graduated.

Aside: Punch cards weren't invented for computers; they were invented for sorting census data and the like before WW2. [UPDATE: actually much earlier, though the IBM 80-column format I used did originate in 1928.] There were large mechanical machines for sorting stacks of cards. But punch cards are the reason that some software still limits you (or just defaults) to 80 characters per line.

My first program was a kind of "hello world" program written in Algol-60. That language was only popular in Europe, I believe. After another student gave me a few hints I learned the rest of the language straight from the official definition of the language, the "Revised Report on the Algorithmic Language Algol-60." That was not an easy report to read! The language was a bit cumbersome, but I didn't mind, I learned the basics of programming anyway: variables, expressions, functions, input/output.

Then a professor mentioned that there was a new programming language named Pascal. There was a Pascal compiler on our mainframe so I decided to learn it. I borrowed the book on Pascal from the departmental library (there was only one book, and only one copy, and I couldn't afford my own). After skimming it, I decided that the only thing I really needed were the "railroad diagrams" at the end of the book that summarized the language's syntax. I made photocopies of those and returned the book to the library.

Aside: Pascal really had only one new feature compared to Algol-60, pointers. These baffled me for the longest time. Eventually I learned assembly programming, which explained the memory model of a computer for the first time. I realized that a pointer was just an address. Then I finally understood them.

I guess this is how I got interested in programming languages. I learned the other languages of the day along the way: Fortran, Lisp, Basic, Cobol. With all this knowledge of programming, I managed to get a plum part-time job at the data center maintaining the mainframe's operating system. It was the most coveted job among programmers. It gave me access to unlimited computer time, the fastest terminals (still 80 x 24 though :-), and most important, a stimulating environment where I got to learn from other programmers. I also got access to a Unix system, learned C and shell programming, and at some point we had an Apple II (mostly remembered for hours of playing space invaders). I even got to implement a new (but very crummy) programming language!

All this time, programming was one of the most fun things in my life. I thought of ideas for new programs to write all the time. But interestingly, I wasn't very interested in using computers for practical stuff! Nor even to solve mathematical puzzles (except that I invented a clever way of programming Conway's Game of Life that came from my understanding of using logic gates to build a binary addition circuit).

What I liked most though was write programs to make the life of programmers better. One of my early creations was a text editor that was better than the system's standard text editor (which wasn't very hard :-). I also wrote an archive program that helped conserve disk space; it was so popular and useful that the data center offered it to all its customers. I liked sharing programs, and my own principles for sharing were very similar to what later would become Open Source (except I didn't care about licenses -- still don't :-).

As a term project I wrote a static analyzer for Pascal programs with another student. Looking back I think it was a horrible program, but our professor thought it was brilliant and we both got an A+. That's where I learned about parsers and such, and that you can do more with a parser than write a compiler.

I combined pleasure with a good cause when I helped out a small left-wing political party in Holland automate their membership database. This was until then maintained by hand as a collection of metal plates plates into which letters were stamped using an antiquated machine not unlike a steam hammer :-). In the end the project was not a great success, but my contributions (including an emulation of Unix's venerable "ed" editor program written in Cobol) piqued the attention of another volunteer, whose day job was as computer science researcher at the Mathematical Center. (Now CWI.)

This was Lambert Meertens. It so happened that he was designing his own programming language, named B (later ABC), and when I graduated he offered me a job on his team of programmers who were implementing an interpreter for the language (what we would now call a virtual machine).

The rest I have written up earlier in my Python history blog.