Chapter 34 - Lisp History, or: Origins of Misunderstandings

I'd like to conclude this book with a short history of Lisp's development, providing insights to some lingering misconceptions about Lisp.

John McCarthy's Notation

In the late 1950s, John McCarthy had proposed a mathematical notation to describe recursive functions of symbolic expressions. At this point, McCarthy clearly envisioned a notation rather than a programming language.

Earliest implementations

A couple years later Steve Russell, one of McCarthy's students at MIT, noticed that McCarthy's notation would be easy to interpret on a computer, and LISP was born. While working on an international standards committee to define Algol-60, McCarthy proposed numerous innovations which were not adopted. Perhaps these rejections prompted McCarthy to gather his ideas into what would become Lisp. By late 1959, the first complete Lisp interpreter was in use at MIT.

Special hardware

In the early days, Lisp consistently outstripped the resources of its host machines -- mainframes and minicomputers having memory spaces measured in tens of kilobytes and instruction cycle times measured in microseconds. This prompted Lisp researchers to develop specialized hardware for Lisp program execution. These machines, called "Lisp Machines" (or LispMs) spawned an entire industry that rose in the 1970s and fell during the 1980s. This industry, and not the personal computer industry, was the first to sell personal interactive computers having windowed user interfaces.

Diverging dialects

Concurrent with the rise of the LispM industry, many researchers -- put off by the high costs of the specialized hardware -- engaged in the development of Lisp implementations for stock hardware. This was a time of great diversity and innovation. However, the profusion of dialects prevented researchers from readily sharing their work.

The DARPA directive

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, was (and still is) the funding source for much of the Lisp and AI research community. Seeing the problems caused by the explosion in the number of distinct Lisp dialects, DARPA sponsored a project to develop a unified Common Lisp specification.

East vs. West, and European competition

Despite the large number of competing dialects at this time, two were clearly dominant. On the West coast, Interlisp became the standard, with its emphasis on programming aids and tools, such as the aptly named "Do What I Mean." On the East coast, MACLISP was de rigueur, with its focus on low-level system programming access and an efficient compiler.

The Common Lisp effort raised animosities between the two camps, causing most of the Interlisp advocates to withdraw. Also, political forces in Europe prompted the formation of additional standardization efforts, leading to the development of at least one competing (although quite unsuccessfully) standard.

The emergence of compilers for stock hardware

As work began in earnest on the Common Lisp standard, vendors -- most of whom had employees on the standardization committee -- were quick to implement the recommendations under discussion. One of the biggest benefits was the definition of the interface to and behavior of the Lisp compiler; this, together with advances in compiler and garbage collector technology, was a first step toward making Lisp competitive in the arena of general-purpose programming languages.

The long road to standardization

The committee produced the first public edition of the Common LISP specification in 1984. In a shining example of computer mediated cooperative work, hundreds of LISP users and implementers exchanged thousands of email messages to propose, debate, and vote upon each feature of the new language. Each topic and issue was carefully categorized, indexed, and cross-referenced. Very few areas were ambiguous or inadequately specified. Because of the extensive electronic record of the committee's discussions, these remaining areas were clearly identified and served as a basis for continuing work by the committee. An interim report of the committee's work was published in late 1990, and a draft proposed ANSI standard was published in 1992. The X3.226 ANSI Common Lisp standard was finalized in December 1994, and formally published about a year later.

State of the Art?

Lisp has been around in various forms for over forty years. Fortunately, many improvements have been made during that time. Unfortunately, quite a few people in education and industry still think of Lisp as it was twenty or more years in the past.

Today, commercial Lisp implementations have compilers that compete successfully against compilers for lower-level languages such as C and C++. At the same time, C++ has failed to increase its expressive power in a way that competes successfully with Common Lisp.

Java, a newcomer, makes some interesting (yet unfulfilled) promises about portability and security. Java has strengths in the areas of system integration, but struggles with performance and reliability. I believe that Java will carve out a niche for itself only by sacrificing some of its stated goals -- which ones remain to be seen.

Garbage collection, long a favorite whipping post for Lisp detractors, has advanced to the point where collection delays are virtually unnoticeable in a well-written Lisp program. The increasing trend toward server-based applications actually favors Lisp, since garbage collection is more efficient and reliable than manual storage allocation (as with malloc/free) when run for extended periods.

Lisp is still weak on standardized user interfaces, but then so is every other language and platform. Lisp vendors now sell CORBA packages for interoperability and a portable (across Lisp implementations) user interface environment (CLIM). Furthermore, it is easy to write a simple web server in Lisp, allowing the development of user interfaces that run in standard web browsers. A full-featured web server (CL-HTTP) is under continual development at MIT -- the source code is portable to most Lisp platforms and is freely available.

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Chapter 33 | Chapter 34 | Appendix A

Copyright © 1995-2001, David B. Lamkins
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