My annotated programming language history

I’ve been coding, a.k.a programming, since I was 15 years old. Since then I’ve used many programming languages. Some of them have been for work, some have been for fun. I mean, really, who hasn’t done some programing while on vacation?

Somewhat chronologically, here are many of the languages I’ve used with some comments on my experience with them. In total I’ve written millions of lines of code in the various languages over four decades.

Basic: This is the first language I used. While primitive, I was able to write some long programs such as a Monopoly game. In between coding sessions, I saved my work on yellow paper tape. I fiddled with Visual Basic years later, but I never wrote anything substantive in it.

APL: Now we’re talking a serious language, and this is still in use today, particularly by one statistician in my group at IBM Research. I was editor of the school newspaper when I was a senior in high school and I wrote a primitive word processor in APL that would justify the text. It sure beat using a typewriter. Some modern programming languages and environments like R and MatLab owe a lot to APL. They should mention that more.

FORTRAN: My first use of this language was for traffic simulations and I used a DYNAMO implementation in FORTRAN in a course I took one summer at the Polytechnic Institute of New York in Brooklyn. Forget interactive code editing, we used punch cards! FORTRAN was created at IBM Research, by the way.

PDP 11 Assembler: I only took one Computer Science class in college and this was the language used. Evidently the course alternated between using Lisp and Assembler and the primary language in which the students wrote. However, our big project was to write a Lisp interpreter in Assembler which got me hooked on ideas like garbage collection. No, I did not and do not mind the parentheses.

csh, bash, and the like: These are the shell scripting languages for UNIX, Linux, and the Mac. I’ve used them on and off for several decades. They are very powerful, but I can never remember the syntax, which I need to look up every time.

Perl: Extraordinary, powerful, write once and hope you can figure it out later. Just not for me.

PL/I: Classic IBM mainframe language and it saved me from ever learning COBOL. When I was a summer student with IBM during my college years, we used PL/I to write applications for optimizing IBM’s bulk purchases of telecommunications capacity for voice and data. It was basically one big queuing theory problem with huge amounts of data. It was big data, 70s style.

Rexx: This language represented a real change in the way I viewed languages on the mainframe. Rather than being obviously descended from the punch card days, it was a modern language that allowed you to imagine data in more than a line-by-line mode, and help you think of patterns within the data. It was much easier to use than than the compiled languages I had used earlier. My primary use for it was in writing macros for the XEDIT editor.

Turbo PASCAL: This was my main programming language on my IBM PC in the 1980s. The editor was built-in and the compiler was very fast. I used it to write an interactive editor like XEDIT for the mainframe with it, as well as a Scheme interpreter.

Scheme: A very nice and elegant descendant of Lisp, was considered an important programming language for teaching Computer Science. That role has been largely usurped by Java. I liked writing interpreters in Scheme but I never did much actual coding in it.

VM Lisp: This was a Lisp dialect developed at IBM Research for mainframes. My group led by Dick Jenks there used it as the bottommost implementation language for computer algebra systems like Scratchpad, Scratchpad II, and Axiom. Like other Lisps this had two very important features: automatic garbage collection and bignums, also known as arbitrarily large integers.

Boot: An internal language at IBM Research built on Lisp that provided feature like collections and pattern matching for complex assignments. It had many advantages over Lisp and inherited the garbage collection and bignums. From time to time I and others would rewrite parts of Boot to get more efficient code generation, but the parser was very hard to tinker with.

Axiom compiler and interpreter languages: The IBM Research team developed these to express and compute with very sophisticated type hierarchies and algorithms, typical of how mathematics itself is really done. So the Axiom notion of “category” corresponded to that in mathematics, and one algorithm could be conditionally chosen over another at runtime based on categorical properties of the computational domains. This work preceded some later language features that have shown up in Ruby and Sage. The interpreted language was weakly typed in that it tried to figure out what you meant mathematically. So x + 1/2 would produce an object of type Polynomial RationalNumber. While the type interpretation was pretty impressive, the speed and ease of use never made the system as popular as other math systems like Maple or Mathematica.

awk: Great language for regular expressions and sophisticated text processing. I wrote a lot of awk for pre- and post-processing the Axiom book.

C: Better than assembler, great for really understanding how code translates to execution and how it could get optimized. Happy to move on to C++.

C++: Yay, objects. I started using C++ when I wrote techexplorer for displaying live TEX and LATEX documents. I used the type system extensively, though I’ve always strongly disliked the use of templates. Several years ago I wrote a small toy computer algebra system in C++ and had to implement bignums. While there are several such libraries available in open source for C and C++, none of them met my tastes or open source license preferences. Coding in C++ was my first experience with Microsoft Visual Studio in the 1990s. The C++ standard library is simply not as easy to use as the built-in collection types in Python, see below.

SmallTalk: Nope, but largely because I disliked the programming environments. The design of the language taught me a lot about object orientation.

Java: This is obviously an important language, but I don’t use it for my personal coding, which is sporadic. If I used it all day long and could keep the syntax and library organization in my head, that would be another story. I would be very hesitant to write the key elements of a server-side networked application in something other than Java due to security concerns (that is, Java is good).

Ruby: Nope. Installed many times, but it just doesn’t make me want to write huge applications in it.

PHP: The implementation language for WordPress and Drupal, in addition to many other web applications. If you want to spit out HTML, this is the way to do it. I’m not in love with its object features, but the other programming elements are more than good enough to munch on a lot of data and make it presentable.

Objective-C: Welcome to the all Apple world, practically speaking. It hurts my head, but it is really powerful and Apple has provided a gorgeous and powerful library to build Mac and iOS mobile apps. My life improved when I discovered that I could write the algorithmic parts of an app in C++ and then only use Objective-C for the user interface and some library access.

Python: This is my all time favorite language. It’s got bignums, it’s got garbage collection, it’s got lists and hash tables, it can be procedural, object-oriented, or functional. I can code and debug faster than any other language I’ve used. Two huge improvements would be 1) make it much easier to create web applications with it other than using frameworks like Django, and 2) have Apple, Google, and Microsoft make it a first class language for mobile app development.

Javascript: This has been on my todo list for years and I’ve written a few dozen lines here and there for some web pages. To me, the object system is strange, but I need to get over it. Of the languages that are out there now, this is probably the most important one missing from my coding arsenal and represents an intellectual deficiency on my part.

4 Comments

  1. Hi Bob – thanks for that stroll down memory lane. I recently discovered the specs to a primitive natural language processing project I worked on in 1978. It was in APL and ran in a fixed workspace of 64k bytes, with 15K bytes of code. (APL and PL/I were the first languages I learned). Now I have a phone with 32G

    A few years later (1983?) I took an Objective C class with Tom Love and Brad Cox and that opened my eyes to a new way of thinking. Over the years I used and taught APL, PL/I, PL/S, and Pascal, with a little Smalltalk thrown in when ParcPlace became a client. I also enjoyed teaching compiler design theory many, many years ago. Your comments here and in our exchange on twitter make me think it’s time to roll up my sleeves and take another look at modern languages. Thanks!

  2. All that time at IBM and you never got to use PL/S? It was the main implementation language all through the 70s… And no REXX? And no SQL? Well, maybe SQL doesn’t count as a language…

  3. Nope, no PL/S. I have written a tiny bit of SQL, but not enough worth mentioneing. I did code in REXX, mostly for XEDIT macros.

  4. I’ve updated the entry to include a bit about Rexx.

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