John McCarthy

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What a sad, horrible month. First Steve Jobs, then Dennis Ritchie, and now John McCarthy. We are losing many of the greats all at once.

If you haven’t heard of John McCarthy, you’re probably learning about his many important contributions now. Some examples:

  • He’s the inventor of Lisp, the second-oldest high-level programming language, younger than Fortran by just one year. Lisp is one of the most influential programming languages in history. Granted, however, most programmers don’t use directly Lisp-based languages, so its great influence has been mostly indirect.
  • He coined the term “artificial intelligence.” Granted, however, AI has got a bad rap from being oversold by enthusiasts like Minsky; for the past 20 years or so it’s been safer to talk in euphemisms like “expert systems.” So here too McCarthy’s great influence has been less direct.
  • He developed the idea of time-sharing, the first step toward multitasking. Okay, now we’re talking about a contribution that’s pretty directly influential to our modern systems and lives.

But perhaps McCarthy’s most important single contribution to modern computer science is still something else, yet another major technology you won’t hear nearly enough about as being his invention:

Automatic garbage collection. Which he invented circa 1959.

No, really, that’s not a typo: 1959. For context, that year’s first quarter alone saw the beginning of the space age as Sputnik 1 came down at the end of its three-month orbit; Fidel Castro take Cuba; Walt Disney release Sleeping Beauty; The Day the Music Died; the first Barbie doll; and President Eisenhower signing a bill to enable Hawaii to become a state.

GC is ancient. Electronic computers with core memory were still something of a novelty (RAM didn’t show up until a decade or so later), machine memory was measured in scant kilobytes, and McCarthy was already managing those tiny memories with automatic garbage collection.

I’ve encountered people who think GC was invented by Java in 1995. It was actually invented more than half a century ago, when our industry barely even existed.

Thanks, John.

And here’s hoping we can take a break for a while from writing these memorials to our giants.

15 thoughts on “John McCarthy

  1. A lot of folks say that the last 25 years in computer science has mostly seen refinements of the work done by the folks who recently we’ve sadly lost. I can’t help wonder who’ll be thought of as the Ritchie, McCarthy and even Jobs of the future. I’m hard pressed to think of anyone in the last couple of decades who has been as fundamentally impactful as the first two, or as visionary as the last.

  2. Such a sad, sad story. Truly, he was one of the greats. He was one of my heroes.

  3. @tomkirbygreen

    Everything in computers has been invented in the decade of the 60’s (if you count 1958 and 1959 in it), the golden decade.

  4. The computer mouse…in the 60’s. GUI’s in the ’70’s (Xerox PARC) and I wouldn’t be surprised to see work before that.

    * * *

    Being nit-picky, shouldn’t it be “bad rep” (for bad reputation) instead of “bad rap”?

  5. OK, GC was invented half a century ago. When it is going to land in the C++ world? At least I would like to have the option to use it.

  6. You do – it’s called “smart pointer”. It’s got to do until you or someone else comes up with a solution that can reliably release non-memory resources.

  7. It’s amazing how much computer language development has consisted of taking features from Lisp and putting them into a language with real syntax. I don’t know what we’d be programming with if not for McCarthy, but I’d bet it wouldn’t be as good.

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