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More on the Script | Chasing Men Who Stare at Arrays

More on the Script

In 1960, a Canadian from a small farm near Camrose Alberta, Ken Iverson, joined IBM armed with his PhD thesis from Harvard which outlined a math based computer language. In collaboration with Adin Falkoff, a veteran at IBM, he hand picked a team, and moved them and their families to Yorktown Heights, New York. They then put the theory of his dissertation into practice and went on to influence the course of computer history. The language became known as APL.

The original six, rumoured to be either left-handed or Canadian, included three Canadians who created the world’s first interactive computer programming language.

Of this team were three young men, Larry Breed (American), Richard Lathwell (Canadian) & Roger Moore (Canadian) who won the prestigious Grace Hopper Award for young computer professionals under the age of 35 in 1973 for their contributions. Ken Iverson himself, won the most prestigious technical award granted by the Association for Computing Machinery in 1979.

The bonds formed between this crew of 1960’s & 1970’s innovators and their families have survived over 40 years. These bonds, in fact, have extended to include to three generations. And the close knit community, with its quirky inside mathematics jokes about “nothing”, still exists today.


12 Responses to “More on the Script”

  • We truly live in the Age of Documentaries. 🙂 Sounds like a good start!

  • Rumoured? Surely the sinister quality and nationality of the trinity can be determined without the need for rumour?! 😉

  • Sorry I meant the six!

  • from Richard Lathwell
    to Catherine Lathwell
    date Sat, Mar 28, 2009 at 10:53 PM
    subject APL blog

    hide details 10:53 PM (35 minutes ago)


    Hi Cath;

    I stumbled on your APL blog I don’t know how – I was trying to find you on twitter.

    Ken’s PhD thesis was on numerical methods and didn’t have anything to do with language. I might have a copy of it. His thesis supervisor was Howard Aiken, sometimes called the father of the computer. Ken developed the notation later when he was teaching at Harvard and needed a way to describe computer hardware.

    Who are your original 6?

    Roger was American at the time -he became Canadian much later. He was never an IBM employee but hired under contract to write the APL\360 time-sharing supervisor. Larry wrote the input analysis and syntax analysis and I wrote all the functions. Eugene came along a year or two later when the project he was working on was killed. We did some of our development on his project’s computer. Al Rose wrote the first text editor in APL and did a lot of external presentations. Charlie Brenner (on contract) wrote APL\1130 which later on was used to design the HP-35 (the world’s first commercial hand-held calculator). When Charlie split for England he left us his MG midget which we used until Alex Morrow drove it into a tree.

  • And I still have the dining room table that Alex gave my father after driving the car into a tree.

  • And Alex still has the coffee table I was storing at his house in Palo Alto, when his job moved east and the movers took everything along. No trees, fortunately — the moving van arrived safe and sound.

    About your script — Dick’s corrections, plus …

    Interactive systems for programming languages had been around for several years, and APL was by no means the first. Dartmouth BASIC predated us, I’m pretty sure; also RUSH, at Allen-Babcock (PL-I), and in IBM the infamous (at least for us) QUICKTRAN (FORTRAN-like). The Culler-Fried system offered a way to program with arrays, though far less elegantly than APL. A 1967 symposium proceedings was published as a book, “Interactive Systems for Experimental Applied Mathematics,” Klerer and Reinfelds, ed. APL was in there, but so were many others.

    The award Dick, Roger, and I shared was the Grace Murray Hopper award; I think the age cutoff was 30, but I could be wrong. The award Ken received was the Turing Award, the most prestigious award offered by the ACM.

    I’m not sure which original six you’re thinking of. Phil Abrams was involved as early as I was, and wrote the input translation and function definition of the first APL system — the one written in Fortran and running on the 7090. (Just barely “interactive”, but thanks to Eugene it was usable from 1050 terminals.) He was left-handed, but not Canadian. (It was a red-letter day when Mike Jenkins joined the group: he was Canadian AND left-handed.)

    One think Dick said — Charlie Brenner had a lot to do with APL/1130, but he didn’t write it; its origin was much more interesting. My paper “How we got to APL/1130” tells how it was done: http://www.vector.org.uk/archive/v223/APL_1130.htm

    Cathy, I look forward to seeing you in a few weeks. I doubt that I’ll recognize you!

  • One reservation I have about your script: I wouldn’t say the group formed, and APL appeared, as the result of Ken roaming the country, hand-picking crew members for a mission, which we then executed. It was more that people were attracted by the notation and by Ken, and wanted to work with him. My first assignment was to write a formal description of the IBM 1130 (I think it was that machine); I said “naw, I’d rather work on an interpreter” and the timing turned out to be right for it. Phil Abrams (working at Stanford) and I got the Fortran implementation working shortly thereafter.

    I need help from Dick’s recollections here: Ken’s group distributed the Fortran implementation informally to several colleges, before management told us to stop. I think Dick, in Edmonton, wrangled one of these distributions into a useful tool, then visited Ken and his group in Yorktown and we hired him, Aug or Sep 1966, just in time to get APL\360 up and running.

  • Dear Larry,

    I’m arriving on the 8th of May and leaving on the 13th. I am bringing my camera, but this isn’t an official filming trip – it’s more of a reconnecting trip. Also, I want to see what the filming possibilities are there. I’ll explain more about the process when I arrive. It’s great that you’re a willing subject!

    Please comment as much as you can in the blog. Think of my notes as a straw dog. I’m quite sure that my view on the subject is extra creative as it includes small child memmories of all of you guys.

    I thinking about three main points right now (an this will evolve, for sure)

    1. APL’s contribution to computer science
    2. APL’s contribution to science
    3. How APL was utilized in the university setting vs commercial adaption (I have some theories about conflicting industry & accedemic pressures – we can talk more about this)

    Thanks for all the support.


    ps. I’m going to post this on the blog
    – Hide quoted text –

    On Tue, Apr 14, 2009 at 6:26 PM, Larry Breed wrote:

    Cathy — this note was rejected as “possibly spam or virus”. I’ve deleted the original note which had many links, and am sending again.

    >Hey -Thanks!
    >I want to spend as much time with you as you will tolerate when I come to there next month. How do you feel about that?

    You’re welcome! I’ll be glad to spend time with you (and your camera, I presume). We’ll work out how much I’ll tolerate. When do you arrive?

    >David Allan told me you help organise Burning Man. Is this true?

    Mm, not really. I’ve helped out in a variety of ways, though, from removing porcupine nests to proofreading the daily newspaper to building flaming kinetic art to devising low-impact wastewater disposal contraptions. Another Larry, Larry Harvey, is one of the founders of Burning Man, and the director of the event. About 10% of the population volunteer to help put on the event, and I’m one of them.

    >I look the same, only taller.
    >ps Google said 35. Were you all under 30 at the time? Wow.

    Well, I recalled 30 being the cutoff, but everything I see on the net says 35. I may be thinking of the adage in mathematics that if a mathematician doesn’t produce something extraordinary by age 30, he never will. In any case, Roger and I were both 26 when we actually started coding APL\360, and Dick was a few years younger. There was a spirit of youthful rebelliousness throughout the APL group that we, as youngsters, enjoyed. The occasional stodginess, “we’ve always done it this way” we encountered outside the group only encouraged us.

    I have another comment or two, but I’ll put them in your blog instead of in this note.
    Cheers …

  • I suspect that the Grace Murray Hopper award age cutoff was originally 30 and later raised to 35. The Google results for the following search include lots of references to 30 in the context of earlier awardees:
    “grace murray hopper award” “under 30” OR “age 30”

    For instance, the first awardee was Donald Knuth, and in one of the results, http://www.karenafrenkel.com/files/Knuthprofile.pdf, there is the following quote: “Age 30 is kind of appropriate because I got the first copy of volume 1 from the publisher nine days after my 30th birthday. So, a large part of the work had been done when I was 30 years old. They already were working on typesetting the second volume.” The context isn’t given there but should be present in the rest of the article, which is available on acm.org as “premium content” available to ACM members (which I no longer am) or for purchase. Other results from the above search may well settle the question too.

  • APL\1130 to HP-35? Tell us more! Curtis

  • I’ve been interested in the way Iverson’s ideas have influenced or inspired others.
    With this in mind , a couple of years ago I sent a question over to Steven Wolfram of Mathematica fame asking had APL influenced his work, specifically ideas for Mathematica. He replied that it had a strong influence although obviously his work moved in a different direction.

    It strikes me also that I remember seeing some very early papers on
    precursors of SQL and relational database calculus. The way the authors described their ideas and the notation they used was very APLish and I have always wondered how strongly APL had influenced their work. Have not run this lead down but would be interesting to know.

  • dr. linda d. misek-falkoff


    Perhaps (?) some of the below might connect in with this conversation or stimulate more memories (broad ‘or’).

    Adin has told me of his left-coastal conversations with Ted Codd on matrix representation very early on be4 implementations, and I myself worked in later periods (personal exploration time allowances) some with Stan Petrick and Warren Plath and Moshe Zloof (QBE) and recall a relational implmentation of mine was predicting which prisoners = about to jump a wall (outward bound), gedanken artifical intelligence inferencing based on simulated dining room chat … again relational in multiple ways – during IBM Research 70’s/80’s days.

    Before that but in retrospect ‘related’ were my own 1960’s literary analytic experiences with punch card 1 row 26 system upper-case-only format (some may remember how much we crammed column-wise into jcl annotations … ) so lotza punch cards were collectively a single unified table and thinking back a single punch card was a one row n-column relations table .. or am I mistaken, which surely can be.

    With continuing best wishes, and thanks Catherine,
    Dr. Linda D. Misek-Falkoff

    *Respectful Interfaces* .

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