Xerox Alto file server archive


In 1980, Paul McJones used this Alto to develop portions of the Xerox Star operating system.

It’s been almost a year since I posted to this blog, but I haven’t been completely inactive. This week, as part of its Software Gems: The Computer History Museum Historical Source Code Series, the Computer History Museum released a set of files archived in the 1970s and early 1980s from the Xerox Alto file servers at Xerox PARC. The files include source code, executables, documents, fonts, and other files.

This release has been a long time in the making. The files were originally archived to 9-track magnetic tape, but around 1991 they were transferred to 8mm tape cartridges. Around 2003, before he joined the Computer History Museum, Al Kossow, working under a Nondisclosure Agreement with PARC, transferred the 8mm tapes to DVDs, and sifted through the entire archive looking for files specifically related to the Alto — the archive had included files from many other projects over several decades. After many years of discussion, and the involvement of a number of people inside and outside of PARC, an agreement with CHM was finally signed in February 2011, and a CD with the Alto files that Al had located was given to CHM.

In August of 2013, I asked Len Shustek what had become of the files, and he suggested I write a blog post about them. So I talked to Al (now CHM software curator), who gave me a copy of the files. It turns out they were images of the tape records written by a Cedar Mesa program called the Archivist. Luckily, when the 9-track tapes were transferred to 8mm tapes, a file called rosetta.tar containing the Archivist source code plus some documentation was included on each tape. Once I obtained a copy of rosetta.tar I was able to write a program that “dearchived” the tape records, recreating a set of file directories. To make the files easier to view over the web, I added code to create a static web site allowing the files to be browsed, including translations from Bravo format to HTML and Press format to PDF. (Bravo was the first WYSIWYG word processor, and Press was a device-independent print-file format.)

There are 14680 files in all, of which 8598 are distinct. They include the Alto operating system; BCPL, Mesa, and (portions of the) Smalltalk programming environments; applications such as Bravo, Draw, and the Laurel email client; fonts and printing software (PARC had the first laser printers); and server software (including the IFS file server and the Grapevine distributed mail and name server).

Although not many people ever used an Alto, it had a huge influence on the hardware and software we use today, so I am very pleased that this software is now available for study.

The blog post Len invited me to write is here. The archive itself is here, but I recommend starting with this walk-through of the archive describing what is there and who wrote the various programs. More detail about the archive (provenance, naming conventions, file types, etc.) is available here.

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Dr. John E. L. Peck, 1918-2013

Dr. John E. L. Peck (1918-2013)

Dr. John E. L. Peck (1918-2013)

Dr. John E. L. Peck, whose work on ALGOL 68 was described in a recent post, passed away on November 6, 2013. His family has provided this obituary:

John, born August 14, 1918 in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, passed away peacefully with his family by his side on November 6, 2013. He is predeceased by his wife Dornacilla of 61 years, and lovingly remembered by his sons, Edward (Phyllis) and Nigel (Susan); his twin daughters Lenny (George) and Gwenda; his sister Gwenyth; grandchildren Justin (Kristina), Linstead (Randi), Shannon, Tanya and Vernon; great-grandson Isaac; nieces and nephews, Elizabeth, Brian, Richard, Louise, Deborah, Sheryl, Ross, Janene, Randa, Dahl and Fraser; relatives, good friends and colleagues from around the world. John was the first Head of the University of Calgary Mathematics Dept. and founded UBC’s Department of Computer Science – his contributions to computer science were significant internationally. He was a key member of the international community that pioneered the field of Computer Science beginning in the early 60s. He was an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed alpine climbing, skiing and cycle touring. He also had a strong love of music playing pipe organ, piano and classical recorder. He enjoyed a full and rich life and will be greatly missed. A Celebration of his Life will be held Saturday, December 7, 2013 at 10:00am at Victory Memorial Park Funeral Centre, 14831 28th Avenue, Surrey, BC. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to the charity of your choice.

Condolences may be offered at

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ALGOL 68: Implementation and more

John E. L. Peck joined the ALGOL 68 design project in 1966, was a coauthor of the report, edited the proceedings of the 1970 Munich implementation conference, hosted meetings that laid the foundations for the revised report, and chaired IFIP Working Group 2.1 from 1975 to 1978. Recently his son Edward Peck contacted me to say that he had come across a set of ALGOL 68-related documents in his father’s papers, and wondered if they would be appropriate for the ALGOL 68 section of the History of ALGOL web site. That led to some valuable additions:

I’d like to thank Edward Peck very much for making these documents available and for careful work scanning them.

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Korean edition of Elements of Programming

In addition to the English, Korean edition of Elements of Programming Japanese, Russian, and Chinese editions, Elements of Programming is now available in a Korean edition published by Pearson Education Korea and available from Kyobo Book Centre. Five editions, five scripts.

P.S. I can’t find a listing for the book at; I will update this post and our book website if I hear of one.

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Algol 68: Informal Introduction and more

Cover of Informal Introduction to Algol 68Several years ago I began an archival collection for the Algol family of programming languages: Algol 58 (originally known as the International Algorithmic Language), Algol 60, and Algol 68. I began looking for implementations of Algol 58 and Algol 60. Since then I’ve also found information (including, in some cases, source code), for many Algol 68 implementations.

I’d like to announce the return of a very useful Algol 68 resource: a scanned copy of Informal Introduction to Algol 68, posted by permission of coauthor Charles H. Lindsey and copyright holder IFIP. This is the revised 1980 reprint of the second (“completely revised”) edition of 1977. For convenience, I’ve also posted separate files containing the large fold-out Table of Contents and the appendix of Syntax Charts.

This book, together with Marcel van der Veer’s modern Algol 68 Genie implementation and the extensive documentation accompanying it (including a hypertext version of the Revised Report) provide an excellent way to study Algol 68.

In addition to the above-mentioned, a number of other people have contributed to the overall Algol archive project. I’d like to single out Neville Dempsey for his dedication to spreading knowledge of and appreciation for Algol 68.

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50th Anniversary of LISP 1.5 Programmer’s Manual

Cover of LISP 1.5 Programmer's Manual
I just noticed that August 17 was the 50th anniversary of the LISP 1.5 Programmer’s Manual by John McCarthy, Paul W. Abrahams, Daniel J. Edwards, Timothy P. Hart, and Michael I. Levin. On that day in 1962 it was published as a bound report of the Computation Center and Research Laboratory of Electronics of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was also published by MIT Press — perhaps simultaneously — and is still in print. A second edition was released in 1965; the only difference that I see comparing tables of contents is the addition of Appendix I: LISP for SHARE distribution.

This was of course the first book on LISP. It is a reference manual rather than a textbook, but many people managed to learn LISP from it, and a number of people managed to implement LISP from it. Today ACM’s Digital Library lists 327 citations for it, and Google lists about 23,900 hits. I’m pleased to say that #1 on Google is the authorized PDF at my History of LISP archive at the Computer History Museum.

Through the generosity of several people, the History of LISP archive includes not only the book but also several versions of the underlying source code:

If you’re resourceful and you’d like to actually run the system described in this book, you don’t need an IBM 7090 or a time machine; the SIMH simulator package and the files and information here are sufficient; scroll down until you find “Running Lisp 1.5 in the SIMH IBM 7094 emulator.”

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Harold V. McIntosh and his students: Lisp escapes MIT

In today’s wired world, people will start experimenting with an interesting new programming language shortly after it appears on a hosting service. But things took longer in the early days of Lisp. McCarthy’s famous paper[1] on Lisp was presented at a conference in May 1959 and published in CACM in April 1960, by which time a system with an interpreter and compiler was running on MIT’s IBM 704; the paper notes “A programmer’s manual[2] is being prepared.” Gradually copies of Lisp were requested by other IBM installations (the system was ported to the 709 and then the 7090). Modifications were often required to adapt it to a particular hardware configuration or operating environment and it was several years before Lisp was adapted to other kinds of computers. Without the internet or “social networking”, the propagation of ideas depended even more heavily on people. The physicist Harold V. McIntosh was one of the first to spread Lisp beyond MIT.

Continue reading

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Remembering Jim Gray

Jim Gray’s professional contributions to the theory and practice of transactions, databases, and scientific applications of large databases, coupled with his teaching, mentoring, and warm friendships made a tremendous impact on the world. When he failed to return from sailing his 40-foot sloop Tenacious around the Farallon Islands on January 28, 2007, it was a devastating blow to family, friends, and colleagues alike. Despite a series of extremely thorough searches by the Coast Guard, by his friends, and by his family, no trace of him or his boat were ever found, which meant he could not be declared legally dead at that time. The ambiguous loss suffered by his wife and family meant his disappearance was especially difficult to recover from. After the legally-mandated five-year waiting period, a court recently granted a petition by his wife Donna Carnes to have Jim declared dead as of January 28, 2012. As Donna indicates in this NY Times interview, the waiting followed by the court order have led to a sense of closure for her.

I recently wrote a summary of Jim’s life and career for the updated ACM Turing Award web site; it includes links to related articles from the 2008 Tribute held for him at U.C. Berkeley and also photographs supplied by Donna.

Jim Gray with former colleagues of the CAL Timesharing project at U.C. Berkeley, Golden Gate Park, April 1974

Here I’ll note a few of my personal memories of working with Jim, who I met at the University of California in the the late 1960s, when he was a computer science graduate student, and I was an engineering undergraduate and part-time employee of the campus computer center. Jim served as an informal advisor to me on course work, and he was also my manager for a time on the CAL Timesharing System project. Jim was a knowledgeable, patient and enthusiastic advisor. There were few boundaries between Jim’s professional and social life. I will never forget going walnut picking with Jim, who stood on the roof of his VW bus to reach the walnuts, and then easily repaired the dent in the roof by pushing upward from below.

Franco Putzolu, Jim Gray, and Irv Traiger at IBM San Jose Research, circa 1977

Jim and I worked together again a few years later at IBM San Jose Research (now IBM Almaden). After working with John Backus (whom Jim had introduced me to) on functional programming for about 15 months, I joined Jim on the System R team. By then Jim was well into his work on the transaction abstraction — creating a unified approach to the interrelated problems of concurrency control and crash recovery — which led to his 1998 ACM Turing Award. I took over some of the transaction management code, designed the crash recovery component, and wrote a multiprocess debugger which we used to test and debug the lock manager. As always, Jim was an enthusiastic and generous collaborator; I’m very proud of being a coauthor with him and six of our System R colleagues of the paper “The Recovery Manager of the System R Database Manager”.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever stop encountering subjects causing me to say to myself, “If only I could talk to Jim about this.”

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The First International LISP Conference (1963)

If you thought the 1980 LISP Conference was the first Lisp conference, you were wrong. The 1980 conference was organized by Ruth E. Davis and John R. Allen and was held at Stanford University, with sponsorship by Stanford, Santa Clara University, and The LISP Company. It led to the biennial ACM-sponsored Lisp and Functional Programming Conference. But more than 16 years earlier, the First International LISP Conference was held at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City, from December 30 to January 4, 1964. No proceedings was published for the conference, but I have been able to assemble some information about it.

Continue reading

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Chinese translation of Elements of Programming

In addition to the English, Japanese, and Russian editions, Elements of Programming is now available in a Chinese edition translated by Professor Qiu Zongyan (裘宗燕) of Peking University and published by China Machine Press. It’s interesting that every translation has been in a different script.

Cover of Chinese edition of Elements of Programming, ISBN 9787111367291

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More ALGOL history papers

As the ALGOL programming language enters its sixth decade, its interest to historians seems to be increasing. I’ve recently added additional citations to the “Papers on the history of ALGOL” section of the History of ALGOL web site:

  • Edgar G. Daylight. From Mathematical Logic to Programming-Language Semantics — a Discussion with Tony Hoare. Journal of Logic and Computation (to appear).

    Section 2.3 covers Hoare’s Algol work at Elliot.

  • Edgar G. Daylight. Pluralism in Software Engineering: Turing Award Winner Peter Naur Explains. CONVERSATIONS. Issue 1, Volume 2011, Lonely Scholar, 2011.

    Part I of this wide-ranging interview covers Naur’s work on Algol 60, including the DASK and GIER implementations. He also makes a few remarks about Algol 68.

  • Pierre Mounier-Kuhn. From universal project to sunken culture : Algol in France. SHOT / SIGCIS Workshop 2011, Cultures and Communities in the History of Computing, Cleveland (OH), 6th November 2011. PDF
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Herbert Stoyan Collection finding aid and catalog online at CHM

In July 2010 I wrote about the collection of Lisp and artificial intelligence documents that Herbert Stoyan donated to the Computer History Museum. Today I’m glad to be able to announce that the finding aid is online at CHM and the Online Archive of California. Additionally, more detailed descriptions about the items in the collection has been added to CHM’s online catalog, which can be searched here. (For example, try searching for MACLISP.) I’ve added scanned copies of many items from the collection to the History of LISP web site (which is also hosted by the CHM). I’m open to suggestions for scanning additional items from this collection. Also, if you have historical Lisp items that are not in the Stoyan collection, please consider donating them to CHM.

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Russian translation of Elements of Programming

In addition to the English and Japanese editions, Elements of Programming is now available in a Russian edition translated by Konstantin Ptitsyn (Константин Птицын) and published by Williams Publishing House. The publisher’s web page has links to booksellers.

Cover of Russian edition of Elements of Programming, ISBN 978-5-8459-1708-9

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Edgar Daylight on Dijkstra

The latest addition to the “Papers on the history of ALGOL” section of the History of ALGOL web site is this paper about Dijkstra’s involvement in proposing and implementing the recursive procedure as an ALGOL 60 language construct:

  • Edgar G. Daylight. Dijkstra’s Rallying Cry for Generalization: The Advent of the Recursive Procedure, Late 1950s–Early 1960s.

In a section on Future Work near the end of the paper, Daylight notes, “Research contributions of Gödel, Carnap, Turing and Tarski have been studied and documented over and over again by logicians and philosophers themselves. Computer scientists, by contrast, have yet to commence with similar work concerning the ideas of their fathers: Dijkstra, McCarthy, Hoare and others. This, in turn, explains my motivation to write this paper.” Daylight, who is a post-doctorate researcher in the history of computing, has set up the blog-style web site Dijkstra’s Rallying Cry for Generalization as a way to report on his ongoing research into Dijkstra’s writings, including the E. W. Dijkstra Archive at the University of Texas and additional materials Dijkstra’s family donated. Daylight is off to a good start. He welcomes suggestions for improving his blog, and notes he’ll be adding photographs of Dijkstra soon.

In that spirit, I offer the following photograph, taken at the 1973 Marktoberdorf Summer School, of instructor Dijkstra and student McJones. Dijkstra’s subsequent trip report (EWD385) mentions my friend Dave Redell (who took the photograph) and me because we served as “intelligent terminals” in an “interactive programming session”.

E. W. Dijkstra and Paul McJones at Marktoberdorf Summer School, 1973

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Vintage Computer Festival East 7.0

Evan Koblentz just sent me a link to the flyer for the Vintage Computer Festival East 7.0, which is scheduled for May 14-15, 2011, in Wall, New Jersey. Lectures in the mornings; exhibits in the afternoons; see the flyer for more details.

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Gordon Bell: “Out of a Closet: The Early Years of The Computer [History] Museum”

The institution now known as the Computer History Museum began in 1975 as a closet-sized exhibit in a Digital Equipment Corporation building, grew into The Computer Museum located on Boston’s Museum Wharf, and finally metamorphosed into its current form and location. In a fascinating technical report, Gordon Bell describes this long and interesting history, in which he and his wife Dr. Gwen Bell have played such important roles.

It was only recently, Bell notes, that “Software was finally added to list of things collected, such as the history of FORTRAN including original source code.” The FORTRAN collection to which Gordon refers is here; a catalog search of FORTRAN-related items in the museum’s archives is available here.

Bell gives a list of some two dozen “Mona Lisas” in the collection, all hardware artifacts. He concludes this section by saying “Regrettably, I omit that hard to see, hard to describe, essential software from COBOL, FORTRAN, and LISP, various Operating Systems, and on through Visicalc, and the Relational database.” I strongly agree with Bell about the importance of collecting and displaying such historic software. I’m glad to be able to point the previously-mentioned FORTRAN collection, and to similar collections for LISP, ALGOL, and C++. Others have assembled extensive collections on, for example, the Multics and Unix operating systems, PDP-10 systems and applications, and many more. Two of the earliest relational database management systems, Berkeley Ingres and IBM System R, have been preserved but are not yet easily accessible. For the most part, these collections are aimed at a more scholarly audience; I hope they will serve as source materials for future exhibits for a wider audience.

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LISP historical archive web site reorganized

The History of LISP web site launched back in 2005 as a single web page running some 40 pages when printed; it covered many of the best known Lisp implementations. Over the years, the web site approximately doubled in size, leading several people to politely suggest breaking it up into smaller units. I’ve finally taken the time to do that. The organization roughly follows that used by Steele and Gabriel in their 1992 HOPL II talk, and I’m still making minor adjustments. It would be nice if a web site dedicated to historical archives would have stable URLs, but I think the new organization will be appreciated by people mostly interested in one or two specific implementations. I have not changed the URL of any “content” (PDF or archive file).

Thanks again to the many people down through the years who have patiently answered my questions, supplied copies of source code and documents, and allowed me to post copies.

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Japanese translation of Elements of Programming

Elements of Programming is now available in a Japanese edition published by Pearson Kirihara and translated by Yoshiki Shibata. It is available via

Japanese version of Elements of Programming

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Elements of Programming video

On November 3, 2010, we presented a lecture on Elements of Programming to the Department of Electrical Engineering Computer Systems Colloquium (EE380) at the Stanford University. While we both take responsibility for the contents, Alex Stepanov lectured. A video of the lecture is online at Stanford; eventually it will also be available via YouTube and iTunes.

Update 7/11/2012: The video made its way to YouTube and iTunes. By the way, the abstract (with a link to the slides) is here.

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Robert L. Patrick on eMuseums

Bob Patrick is a friend of mine who entered the computer field in 1951, and whose hands-on experience running programs on an IBM 701 led him to conceive of the architecture for the General Motors/North American Monitor for the IBM 704 computer. (Bob described this work in a 1987 National Computer Conference paper. Other aspects of his extensive career are discussed in his recent Annals of the History of Computing paper and in a 2006 Oral History.)

For a number of years Bob has been involved in volunteer activities at the Computer History Museum, and recently he organized his thoughts on how museums can use the web to present technology, in the form of this article: “Museums in the Computer Age: meeting the challenge of technology“. Bob invites comments on the article via email at

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