Dusty Decks: Preserving historic software

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.

Sergio F. Beltrán founded the Centro de Calculo at UNAM in the late 1950s, starting with an IBM 650. He organized a series of annual conferences on applications of computers, and for the third conference he thought it would be interesting to hear about the programming language Lisp. Robert Yates was an American undergraduate enrolled at Johns Hopkins but spending the 1963-1964 academic year at UNAM. In a recent email, Yates told me:

[Beltrán] asked me to write letters to McCarthy, Perlis and Newell inviting them to Mexico City in December 1963. [Harold V.] McIntosh was living in Mexico at that time. McCarthy accepted and brought Marvin Minsky and a group of graduate students including Steve Russell and [Tim] Hart. The conference lasted about a week; there were about 12-15 presentations given. For me it was great because of the opportunity to meet McCarthy, Minsky and Russell.

It turns out the Herbert Stoyan collection on LISP programming includes a one-page preliminary list of participants and papers with Beltrán’s initials. Some of the talks were written up and published in other forums; here is my attempt at a “virtual proceedings”.

A major topic was talks by members of the MIT AI project about Lisp implementation:

John McCarthy was to give a talk on “The LISP 2 compiler”. LISP 2 was an ambitious but ill-fated project getting started around this time, which deserves its own posting. Suffice it to say it was completely compiler-based; expressions could still be typed in from a READ-EVAL-PRINT loop, but were compiled in an appropriate environment, executed, and discarded. See the LISP 2 section of the CHM History of LISP web site.

Beltrán was interested in applications of computers, and the applications at this first Lisp conference mostly involved what is now known as computer algebra: solving equations algebraically (symbolically) rather than numerically. This topic included:

There were a few other speakers in Beltrán’s preliminary list:

I’ll update this post if I hear more from any of the attendees of this historic conference.

Update 5/12/2017: I contacted Robert Yates in conjunction with an article I’m writing about LISP 2, and he said he doesn’t remember what McCarthy talked about, but he’s certain it was not LISP 2, despite the preliminary agenda, McCarthy did not give a talk on the LISP 2 compiler. Robert said, “My talk was on R-lists – a clever way that McIntosh came up with to save and restore variable values to and from the stack.”

Update 7/10/2012: While working on the later post “Harold V. McIntosh and his students: Lisp escapes MIT”, I realized that the last entry of the preliminary list of papers, “Verhovsky: Fns analoguous and similar”, probably referred to Alberto Verjovsky’s “Two LISP pattern recognition functions: SIMILAR and SIMILAR*” (Program Note #2, Quantum Theory Project, University of Florida, February 28, 1963). I was able to get in touch with Alberto, who confirmed this and noted, “I gave a small presentation in front of several people like McIntosh, Minsky, McCarthy, amongst others. I was 19 years old and was not aware of the importance of these people.”

Update 5/1/2012: Tony Hearn notes that the handwriting on the preliminary list of participants and papers is his own; he probably gave it to Herbert Stoyan one of the times he visited Stoyan in Dresden in the 1970s.