Tom Van Vleck

Tom Van Vleck and I met at Tandem in 1981. Tom is the creator and maintainer of multicians.org, which “presents the story of the Multics operating system for people interested in the system’s history”. Since Tom was at MIT in the 1960s, I thought he might have heard of the “Tome”, so I sent him an email. He hadn’t heard of it, but he suggested several leads for me to follow: Jean Sammet, Lynn Wheeler , the IBM folks I’d worked with in the 1970s, Doug McIlroy (“Bell Labs probably got a copy and may even know where in the Labs it was”), and Frank da Cruz, who maintains Columbia University Computing History (for example, see John Backus).

Paul Pierce

Dick Gabriel, another member of the Software Collection Committee at the Computer History Museum, mentioned Paul Pierce’s impressive computer collection, which includes an IBM 709 and an IBM 7094. I decided to send Paul an email asking if he’d run across the IBM 704 source code or the “Tome”. He replied:

I did not end up with a copy of the “Tome”. If you can find someone to really research this, I would start with a list of original IBM 704 customers, from the IBM archives or from Weik’s. I would start with every university to see if anyone knows anyone who was there at the time, who might have kept it.

I do have a lot of fairly early FORTRAN stuff in my collection and will read & scan it all over time and put it up in the library section of my website.

For the Smithsonian what you need to do is travel to D.C. and visit the archives at the American History Museum. Thats where a lot of the computer related ephemera is kept. Definitely worth putting together a list of what they have.

Another very important early bit of software is the MockDonald system, which evolved into SOS, then IBSYS, and was a big influence on OS/360. This is commonly considered the first operating system. I have SOS documentation that I’ve scanned and will put up some time this year, but it would be another good research project to pull together a proper history of it. It might be possible to locate the original source in some of the SHARE tapes I’ve already read or on other tapes I hope to borrow from the same place.

At my request, he explained the reference to Weik:

Martin Weik did several surveys of computers in the early days of computing. I have “A Third Survey of Domestic Electronic Digital Computing Systems”, US Department of Commerce Office of Technical Services, 1961. I’m pretty sure the CHM has one or more of these, as Gwen Bell once mentioned to me that they are full of errors. Find a copy and you will see how it might be useful in guiding this kind of research.

It turns out Ed Thelen has scanned the CHM copy of Weik’s Third Survey; here is the 704 chapter!

I mentioned to Paul, “I had not heard the name MockDonald before. I just did a Google search, and can only find one relevant hit: a 1997 alt.folklore.computers posting by Adam J. Thornton, who was apparently a Princeton graduate student at the time.”

Paul replied:

I had a request quite a while ago for the SOS material from a grad student doing research on the early systems. I’ll find that email and put up the SOS scans so far and email you both when its done.

All the early SHARE software is potentially interesting. SHARE is the IBM user group, the first of its kind. I’ve already found and read one set of SHARE tapes that seem to contain most of the earliest submittals, and I have access to the printed documentation that I will borrow and scan some time in (hopefully) the next year or so. I also have my own poor copy of the printed documentation, its all very old stuff going back to the 704. SHARE seemed to originally only encompass the scientific computer line (704-709-709x…), but I also have some IBM 650 software and documentation (don’t know how extensive that is yet) and the complete program libraries for the Royal McBee LGP-30, RPC-4000(?) and Bendix G-15.

A bit later, Paul added:

I’ve put up the SHARE and SOS scans that I have so far in the library section of my web site – http://www.piercefuller.com/library/index.html
Look for SHARE under Documentation/Abstracts and Writeup.

Bob Bemer

Bob Bemer joined IBM in 1949 and has an interesting web site documenting his long career, including leading the development of FORTRANSIT, the second Fortran compiler, for the IBM 650.

Using Google, I came across Bob Bemer’s Who Was Who in IBM’s Programming Research? — Early FORTRAN Days which reproduced an IBM Programming Research Newsletter from January 1957 with short descriptions of the Fortran team members, including the sentence “Hal [Harold Stern] is currently working on “TOME” describing FORTRAN internally.”

I contacted Bob to see if perhaps he had saved a copy of the “Tome”. Unfortunately, he did not. He went on to say, “Later I took over FORTRAN introductory chores, mainly via Dave Hemmes. I called Hemmes’ s widow today (lives in Sunnyvale), and she said that he personally destroyed all of his historical material before he died about six years ago.”

The ‘Tome’

Tonight after rereading John Backus’s 1981 “History of Fortran I, II, and III” paper and recalling the discussion between Dick Sites and Len Shustek regarding the Fortran documentation Dick had seen in the 1960s, I decided to start asking people specifically about the “Tome” as well as, more generally, “the source code” (which might be in the form of an assembly listing, magnetic tape, or even punched cards).

It’s official

At the monthly Software Collection Committee meeting, it was agreed to include “early Fortran” as one of the first tests for our collection and preservation efforts. I volunteered to lead this activity, and Lee Courtney and Len Shustek also signed up. Lee suggested that since the museum already has a restored IBM 1620 with lots of software, 1620 Fortran might be interesting, and Len suggested Waterloo Fortran. But I exercised my authority as chairperson to stick to the original Fortran, for the IBM 704.

Dick Sites; the ‘Tome’

In a response to Software Collection Committee chairman Bernard L. Peuto’s request for suggestions for “10 software preservation candidates for testing our processes”, Dick Sites mentioned:

I once saw and read part of the original handwritten Fortran I documentation in a basement of the Sloan building at MIT in 1965. Backus might know if any copies still exist.

When Software Collection Committee member and museum chairman Len Shustek asked, “Was what you saw source code, user-manual material, or internal design documents?”, Dick replied:

It was a Xerox copy of hand-written internal design documents. It was in the 1620 mod II room in the basement of the Sloan building on the MIT campus, 100 Memorial Drive circa spring 1966. I have always regretted not having the foresight (and money) to make a complete copy back then. As I remember, it described the overall compiler design and optimizing algorithms. I remember a fairly neat but slightly small handwriting with hand-drawn boxes and arrows for some of the algorithms. I don’t remember whose names were on it.

I’m pretty sure it was Fortran I dated circa 1957, but it could have been Fortran II. It was not describing a 1620 compiler; it just happened to be in that room. I’m not sure whether the document mentioned the target computer, but I recognized it as the IBM 704 or perhaps 709. I don’t have a clear memory of how much paper there was, but it was perhaps 50-150 pages.

Len responded:

I think I may have found what it was: In his “History of Fortran I, II, and III” article in the 10/98 issue of “Annals of Computing History”, Backus says of the April 1957 release, “Shortly after the distribution of the system, we distributed — one copy per installation — what was fondly known as the ‘Tome’, the complete symbolic listing of the entire compiler plus other system and diagnostic information, an 11×15 inch volume about four or five inches thick”. Does that sound right?

I suppose it’s impossible still to be in the basement at Sloan? The good news is that as of April 1958 there were 26 installations of Fortran at 704 sites, and if each if them was given a ‘Tome’, then one or more might have survived. Somewhere.

Dick replied:

No, not right. What I saw was HANDWRITTEN. It was not a computer listing. It was not source code. It was not an IBM manual. It was not computer paper. It was not four or five inches thick. It was not an IBM 704 or 709 installation. It was a Xerox copy (not reduced from larger paper) of handwritten documentation on 8.5×11″ white paper, perhaps 1/2″ thick at most.

Jim King

I was chatting with Jim King at lunch about John Backus and the Fortran compiler (Jim worked at IBM Research for many years). Jim used Fortran (II?) and Fortran Monitor System on an IBM 709 in college in the early 1960s, and had some interesting anecdotes (e.g., the compiler turned on a front panel indicator lamp once it determined there were no syntax errors, …) — I can see that getting oral histories of users/developers will be interesting.

Jim suggested IBM’s SHARE user group library as a potentially interesting source of material. (And perhaps there were similar user groups for a few of the other companies?) Also, he worked for Boeing in Seattle in the 1960s, and said they had an extensive 7090 program library, with detailed requirements for documentation. It could be another interesting source, although he doesn’t have any current contacts into Boeing.

The Smithsonian

Based on Irv Ziller’s recollection that historic Fortran materials had been sent to the Smithsonian Institution, I looked at their web site and found this page describing the Division of Information Technology & Society, which is part of the National Museum of American History and whose collections include the Computer History Collection. My attempts to establish communication with the staff of this Division got off to a slow start. Later, I learned that they were consumed with the creation of a major new exhibition, “The Price of Freedom”, to open November 11, 2004.

Update 1/2/2016: Updated Smithsonian URLs.

Irv Ziller

Irv Ziller, who was the first person to join John Backus on the Fortran team, responded to my inquiry regarding the source code for the original Fortran compiler by saying, “I do not have the source code, however I recall material being sent to the Smithsonian to become part of their collection.”

John Backus

John Backus initiated and led the project that designed and implemented Fortran, the first high-level programming language.

I hadn’t talked to John for many years*, but tonight I called him up to say hello, and to see if he had a copy of the original Fortran compiler source code. He didn’t but suggested I contact Irv Ziller, who was the first person to join John’s Fortran project.

* In 1974 I worked for John Backus at IBM San Jose Research (before the Almaden Research Center was built) .

Software Collection Committee

The first meeting of the Software Collection Committee of the Computer History Museum was held November 19th. The purpose of the committee is to help the museum, whose mission statement is “To preserve and present for posterity the artifacts and stories of the information age”, bootstrap its software activities. Expected activities include establishing standards for categorization, preservation, etc., testing these standards on some representative software, establishing priorities for software to collect, etc. The committee was launched partly as a response to a workshop on Preserving Classic Software moderated by Grady Booch and held October 16-17.

The discussion of what software would be worth collecting first was quite interesting — people proposed various criteria, but clearly age and historical significance are key. At this meeting, or shortly thereafter, I began thinking about the first Fortran compiler, and my friend Alex Stepanov reinforced this interest. Fortran was arguably the first higher-level programming language, and its compiler was the first optimizing compiler.