Oral history of Bjarne Stroustrup

Update 5/14/2015: Here is a short video that was made for the Fellow Award Ceremony.

Update 4/9/2015: A video of the interview is now available. It’s searchable via the synchronized transcript.

In February I had the honor of conducting an oral history of Bjarne Stroustrup for the Computer History Museum, on the occasion of his being one of three 2015 Fellow Awards Honorees (the other two being Evelyn Berezin and Charles Bachman).

Programming languages have emerged over the last fifty or so years as one of the most important tools allowing humans to convert computers from theoretical curiosities to the foundation of a new era. By inventing C++ and working tirelessly to evolve, implement, standardize, and propagate it, Bjarne has provided a foundation for software development across the gamut from systems to applications, embedded to desktop to server, commercial to scientific, across CPUs and operating systems.

C was the first systems programming language to successfully abstract the machine model of modern computers. It contained a simple but expressive set of built-in types and structuring methods (structs, arrays, and pointers) allowing efficient access to both the processor and the memory. C++ preserves C’s core model, but adds abstraction mechanisms allowing programmers to maintain efficiency and control while extending the set of types and structures.

While several of the individual ideas in C++ occurred in earlier research or programming languages, Bjarne has synthesized them into an industrial-strength language, making them available to production programmers in an coherent language. These ideas include type safety, abstract data types, inheritance, parametric polymorphism, exception handling, and more.

In addition to its synthesis of earlier paradigms, C++ pioneered a thorough and robust implementation of templates and overloading. This has enabled the field of generic programming to advance from early research to sufficient maturity for inclusion in the C++ standard library in the form of STL. Additional generic libraries for graphs, matrix algebra, image processing, and other areas are available from other sources such as Boost.

By combining efficiency and powerful abstraction mechanisms in a single language, and by achieving ubiquity across machines and operating systems, C++ has replaced a variety of more specialized languages such as C, Ada, Smalltalk, and even Fortran. Programmers need to learn fewer languages; platform providers need to invest in fewer compilers. Even newer languages such as Java and C# are clearly influenced by the design of C++.

C++ has been the major focus of Bjarne’s career, and he has had unprecedented success at incremental development of C++, keeping it stable enough for use by real programmers while gradually evolving the language to serve the broadest possible audience. As he evolved the language, Bjarne took on many additional roles in order to make C++ successful: author (books, papers, articles, lectures, and more), teacher, standardization leader, and marketing person.

Bjarne started working on C with Classes, a C++ precursor, in 1979; the first commercial release of C++ was in 1985; the first standard was in 1998, and a major revision was completed in 2011. C++ was mature enough by 1993 to be included in the second History of Programming Languages conference, and a follow-on paper focusing on standardization appeared in the third HOPL conference in 2007.

I hope you enjoy reading the oral history as much as I did interviewing Bjarne.

See also: C++ Historical Sources Archive, Dusty Decks, 11 June 2007.

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 bobpatrick@mac.com.

Don Chamberlin and the origin of SQL

Tonight Don Chamberlin will receive a 2009 Fellow Award of the Computer History Museum “for his fundamental work on structured query language (SQL) and database architectures”. The other awardees for 2009 are Robert R. Everett (M.I.T. Whirlwind and SAGE) and Federico Faggin, Marcian (Ted) Hoff, Stanley Mazor and Masatoshi Shima (Intel 4004).

In a recent oral history I conducted for the Computer History Museum, Don put into context his work designing SQL in collaboration with Ray Boyce. Don described the pre-relational database management systems, Ted Codd’s development of the relational model, various implementation projects at IBM culminating in System R, which was the first RDBMS to support SQL. Don went on to describe other pioneering relational systems, including Ingres and Oracle. He also described his subsequent work on text processing, DB/2, and XQuery.

For further historical information about Don and his work, see:

Bob Taylor recognized by The University of Texas

Last month, Bob Taylor (the subject of a recent oral history) was recognized by The University of Texas. Bob received the Graduate School Outstanding Alumnus Award, a $100,000 Presidential Endowed Fellowship was established in his name, and he gave the first in a series of lectures in the UT Graduate School’s Centential celebration. Since this is also the 40th anniversary of the first tests of the ARPAnet, it was a fitting time for Bob’s achievements to be honored.

The lecture was in the form of an interview by New York Times technology reporter John Markoff, who noted:

The Internet has many fathers, but few deserve the label more than Robert W. Taylor.

Authors M. Mitchell Waldrop (The Dream Machine) and Michael A. Hiltzik (Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age) shared their views as well. J Strother Moore and Gary Chapman (who each worked with Bob in the past and now have UT positions) served as masters of ceremony.

The announcement for the lecture includes links to news stories about Bob, as well as the famous 1968 paper by Licklider and Taylor, “The Computer as a Communication Device”. The recap of the lecture includes links to a video and photographs.

Oral history of Robert W. Taylor

Robert W. Taylor directed external research at NASA, where he funded early work by Douglas Engelbart, and at the ARPA IPTO, where he initiated the ARPANET project. He also founded the Xerox PARC Computer Science Laboratory and later the DEC Systems Research Center. Last fall I interviewed him for the Computer History Museum‘s Oral History Collection. The transcript, based on two afternoons of interviewing captured on six videotapes, has been edited and is now online: catalog entry; transcript (PDF).

Here are summaries of the contents (corresponding to the six videotapes):

  1. Taylor’s childhood, education, military service in the US Navy during the Korean War, and his first positions after graduating from college: teaching at a prep school in Florida, and systems engineering at The Martin Company in Orlando, Florida; managing research at NASA and at ARPA IPTO.
  2. The ARPANET project, the founding of the graphics work at the University of Utah; his own brief stay at the University of Utah; the founding and early history of the Xerox PARC Computer Science Laboratory (CSL); Xerox’s purchase of Scientific Data Systems (SDS), and CSL’s MAXC, Alto, and EARS projects.
  3. More on the Alto system and what it influenced (including TCP/IP); the Future Day held by PARC for Xerox executives; the Dorado project.
  4. His departure from Xerox; the founding of the DEC Systems Research Center (SRC); the Firefly, Alpha Demonstration Unit, Autonet, AN2, and Petal projects; the founding of the DEC Paris Research Laboratory and its collaboration with SRC; the nearby DEC Western Research Laboratory (WRL) and its Titan project; a recap of the commercialization of Ethernet.
  5. Wes Clark, his TX-2 work, his LINC work, and his suggestion of decentralizing control for the ARPANET via a small computer (IMP) at every host; Taylor’s work in Vietnam at the end of his ARPA tenure; his approach to research management, including recruiting, interviewing, and performance appraisals.
  6. More on research management: informal celebrations, and the importance of a college intern program; reminiscences about people who worked at Xerox PARC CSL or DEC SRC or both.