History of PL

We post many links to studies about particular aspects of the history of programming languages. But what's the best overview of the history of the field that is currently available (if anything fits the bill)?

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

here it is


Ah. I was kinda looking for something more "scholarly"...

If you have some time...

... the HOPL proceedings might do. This extensive taxonomy is also fun, though the interface is hideous.

Of course HOPL is a prime

Of course HOPL is a prime source. It is also what historians might call a primary source. I am particularly looking for secondary literature.

what kind of history?

What is a "history of the field" in the sense that you mean?


A narrative history of who did what, when, and in their own terms why?

An intellectual history of theory illustrating the punctuated equilibrium that characterizes breakthrough concepts?

A political / economic history?

I would also like to add that, although the earliest (modern) generation or so of primary sources is no longer especially with us, some are and their students and other intellectual descendants are. This would be a time in history when the effort to collect primary source accounts would be incredibly meaningful in the future. Perhaps LtU might want to help facilitate that, providing a technological platform for recording accounts and collecting materials, dotting some "t"s and crossing "i"s on the legal disposition of materials, gathering questions and curating help from the LtU community, etc.

All of the above (as done by

All of the above (as done by professional historians). And as to the last item: Bring it on.

"as to the last item"

I am thinking I'll try starting a batch of stone soup tomorrow or friday.

Computer History Museum

Don't forget Computer History Museum's Software Preservation Group projects They've collected a lot of primary sources.

The work done as part of

The work done as part of this project is amazing, and deserves wide recognition. I also appreciate CBI's oral history archive.

Again: My question was about analysis, not primary sources.

I'm not sure what you are

I'm not sure what you are looking for exists. There are plenty of non-scholarly sources, and of course PL text books often do some kind of comparison. But no one seems to have undertaken a comprehensive rigorous study yet. That kind of makes sense, it would be an interesting and worthwhile PhD topic but ultimately would require the author to suppress their own creativity and be extremely objective.

Here is maybe how someone could do it: take all the great PL papers and analyze their related work sections; look at design documents for influences; analyze usenet and internet buzz activity, or whatever the equivalent earlier media was, chart out language trends on academia and industry. It seems like a large task, someone could probably start with a limited time period (e.g., 1970s-1980s: the PL silver age).

I know how intellectual

I know how intellectual history is done. And your hunch agrees with mine: No one has yet attempted such a thing for PL. That's the hypothesis I wanted to confirm.

Silver age?

I just noticed this :-) Is this because we are still waiting the for golden age, or just because of the state of the economy?

Think of comic books: a

Think of comic books: a campy silver age in the 50s and 60s that followed a golden age where modern comic books and superheroes began emerging.

I'm guessing we could divide PL development into multiple ages ourselves, I'm particularly interested in the golden age of OO languages, say from the late 70s into the early 90s (before Java), but you could identify other PL ages whose time frames don't necessarily correspond with each other (given separate isolated communities of PL practitioners). Sort of like how early western Greek/Roman history doesn't really line up with early eastern Chinese history. Eventually, globalization has caused communities to become much less isolated, and hence our ages are pretty much in sync now. This would happen to later PL history also because of computers becoming popular and the Internet being used more often.

I would be very excited to see the emergence of PL historians who had the patience to wade through all this stuff. Its a pretty large task, but a historian could focus on a particular age in a particular community.

Edit: a historical survey would make for a good essay in Onward's essay track.

Great points. I particularly

Great points. I particularly like the point about local histories, which matches my perspective on history.

The reason I asked my question (just between us, note) is that I am thinking of doing something to encourage the emergence of PL historians.

Onward's essay deadline is

Onward's essay deadline is April 18th :)

I am thinking about

I am thinking about something a little bit longer term. Maybe for next time.

An essay on just the need

An essay on just the need for PL historians and possible approaches, along with comparisons to other fields (western/eastern/world history) would definitely be worthwhile.

Too many deadlines are

Too many deadlines are already in place... No chance I can write something in the next ten days :-)

Totally, that's my problem

Totally, that's my problem also. The topic makes for a natural essay, I'm not sure of any other peer-reviewed venue other than Onward that is appropriate for this topic (barring whenever the next HOPL cycle occurs).

I'll forward this to my wife

She's both an archaeologist and a computer scientist.

You probably are already

You probably are already aware of these, but Philip Wadler has written repeatedly about the history of logic and PL (http://homepages.inf.ed.ac.uk/wadler/topics/history.html).

There have been analyses of languages derived from each other over time (feature wise) -- I think CTM has one nice picture, but there have been several other (and bigger) ones. Doing syntactic/grammatical studies might even be automatable using NLP techniques :)

I've been thinking more quantitative and model based approaches (e.g., models of how features spread from language to language). A historical approach would yield something very different (which is fine if we're cognizant of what some of those things are -- i.e., deep vs. shallow knowledge, generalizability).

There is an article on an

There is an article on an empirical study in historical PL adoption. Abstract:

What languages did programmers use most in 1993, 1998, and 2003? This analysis reveals some interesting trends and a method for studying other important software engineering trends

However, I would think a traditional historical qualitative analysis would work better than a quantitative approach. We still can't model humans mathematically, and PL is very much a social field. We could apply models to forensics, uncovering relationships between various old PLs that we didn't know about before.

I would think a traditional

I would think a traditional historical qualitative analysis would work better than a quantitative approach

I am definitely with you on this. Thanks for the link!

Awesome, I've been searching

Awesome, I've been searching for work in this area and missed that!

A little underwhelming, but I kind of expected that. As you hint, a good quantitative study should be preceded by a qualitative one (e.g., what questions and factors to examine). Perhaps I'm misunderstanding what is meant by historical analysis, but (open-ended) surveys, interviews, etc. seem more in order for PL adoption before the type of work we see in that paper. HOPL is an amazing source, but, then again, just one part of the perspective.

Not sure what Ehud is going for; these comments are more about my own interests in the PL process.