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Lisp machines, devised in an awkward moment at the tail of the minicomputer era but before the full flowering of the microcomputer revolution, were high-performance personal computers for the programming elite. For a while, it seemed as if Lisp machines would be the wave of the future. Several companies sprang into existence and raced to commercialize the technology.
Throughout the s, Symbolics produced a line of computers known as the series, which were popular in the AI field and in industries requiring high-powered computing. The series computers featured large screens, bit-mapped graphics, a mouse interface, and powerful graphics and animation software.
These were impressive machines that enabled impressive programs. For example, Bob Culley, who worked in robotics research and contacted me via Twitter, was able to implement and visualize a path-finding algorithm on a Symbolics in He explained to me that bit-mapped graphics and object-oriented programming available on Lisp machines via the Flavors extension were very new in the s. Symbolics was the cutting edge.
As a result, Symbolics machines were outrageously expensive. But marvel they did. Byte Magazine featured Lisp and Lisp machines several times from through to the end of the s. He said that the inherent properties of the language no doubt had a lot to do with it, but he also said that the close association between Lisp and the powerful artificial intelligence applications of the s and s probably contributed too.
Today, Lisp machines and Symbolics are little remembered, but they helped keep the mystique of Lisp alive through to the late s. The textbook introduced readers to programming using the language Scheme, a dialect of Lisp. It depicts a wizard or alchemist approaching a table, prepared to perform some sort of sorcery.
The cover art for SICP. Honestly, what is going on here?
Why does the table have animal feet? Why is the woman gesturing at the table? What is the significance of the inkwell? It would seem so.
This image alone must have done an enormous amount to shape how people talk about Lisp today. But the text of the book itself is often just as weird.
SICP is unlike most other computer science textbooks that you have ever read. The first chapter of the book gives a brief tour of Lisp, but most of the book after that point is about much more abstract concepts. I would be deeply impressed in their shoes too. The Lisp issue of Byte Magazine is testament to that fact.
When programmers today tell each other to try Lisp before they die, they arguably do so in large part because of SICP.
A few years later, the market for Lisp machines collapsed and the AI winter began. It is of course impossible to pinpoint when people started getting excited about Lisp again. But that may have happened after Paul Graham, Y-Combinator co-founder and Hacker News creator, published a series of influential essays pushing Lisp as the best language for startups. He claimed that using Lisp at his own startup, Viaweb, helped him develop features faster than his competitors were able to.
Some programmers at least were persuaded. But the vast majority of programmers did not switch to Lisp. Python got list comprehensions. Gupta and Mykel J. Kochenderfer Journal of Machine Learning Research, 1—5. Packages: AbstractAlgebra. Packages: StatsBase.
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