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The Early History Of Smalltalk by Alan Kay
Abstract TOC Introduction Section I II III IV V VI
For References & Appendixes see pdf or book versions.


I'm writing this introduction in an airplane at 35,000 feet. On my lap is a five pound notebook computer--1992's "Interim Dynabook"--by the end of the year it sold for under $700. It has a flat, crisp, high-resolution bitmap screen, overlapping windows, icons, a pointing device, considerable storage and computing capacity, and its best software is object-oriented. It has advanced networking built-in and there are already options for wireless networking. Smalltalk runs on this system, and is one of the main systems I use for my current work with children. In some ways this is more than a Dynaboo (quantitatively), and some ways not quite there yet (qualitatively). All in all, pretty much what was in mind during the late sixties.

Smalltalk was part of this larger pursuit of ARPA, and later of Xerox PARC, that I called personal computing. There were so many people involved in each stage from the research communities that the accurate allocation of credit for ideas in intractably difficult. Instead, as Bob Barton liked to quote Goethe, we should "share in the excitement of discover without vain attempts to claim priority."

I will try to show where most of the influences came from and how they were transformed in the magnetic field formed by the new personal computing metaphor. It was the attitudes as well as the great ideas of the pioneers that helped Smalltalk get invented. Many of the people I admired most at this time--such as Ivan Sutherland, Marvin Minsky, Seymour Papert, Gordon Moore, Bob Barton, Dave Evans, Butler Lampson, Jerome Bruner, and others--seemed to have a splendid sense that their creations, though wonderful by relative standards, were not near to the absolute thresholds that had to be crossed. Small minds try to form religions, the great ones just want better routes up the mountain. Where Newton said he saw further by standing on the shoulders of giants, computer scientists all too often stand on each other's toes. Myopia is still a problem where there are giants' shoulders to stand on--"outsight" is better than insight--but it can be minimized by using glasses whose lenses are highly sensitive to esthetics and criticism.

Programming languages can be categorized in a number of ways: imperative, applicative, logic-based, problem-oriented, etc. But they all seem to be either an "agglutination of features" or a "crystallization of style." COBOL, PL/1, Ada, etc., belong to the first kind; LISP, APL-- and Smalltalk--are the second kind. It is probably not an accident that the agglutinative languages all seem to have been instigated by committees, and the crystallization languages by a single person.

Smalltalk's design--and existence--is due to the insight that everything we can describe can be represented by the recursive composition of a single kind of behavioral building block that hides its combination of state and process inside itself and can be dealt with only through the exchange of messages. Philosophically, Smalltalk's objects have much in common with the monads of Leibniz and the notions of 20th century physics and biology. Its way of making objects is quite Platonic in that some of them act as idealisations of concepts--Ideas--from which manifestations can be created. That the Ideas are themselves manifestations (of the Idea-Idea) and that the Idea-Idea is a-kind-of Manifestation-Idea--which is a-kind-of itself, so that the system is completely self-describing-- would have been appreciated by Plato as an extremely practical joke [Plato].

In computer terms, Smalltalk is a recursion on the notion of computer itself. Instead of dividing "computer stuff" into things each less strong than the whole--like data structures, procedures, and functions which are the usual paraphernalia of programming languages--each Smalltalk object is a recursion on the entire possibilities of the computer. Thus its semantics are a bit like having thousands and thousands of computer all hooked together by a very fast network. Questions of concrete representation can thus be postponed almost indefinitely because we are mainly concerned that the computers behave appropriately, and are interested in particular strategies only if the results are off or come back too slowly.

Though it has noble ancestors indeed, Smalltalk's contribution is anew design paradigm--which I called object-oriented--for attacking large problems of the professional programmer, and making small ones possible for the novice user. Object-oriented design is a successful attempt to qualitatively improve the efficiency of modeling the ever more complex dynamic systems and user relationships made possible by the silicon explosion.

"We would know what they thought
when the did it."
--Richard Hamming

"Memory and imagination are but two
words for the same thing."
--Thomas Hobbes

In this history I will try to be true to Hamming's request as moderated by Hobbes' observation. I have had difficulty in previous attempts to write about Smalltalk because my emotional involvement has always been centered on personal computing as an amplifier for human reach--rather than programming system design--and we haven't got there yet. Though I was the instigator and original designer of Smalltalk, it has always belonged more to the people who make it work and got it out the door, especially Dan Ingalls and Adele Goldberg. Each of the LRGers contributed in deep and remarkable ways to the project, and I wish there was enough space to do them all justice. But I think all of us would agree that for most of the development of Smalltalk, Dan was the central figure. Programming is at heart a practical art in which real things are built, and a real implementation thus has to exist. In fact many if not most languages are in use today not because they have any real merits but because of their existence on one or more machines, their ability to be bootstrapped, etc. But Dan was far more than a great implementer, he also became more and more of the designer, not just of the language but also of the user interface as Smalltalk moved into the practical world.

Here, I will try to center focus on the events leading up to Smalltalk-72 and its transition to its modern form as Smalltalk-76. Most of the ideas occurred here, and many of the earliest stages of OOP are poorly documented in references almost impossible to find.

This history is too long, but I was amazed at how many people and systems that had an influence appear only as shadows or not at all. I am sorry not to be able to say more about Bob Balzer, Bob Barton, Danny Bobrow, Steve Carr, Wes Clark, Barbara Deutsch, Peter Deutsch, Bill Duvall, Bob Flegal, Laura Gould, Bruce Horn, Butler Lampson, Dave Liddle, William Newman, Bill Paxton, Trygve Reenskaug, Dave Robson, Doug Ross, Paul Rovner, Bob Sproull, Dan Swinehart, Bert Sutherland, Bob Taylor, Warren Teitelman, Bonnie Tennenbaum, Chuck Thacker, and John Warnock. Worse, I have omitted to mention many systems whose design I detested, but that generated considerable useful ideas and attitudes in reaction. In other words, histories" should not be believed very seriously but considered as "FEEBLE GESTURES PFF" done long after the actors have departed the stage.

Thanks to the numerous reviewers for enduring the many drafts they had to comment on. Special thanks to Mike Mahoney for helping so gently that I heeded his suggestions and so well that they greatly improved this essay--and to Jean Sammet, an old old friend, who quite literally frightened me into finishing it--I did not want to find out what would happen if I were late. Sherri McLoughlin and Kim Rose were of great help in getting all the materials together.

TOC Introduction Section I

Permission to copy without fee all or part of this material is granted provided that the copies are not made or distributed for direct commercial advantage, the ACM copyright notice and the title of the publication and its date appear, and notice is given that copying is by permission of the Association for Computing Machinery. To copy otherwise, or to republish, requires a fee and/or specific permission.
1993 ACM 0-89791-571-2/93/0004/0069...$1.50

The Early History Of Smalltalk by Alan Kay
Abstract TOC Introduction Section I II III IV V VI
For References & Appendixes see pdf or book versions.

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