IT industry mourns Canadian software pioneer

A Canadian IT pioneer whose 1960s programming language helped inspire one of the world’s first personal computers will be honoured this week by those who continue to devote their careers to his work.

The Toronto APL Special Interest Group will be hosting a memorial service at the OISE Auditorium

on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. for Ken Iverson, a mathematician and former IBM employee who authored both A Programming Language (APL) as well as the more recent J language. Iverson passed away on Oct. 19 following a stroke while he was working on his computer. He was 83.

APL is best known for its use in time-sharing applications whereby several users could run several tasks concurrently on one processor, or in parallel on many processors, usually providing each user with his own terminal for input and output.

“”People would dial into a host, and their terminal at work would time-share with other users,”” said Sanford Hersh, a Toronto-based former employee at an early time-sharing service provider called IP Sharp Assoc. “”The primary use of APL initially was to put, if you will, the action where the transaction is. They would put terminals around major companies’ office sites, Xerox being a prime example.””

Iverson grew up on a farm in Alberta and entered the Royal Canadian Air Force before going to university. He later became assistant professor of Applied Mathematics at Harvard in 1955, where he developed a notation for operations on numeric arrays. IBM created an interpreter to execute expressions in Iverson’s notation. He joined IBM and in 1962 published a description of his notation.

“”He never dreamed of it becoming a computer language until he was hired by IBM,”” said Hersh.

Iverson’s work caught the attention of Mers Kutt, who as a professor at Queen’s University invited him to speak about APL. At the time, Kutt was developing KeyEdit, a data processing front-end box that allowed users to edit information. He and his team soon started trying out applications written in APL on an IBM S/360 computer.

“”The response time wasn’t that great,”” he said, since it was being shared among a series of key stations at various departments around Queen’s. It was enough to convince Kutt, however, that the world needed a box with its own computer chip.

“”I saw how important it was to have something in your office, and it had to be a computer itself,”” he said. The MCM-70, created in 1973, was based on an Intel microprocessor with APL programmed into the ROM. Kutt’s work has recently been discovered by the IT community and is now regarded as one of the world’s first personal computers.

Kutt said the MCM-70, in turn, impressed the founders of VisiCalc, in that applications could run on a machine that cost less than $4,000. This led VisiCalc to create the spreadsheet program that first ran on Apple Computers, according to Kutt. “”The PC revolution took off in volume.””

APL is still alive and well. Last week, a conference on the language was hosted by APLBorealis, a Mansfield, Ont.-based company that does APL-related consulting and training for legacy systems.

Richard Proctor, one of APLBorealis’ principals, said APL is still used by actuaries and insurance firms for certain calculations.

“”It’s a niche in the industry, I guess you could say,”” he said. “”You can create everything, including Web services, with APL. There’s not a lot of companies that have made that leap yet, but there are some that are (doing so).””

Hersh said he once used APL to write software that ran a manufacturing and distribution centre.

“”We got extremely high bills for our usage,”” he said. “”We would typically run a bill of $2,000 or $3,000 a month.””

Proctor, who met Iverson as a colleague at IP Sharp, said the APL Special Interest Group is considering the creation of a scholarship or publishing a book in his honour.

“”He was a fairly imposing fellow intellectually,”” he said. “”I always met him with a great deal of respect and reverence because he was this god who created the language I ended up devoting myself to.””

There has been at least one firm, Adaytum, which has used Iverson’s J language in the kernel of its software for a data warehousing project, Proctor said. J language can be used in highly mathemetically-intensive situations. Adaytum as acquired by Cognos last year. J Software continues to develop the J language.

— With files from Dave Webb

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