[TUHS] Algol68 vs. C at Bell Labs

Dan Cross crossd at gmail.com
Fri Jul 1 01:32:08 AEST 2016


On Jun 30, 2016 10:10 AM, "Marc Rochkind" <rochkind at basepath.com> wrote:

> Bill Cheswick: "What a different world it would be if IBM had selected
> the M68000 and UCSD Pascal.  Both seemed
> to me to better better choices at the time."
>
> Not for those of us trying to write serious software. The IBM PC came out
> in August, 1981, and I left Bell Labs to write software for it full time
> about 5 months later. At the time, it seemed to me to represent the future,
> and that turned out to be a correct guess.
>
> Microsoft Basic is well known as the primary initial language for the PC,
> but from day one there was another choice called Microsoft Pascal (we used
> the IBM Pascal version). It was a considerable extension over classical
> Pascal. It had full-blown string manipulation and pointers. With it, I was
> able to implement a text editor called EDIX and an nroff-ripoff called
> WORDIX. The compiler was full of bugs, but it was a true compiler, and the
> programs were small enough and fast enough to work well on the limited 8088
> (I think that was the processor) hardware.
>

I don't know about UCSD Pascal versus MS-DOS, but I think you yourself just
alluded to the processor distinction that Ches was referring to. Of course
it's only of historical interest now, but from a technology standpoint
MC68000 vs Intel 8088 seems like a no-brainer: the 68k is the superior
chip. From a business perspective, I guess it was a very different matter,
but that's not my area and the ship has long sailed over the horizon.
Still, it's fun to speculate and I can't help but think that a 68k-based
IBM PC would have been a nicer machine.

Initially, with no hard drive, I had to switch floppies several times just
> to compile one file. Later, I got a 6MB hard drive for about $3000.
> Interestingly, that drive could not even hold one (raw) image from my
> current digital camera!
>
> We could not have used Microsoft Basic or UCSD Pascal.
>
> Just a few years later, something called Lattice C came along, and we
> switched (back) to C, and stayed with it from there on out.
>

Something I never understood about the IBM PC: even the 8088 machine was
fairly beefy compared to e.g. a PDP-11/20. The 6th Edition Unix kernel was
objectively pretty small and understandable; mini-Unix showed that that
sort of software could be used on a machine without an MMU. I've never
understood why IBM didn't just write a real OS in a high-level language
instead of saddling the world with MS-DOS. Perhaps it's naive of me, but
even if they didn't use Unix directly, it was an existence proof that such
a thing was possible. I suppose, again, it was less a technical issue and
more a business issue, or perhaps I'm underestimating the amount of work or
missing some of the technical complexities.

        - Dan C.
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