How it all began (LinkedIn)

On Feb 26, 2009 I posted the following question in several social networks, and received enough encouragement to carry on:

I’m doing research on the history of APL which will eventually lead to a documentary film.

Does this interest you?


Now it’s July 2009, and I’m still keenly interested in hearing from folks in the APL, K & J communities…


7 Responses to “How it all began (LinkedIn)”

  • The following comments were added to the IP Sharp Associates (IPSA) Alumni Association – LinkedIn Discussion:

    I’m very interested. APL and IPSA transformed my life. How can I help?

    Brian Oliver
    Co-owner, APL Borealis Inc. and Computer Software Consultant

    Great idea. After so many years of application development, operation and support, I have yet to fine a tool that is not just playing catchup to APL.

    Lai Philip
    Operatoins Expert

    That sounds great, Catherine! slightly off-topic: You might want to check out John Schole’s recent youtube video on the game of life. Bob

    Robert Bernecky
    Owner, Snake Island Research Inc and Computer Software Consultant

    Hey, what can I say? We liked the language so much we named the company after it. Brilliant idea – we’re standing by to help. Best of luck with it.

    Richard Procter
    Co-Owner, APL Borealis Inc. and Software Consultant

    Yes, I’d be very interested. APL holds a unique place in computing history, which deserves to be much more widely known. Reflecting what Brian Oliver said, it changed my whole way of thinking.

    Don Wilkes
    webmaster at Province of British Columbia

    Yes, I’m interested. I assume the focus will be on the language and how it came to be developed but, since this was directed at ex-Sharpies, I’m guessing you would likely want to cover the time-sharing service that was offered by IPSA. Is that correct?

    Mike Harrop
    President, The Cottingham Group. IT Security, Strategies and Standards

    Fully support this, APL was groundbreaking in its time and has established many to follow in similar ways. Sure this can be conveyed. Happy to help in any way I can.

    Rob Hodgkinson (Sydney)
    Director at RHO Invest Pty Limited

    At the risk of being redundant:
    The focus of the documentary will be on the community, the language and the contributions made to computing history. I do feel that IPSA played an important role on many levels, including the time-sharing service.
    Please spread the word. I will soon set-up a blog for this project so that people will be able to keep in track of the project & contribute online.
    My hope is that the documentary will be funded by the APL community for a lot of different reasons.
    The original APL team is aging. This is pressing on me, so that’s why I’m sending out feelers to the community now.

    Catherine Lathwell
    Independent Online Media Professional

    I’d be interested in the finished documentary. Not sure if I’d be able to make a contribution. My one possible claim to fame is presenting what was most likely the last Sharp APL (Soliton) vendor forum in Madrid 2002. I hope you find time to mention Leigh Clayton’s alternative proposal for introducing control structures in APL. IMHO, it was purer than the control words approach that won the day.

    Software Developer at Thomson Reuters

    Yes, because APLers are a most interesting bunch of eccentrics, APL has played such an important role in so many of the worlds major companies and research institutions. APL is baffling to many devotees of other languages which are tiresome to APLers. It’s character set is esoteric and mysterious. The code is powerful and elegant – “In six days God created Heaven and Earth – APLers can do it in a single line of code”

    Felix Pring
    Owner, Felix Pring Limited and APL Software Consultant

    Well, as a person with 45 years experience in programming and still counting, starting with the ALWAC III in 1958, building process control computers with black boxes that did such impressive things as adding, subtracting, multiplying/dividing to run cement, steel, pulp and paper mills, upgrading in 1967 to the IBM 1401, then in 1973 picking up on APL thanks to David Keith (my mentor), I worked with APL until 1990.
    Memorable events included developing systems for the 1976 Olympics, watching one of my programmers find and fix a bug while a world rowing event race was in progress, and doing a live Province of Quebec Referendum using 40 Apple II computers in1980.
    I remember going to countries in the Far East where I would learn a concept in an afternoon and be expected to go back to my hotel and deliver a working prototype the next morning.
    Today, I am reduced to worrying about cash flow to keep three companies going and spending the balance of my time drawing circles and connecting these with arrows, with one important difference – we now have software that compiles graphs and is capable of guiding processing of patients using ‘best practices’.
    My New Year’s resolution this year was to cut back to eight days a week (my wife wants me to retire). But, my father was hired by Royal Military College at age 72, so who knows when I will quit.

    Karl Walter Keirstead
    President at Infinity/Civerex LLC

    APL was huge for me as well (I began using it when I was 13, which was 3/4 of my lifetime ago) and I’m sad about its loss of popularity. I have a working IBM 5100 (model A4, i.e. APL with 4 memory cards of 16K each) that I bought on eBay and that might be cool for your film since it was one of the first personal computers (launched in late 1975, it predated even the Apple I).

    Rohan Jayasekera
    Product Development Consultant for online products/services


    Dan Brennan
    Contract consultant specializing in Canadian Capital Markets processes and supporting technology

    I think Ian did an incredible job. He built a company up to 55 offices that spanned the globe by employing employing relatively unproven technology and venturing into untested markets with a language that no one had ever heard of. He did all this by breaking virtually every rule in the conventional management books. Hats off to a true pioneer!

    Morgan Smyth
    President, Braegen Group Inc.

    While I would never claim to be a great APL programmer, I did love it. I was in the Vancouver IPSA office from 1980 through 1989. Just last year as product manager, I was presenting to the development team when I noticed the Gilman and Rose APL book in the room’s bookcase. I stopped the presentation and evalgelized APL for a few minutes. Too funny – everyone wondered what planet I had come from .. what do you mean special keyboard?. Sigh. Kudos to you Catherine.

    Tom Gibson
    Customer value specialist

    I’ve worked professionally with APL since the early 80’s, although, for the last few years only in a care and maintenance mode. Coming from a science background, the thing I loved about APL was the fact that it took care of all those low level computery things, leaving you to get on with the real job of designing systems.
    The remaining Sharp APL based systems here at Thomson Reuters have an almost legendary reputation for reliability
    I’m still mystified that the world passed by the opportunity to use a language that allows faster development than pretty much anything else.

    Mike Elbourne
    Business Development Analyst at Thomson Reuters

    To reinforce Mike’s comment, I installed a demo FX Orderwatch system (based on Newsflash, which was originally designed by Marc Odho ) at a customer and we had a difficult job getting the box back – eighteen months later, the dealers were still using it. No-one had done any backups, housekeeping or even looked at the server – it just kept on working. Unfortunately, this has its downside as it becomes an appliance and when those who were there when the system was installed move on, there’s often no-one left at the customer who has a clue about how to do anything with the system! 😉

    Sam Sexton
    Provisioning Team Leader at Thomson Reuters Ltd.

    I applaud your idea to document APL. The fact that there were two “portable” APL machines (MCM/70 and IBM/5100) that predated the PC and Apple products is almost unknown to the world. IPSA certainly made a contribution to APL, and its contribution to network technology is largely unrecognized too. There are a few places where 666 box is cited as being the “world’s first store and forward email system” – that alone secures IPSA and STSC’s contribution to computing. If I can assist in any way, please let me know.

    Joey Tuttle
    Information Technology and Services Specialist and CEO, Tuttle Utility Gas, Inc.

    Sharp/APL for me was/is lots of stories, people, adventures, even magic (and I don’t mean databases!) My first job was in England on a 1900 that was originally Ferranti (they told me at the time it was designed by Canadians, now I know it was Sharp & co. types), then I kept knocking against apl on the periphery, finally joined the company. By the way David Foot who used APL very successfully years ago is still going very strong. I think the application side of APL is very interesting.

    Sandra Eadie
    Independent Writing and Editing Professional

    Great idea, Catherine. While APL was awesome, it was IPSAnet that really gave us something special. I’ve thought a lot about Global Limits recently with banks around the world in trouble. A key moment for me was being in Toronto watching the first transaction come through at Societe Generale in Paris. We’d been there all night putting the “finishing touches” on the application!

    Allison Atkey
    Owner of Atkey Consulting Inc.

    New posts updated here – July 27, 2009

    My first every job (a long, long time ago) was writing APL at IPSA in Toronto and Ottawa while in university. Maybe APL was truly amazing, or maybe the past always tends to look rosy, because I look very fondly on those couple of years of my life — even though they were spent on DECwriters and 1200 baud CRTs, technology that people would laugh at today. For a while APL really seemed to be leading the world…

    Garland Sharratt
    BD, Prod Mktg/Mgt, Eng, Stds for High Tech

    (to be read in a broad Yorkshire accent – for the unenlightened, as per )

    1200 baud CRT? You had it easy, lad – I had to chisel the chads from the punched cards with a kitchen knife, post them from Coventry to Toronto and wait for the response three weeks later!

    Actually that’s not too far from my first computing experiences, but like many others I did start with APL at Massey Ferguson on a 300 baud AJ830/3 and was looked on as a cheeky upstart when I joined IPSA and insisted on 1200 baud – but the rest of the office swiftly followed suit!

    Sam Sexton
    Provisioning Team Leader at Thomson Reuters Ltd.#

    You had 300 baud??? I would have killed for 300 baud!!! I started with 134.5 (that was the speed on the IBM 2741).

    Rohan Jayasekera
    Product Development Consultant for online products/services

    I wrote the initial “teletype” support for SHARP APL, so that UofT could
    have some access to APL. Soon after that, we had automatic line speed selection with the Memorex 1270 comms controllers, and I managed to lay my hands on a Tektronix 1240 storage tube that had APL support.
    I hooked it up at 9600 baud, and did some very fun high-speed graphcs work on it with Peter Wooster, until Roger Moore came along and noisily accused us of being “bandwidth junkies”. Of course, we eventually sucked him into the project…

    Robert Bernecky
    Owner, Snake Island Research Inc and Computer Software Consultant

    When PCs first came along, we saw a way to more quickly update some economic databases (CANSIM in particular) by using the PC to sign on to the vendor’s machine and download the needed timeseries. This was pretty painful at 300 baud, but faster modems were prohibitively expensive. In order to get one, I had to write out a formal business case, and answer some fairly pointed questions from management!

    Don Wilkes
    webmaster at Province of British Columbia

    Some “APL memories” that make me smile were resurrected by Rohan’s remark. For example, I recall that Bruce Hartigan had gotten a new IBM bidirectional matrix printer (I can’t remember the model number…) working at 300 baud from APLSV in 1975 and the VSPC (VSAPL) developers were amazed at how fast it was. Bruce proudly commented that 300 baud was really fast – the VSPC folks jaws dropped and they said, “300 baud??? We have it running at 1200 baud and it’s nowhere near that fast!” Of course, they had to use the official VTAM communications protocol…. Happily, IPSA didn’t have such constraints, they had RDM instead.

    Joey Tuttle
    Information Technology and Services Specialist and CEO, Tuttle Utility Gas, Inc.

    Isn’t it amazing how much things have changed? I love these stories. Please keep them coming.

    And speaking of change –

    Catherine Lathwell
    Independent Online Media Professional

    It’s a wonderful idea, Catherine! Like others responding, I had to move from APL to less easy to use languages. Recently I began using one of the several single-letter descendants of APL, R (APL begat S begat R) which has an enthusiastic community of developers and users. Their frequent comment: you can build a system so much faster! Duh…Recently dined with someone who works in rapid web design; large team of folks getting late 1990’s TLC from hugely profitable US parent, simply because they produce applications FAST. Not APL based, but another example of “when the hardware is nearly free, software is the main cost”.

    Clement Kent
    Ph. D. student at University of Toronto

    Hi Catherine: I found the radio program on IPSA – I am listening to it now and it is amazing. It is very much a social study on how IPSA was formed and worked, and profiles many concepts and IPSA’n innovations, such as the beauty of APL, 666 Box and electronic mail, time-sharing network, worldwide presence, data bases, and one-page contracts.

    The show is called CBC Ideas and it is done by Whitney Smith. Do you have this material? It would have been made around 1985-1986.

    Voices on the tape are Ian Sharp, Ken Iverson, Roger Moore, Jane Minett, Bob Bernecky, Roseanne Wild, David Markwick, Lib Gibson, Bill Apsit, (even me!) and so many others.

    Indira Mitra
    Senior Business Consultant at BMO Financial Group

    Hi… Some have asked where I found the radio program! I had taped the program when it was broadcast (1985) and the cassette was hiding among a zillion other cassettes in my house.

    Indira Mitra
    Senior Business Consultant at BMO Financial Group

    Ken Iverson was a true visionary, and I’ve long thought that his APL/IPSA story would make a truly fascinating hour on WGBH Boston’s syndicated NOVA science series on US Public Television. With a sufficiently good script, you might think about “pitching” it to them for possible funding either in full or in part. Consider also canvassing the likes of the National Science Foundation and the ACM, why not? Shouldn’t their Turing Award receive more press?

    But a world class, high quality script is the first and most essential thing. Then, along with the Ken Burns-style blend of period photos/videos and contemporary testimonies, some dynamic animations of numeric operations on arrays of increasing rank, along with other such visual demonstrations of the power of the notation might kindle in others the same enthusiastic “Eureka” that once captivated so many of us, don’t you think?

    The fact that APL, so full of promise, never fully took off and changed the world the way we expected, hoped, or wished adds a bittersweet gloss to what would surely be a provocative retrospective on “A Tool of Thought.”

    Possible upbeat epilog: In the likes of J, K — that dream lives on!

    David Greer Smith
    Combining Words & Pictures with Purpose

    Now that I work in an Oracle/Unix environment, I am frequently confronted with situations where I’m stuck but say to myself “I know how to do it in APL….”.

    Good luck Catherine! I look forward to seeing the result of your efforts.

    Mike Vormittag
    Senior Systems Analyst – Trading Systems at BMO Financial Group

    My very first job was with IPSA. As the one-person office in the Silicon Valley, and then with Palo Alto. I had no background in APL, I was marketing and helping on the product/application side. So my first introduction to a computer language was APL, and it truly allowed me to think in terms of the problem, not the industry, or people, just solving the problem. That was 30 years ago. IPSA, the people, the culture, and APL, profoundly affected my career and outlook. There were many positives, the only negative is I could not really work anywhere else after that. I love the idea of a documentary.

    Chris Andrews
    Strategic-Thinking and Hands-On Consultant in Marketing, Product Management, Innovation

  • I’ll join other staff from the UK in expressing an interest. But if the program is about APL, you can’t really include stuff about IPSA and its company culture, UNLESS it turns out that in other companies involved in major use of APL, there was an interaction between the programming language and company culture that was similar. Which might well be true …

  • I’m a strong proponent of APL since 1981 when I wrote a near real-time multiplayer 3D (full screen using character graphics) game on an IBM mainframe and 3270 terminals that wowed the CS department. I went on to write multi-user finance and database applications in APL for a couple of years.

    While working for Lotus on Lotus 123 and Symphony internals in assembler back in 1986, I began wishing I could create the types of financial applications I was able to create in APL, using Lotus 123 or Symphony macros and formulas, but that was just not possible. So, I began researching how to create an APL compiler and multi-user data exchange platform as a foundation to create more extensible and flexible multi-user office applications like spreadsheets and word processors that could be incorporated into vertical applications. I was familiar with the limitations of interpreted APL on mainframes and PC’s, which were more than just performance limitations, but key conceptual limitations of the implementations. I was a very capable assembly and C programmer by this time so I would write any performance critical code in C with inline assembly, so that was not the limitation of APL that bothered me. What I wanted was to be able to extend the definition of a workspace by extending how data and code were stored and represented such that it formed a user extensible, introspective platform. I also wanted to extend how the platform could share data and form a grid computing system.

    The Simmunity research platform is the result of 20 years of research and 5 years of programming that implements an interactive, introspective APL compiler and grid distributed processing platform that operates just like an APL interpreter. It is designed to create Adobe Flash like interfaces and local processing capabilities on client PC’s and full server capabilities for crunching and sharing data.

    I hope to release a publically accessible version of Simmunity in a year or two, but for now it is still an unreleased, Alpha level functionality project.

    Well that is my APL story. Sometimes I wish I had chosen a simple language like BASIC to use as the platform foundation langauge for my office applications and verticals, because I might have been done with it already…

  • Hello,

    I learned APL in 1974, from Dr. Patrick Haggerty, who single-handedly wrote the U of MD APL processor for the Sperry Univac 1100 Series mainframe computers. At the time, Sperry had nothing.

    I was a part-time student programmer, and I was hired to maintain and enhance the APL interpreter. There weren’t many bugs, so I also maintained other software, but Dr. Haggerty had not yet implemented “scan” (“\”), so he assigned that to me as a way of getting me involved in the interior of the interpreter, which was written in 1100 Series assembler.

    Dr. Haggerty also wrote our “distape” package generator in APL, to make it easier to build our software distribution tapes, that we shipped out on request. This fairly large APL script would take, as input, a list of package names, and a mailing address. The “distape” script would generate and execute a list of commands that would cause one or more source tapes to be mounted (using operator console messages requesting certain tapes by number), files to be copied from them and onto the new “distape”. After all source files were copied, the script would verify the tape’s contents, and if successful, rewind, unmount it, and them produce a shipping label with the destination address.

    The script was a demonstration that APL was a “real” systems language that could be used to not only perform all kinds of analysis on vectors and matrices, but could also be used to accomplish almost any kind of system activity.

    The only downside to this script was that only a few of us staff knew enough APL to maintain it, so when Dr. Haggerty left the Computer Science Center, it wasn’t long before that script was replaced with a “modern” replacement, written in a macro language.

    I still find APL and its descendants (A+, j, k, q) fascinating. J in particular seems very powerful, with forks, and hooks, and there is a quasi-object-oriented convention using locales, but I’m not quite as happy programming in J as I am in Ruby, and, increasingly, I find myself pondering why this is so.

  • From the LinkedIn Group APL – A Programming Language

    This looks like a fascinating project. I found out about it through the USENET newsgroup comp.lang.apl. You’re probably learning that the potential scope is huge: from Iverson (and don’t forget Adin Falkoff’s contributions in mobilizing Abrams, Breed & Moore (in alphabetical order) and later Jim Brown!) and I.P. Sharp Associates and the MCM/70 could let you make a substantial documentary without leaving Toronto. But the APL/J/K/Q world will take you through IBM’s APL\360 and APL\SV, VSAPL and APL2 …. STSC/Manugistics/APL2000/Cognos… to Dyalog and APLX and A+/J/K/Q… Iverson himself rates a documentary.

    Trying to focus on something like Why did APL grow so rapidly and now why do people ask “Do people still use APL?” may be a challenge.

    Curtis A. Jones
    Lecturer at San Jose State University

    In my ongoing effort to recommend things that might work well on film, maybe you could get in touch with jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan? He gave a talk at an APL conference on using APL to build “clouds of sound”.

    Devon McCormick
    Senior QA for Quant Analytics at Standard & Poor’s

  • From the LinkedIn Group Iversonians

    I’d only really have interest if it mentions the current state of APL and its usage. The historical aspects are, well, of historical interest. If the film had a chance to motivate people to investigate the use of APL, that would be more valuable to me than merely pointing out how far “ahead of its time” APL was.

    J. Merrill
    APL and .Net guru

    My interest is in how Iverson notation was used. Before APL was a general purpose computer language it was a notational system for describing algorithms and manipulating them, in the same sense as mathematical notation. Mathematics applied to solving an engineering problem, for example, electrical circuit analysis, begins with a symbolic description of the circuit followed by the application of identities to manipulate it to a standard form. Was Iverson notation ever used in this way for algorithms? The literature is pretty sparse on this subject. I come back to the often repeated phrase “tools for thought” but wonder how the computer language APL is a tool for reasoning (as opposed to numerical computation)? Once the notation was implemented as a computer language it never returned to its symbolic roots. Of course, this is a hunch and I invite comment.

    Hal Feinstein
    engineer at a company

    I’m with Jay. I would deplore a eulogy.

    An account of APL’s journey into and out of favour could do a great deal to explain its unrealised value to the 21st century.

    In the economic meltdown, cheap and rapid systems development is… topical.

    Stephen Taylor
    Principal at Lambent Technology

    Hi Catherine,
    If it comes to a film, I’d like to point you to a video that was made of Stephen Jaffe’s presentation as a key speaker at the APL Conference in Toronto 1993. Mr. Jaffe was then with Exxon Mobil and this company’s R&D Dept. was (is) a major user of APL. They used to use it for their refinery processes – a most interesting application of the language. The presentation is an invaluable documentation of the use of APL.

    Jan Karman
    Independent Financial Services Professional

    Deep in comments in “Catherine Lathwell’s APL Diaries”
    Richard Lathwell says “Charlie Brenner (on contract) wrote APL\1130 which later on was used to design the HP-35 (the world’s first commercial hand-held calculator).” Does anyone know more about how APL\1130 was used in designing the HP-35?

    Curtis A. Jones
    Lecturer at San Jose State University

  • I was the first woman to work in communications department with roger barnacle and jim field david chivers and fred perkins jim oxer died in a plane crash he had his own small plane. i have a photo of him and roger at to office party. http://www.ukopr great idea. V8 by the case load.

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