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Adding more features to RUNCIBLE


The Internal Translator
Donald Knuth Scientist
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I brought this to… to the summer place, and I spent nights looking at… at it and psyching out how… how this program worked. And, wow, I found… I… first I figured out how this… how this IT worked, and… and so, oh yeah, that's how they can look in an algebraic formula and convert it into… into instructions.  But then, it was terrible style. The program was… was kludgy. You would read it, and… and every time they would do something, they did it the hard way. I looked at the SOAP program, the one that came by Stan Poley – it was elegant, it was beautiful, it was like… like hearing a symphony. It was… whenever it did an instruction, the instruction was sort of accomplishing two things at once. It was… everything fit together harmoniously and it was elegant code. I said, boy, I'd love to write programs like… like this guy can do. And conversely, you know, this… this clumsy, clunky code that… that came from the other one, wow. You know, I can do better than that. So a couple of friends and I wrote an improvement of IT, which we called RUNCIBLE; every program had to have… had to have an acronym in those days, and RUNCIBLE was Revised Unified New Compiler IT Basic Language Extended or something. We had some reason for the word R U N C I B L E. But… but we… but mainly we had… we wanted to redo that… that algebraic language in a way that was… that was more elegant and had more features, and then… so we could improve it in, you know, in lots of ways and still stay within our 10K bytes.

And so that was how I spent my first summer at the… at the Computer Center. It turned out that after… after RUNCIBLE was done, we also… I… I wrote a user's manual, for how to… how to write, you know, how to use this program, and… and curiously, this user's manual was then used as a textbook for… for students the next year. And so I was in the unusual position of taking a class for which I had written the textbook, when I was, you know, when I was a sophomore… one of my classes in… in computing.

Now, RUNCIBLE, we revised it the next summer, and made it really, lots of bells and whistles, and still with our 10K bytes, but we… but we got a floating point attachment, and we had some other things, so… so we… so my friends and I came up with better versions. So… so here, this… and I also wrote a SOAP Three.  You know, I loved this SOAP Two program we had from IBM. I wrote SOAP Three, which… which improved on SOAP Two, and… and this was used as the… as the assembler program for other software development that we were doing.

So here are Case is allowing about a dozen of us undergrads to write software that's being used by the other students and faculty of Case, and… and I, the… Fred Way, who is the Director of this program, was very fore-sighted, able to trust the students, and… and allow, and you know… and to… and we had a… we had… we had lots of fun talking to each other about… about all these issues, and… and we did… knew literature of journals the… the Communications of the ACM started up in 1958. All of a sudden we saw that there was… there were people publishing ideas from other parts of the world about how to write programs, and we knew that we had already discovered a lot of these things too, and we had some better science out…  So my second technical publication, after… after Potrzebie System for Mad Magazine, my second technical publication was about this RUNCIBLE; the method we'd used in RUNCIBLE to… to do the… the conversion of formulas into machine code. And… and here I… I sent it to this magazine, the Communications of the ACM, which was… which we had just, began, just… had just begun to come out, and… and I was totally naïve, not understanding anything about scientific journals or publication conventions. I had… had been seeing magazines; I knew… I knew what magazines were, and so on, but no people… but there… there was no idea of credit or something like this. It was just the story that was important. And so, when I wrote this up, I was… I considered myself to be a… a spokesperson…  spokesman for these… these guys at Case Computer Center, who… who had been working together to… to create RUNCIBLE, and I, you know, so I, so I wrote an article about the methods that are used in RUNCIBLE. Nowhere in the article did I mention the names of these other guys, who had been working on it, and I didn't know that I was going to be getting credit for any of these ideas, I just wanted to describe the ideas.  And so this was a…a, you know, a… I learned later more all about… about the scientific conventions of publication, but I was just, you know, I was just a journalist, and, you know, and  I was… I was treating the story as that. So we set the story right when… when the article was… was published in my… as part of my collected works a couple of years ago.

Born in 1938, American computing pioneer Donald Knuth is known for his greatly influential multi-volume work, 'The Art of Computer Programming', his novel 'Surreal Numbers', his invention of TeX and METAFONT electronic publishing tools and his quirky sense of humor.

Listeners: Dikran Karagueuzian

Trained as a journalist, Dikran Karagueuzian is the director of CSLI Publications, publisher of seven books by Donald Knuth. He has known Knuth since the late seventies when Knuth was developing TeX and Metafont, the typesetting and type designing computer programs, respectively.

Tags: IT program, SOAP program, RUNCIBLE, Case Institute of Technology, SOAP Three, SOAP Two, IBM, Communications of the ACM, Mad Magazine, Stan Poley, Fred Way

Duration: 6 minutes, 26 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008