John McCarthy (1927 – 2011)

McCarthy was a computer scientist and cognitive scientist who coined the term Artificial Intellegence (AI) and is most notably known for inventing the LISP programming languages (and with it the concept of “garbage collection”). He also heavily influenced the design of ALGOL and popularized timesharing.

McCarthy was inspired by John von Neumann in a lecture at Caltech which inspired his later work. During a public speech in 1961 at MIT he was the first to suggest that computer time-sharing might result in a future in which computing power and even specific applications could be sold as a utility.

Fun facts:

  • original LISP paper from 1959
  • McCarthy invented Lisp to be a purely theoretical language, something akin to lambda calculus. When his graduate student Steve Russell spoke of implementing Lisp, McCarthy objected that he didn’t intend Lisp to actually run on a physical computer. Russell then implemented a Lisp interpreter and showed it to McCarthy. Steve Russell is an unsung hero who deserves some of the credit for Lisp being an actual programming language and not merely a theoretical construct. This does not diminish McCarthy’s achievement, but it does mean that someone else also deserves recognition.

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